I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it's shameful or immodest, but because I don't want to see it. I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely.
The Handmaid's Tale is a classic dystopian novel that provides a good reminder why it's so important to be a feminist. Like the best dystopian stories, part of what makes The Handmaid's Tale work is that it's not so hard to imagine the world Atwood creates. Written in 1985, the story is set in the near future in an America that is recovering from a theocratic revolution. After an attack by Islamic extremists that dispatches the president and much of congress, the Constitution is suspended and the totalitarian regime eventually takes over. There are still ongoing rebellions and wars, plus some nuclear wastelands, but the setting of our story is calm and firmly under control.
The regime focuses its energies on controlling women. Prior to the revolution (white) birthrate had dropped (thanks to the equally threatening specters of birth defects from nuclear/chemical waste and feminism) and a rigid hierarchy has been set up to address the problem. The powerful men, while married, also have a succession of handmaids granted to them. The handmaids, of which our narrator is one, live in the man's house and do some shopping, but mostly their role is to remain invisible...except for once a month when they have sex with the man in hopes to conceive. This is the handmaid's sole function: to bear a child. They get a few chances, but at some point they are considered failures (unwomen) and are sent off to the colonies to clean up nuclear waste or some other unpleasant task.
There are lots of standard dystopian tropes, like constant surveillance, but the themes that make The Handmaid's Tale stand out are those concerning the new society's treatment of women. There are so many insightful criticisms in this book that it's hard to hit them all. Among them:
- There's a terrible scene where, during the future handmaids' training program, one of the future handmaids confesses that when she was 14 she was gang raped. The rest of the future handmaids, provoked by their trainers, shout at her, telling her it was her fault, that she led them on, that she deserved it, that she was being taught a lesson. It's so horrible it's hard to believe...unless you read the news, where young girls are killing themselves because they are so shamed for being raped, or the first questions rape victims are asked are what they were wearing or whether they had been drinking.
- The handmaids are stripped of their names (we never learn our narrator's), and are instead assigned a name based on the man whose home they live in. Our narrator is Offred, literally of-Fred. Atwood makes explicit the way women are so often defined in relation to the men in their lives.
- One of the first changes implemented in the new society is to strip women of all property. The money in their bank accounts is transferred to their husbands or other male family members. Our narrator's reaction to this is understandable outrage, but her husband provides a great example of unexamined male privilege with his response. To him, it's not that big a deal; they share their finances anyway and it's not like he's going to abandon her or anything. He doesn't stop to consider how these changes affect women's sense of freedom, independence, and self. Because he isn't being stripped of his rights, he just assumes that because he's not a cruel asshole then there's nothing really wrong. Let that be a lesson to us, gentlemen...
- A pair of male security guards are caught having sex with each other and are executed for "gender treachery." This seems to me to be such a prominent undercurrent of the anti-gay movement: that homosexual relationships threaten rigid gender dynamics. If two men or two women get married, who has to do the housework!? Who "wears the pants" in the relationship!? If a homosexual couple can have a happy marriage and be good parents without one going to work and one staying home based solely on what's in their pants, what does it say about my relationship in which our roles have been determined solely on that basis?
- At one point, Atwood drops in a prescient line about men: "Men are sex machines...and not much more." So often men in a sexist society are treated like slobbering dogs, unable to control their impulses or act like adults. Women have to change how they dress, where and when they walk alone and men are just let off the hook. The Iowa Supreme Court just held that a dentist who had been sexually harassing his female employee was allowed to fire her because she was too attractive and that it was threatening his marriage (not because there was any danger of an illicit affair between them; she had expressed no interest). As convenient as that may be for men like me, I call bullshit. It's absurd that women should have to be punished for men's transgressions and lack of self-control.
Fundamentally, the society developed in The Handmaid's Tale is about controlling women. If their sole or primary interest was to replenish the (white) population, then there are much more efficient ways to accomplish that goal. Instead, the society elevates powerful men and subjugates women and places them under their control. Sadly, men instituting laws for ostensibly benign purposes that are actually aimed at controlling women and their bodies isn't just a figment of dystopian novels.
The Handmaid's Tale is well written and an important work that is unfortunately still relevant today.