January 2, 2010

Feminism, Totalitarianism, and What-the-hell-were-you-thinking-ism

First and foremost: Happy New Year to you, dear reader. May this next year be filled with joy, love, happiness, peace, generally good tidings, etc. so on and so forth, and (of course) fantastic literature, theatre and movies based upon all of the above.

That being said, onward to your regularly scheduled blog post.

In response to The Handmaid’s Tale

Dear Margaret Atwood;

I don’t know why I was ever intimidated by you. I don’t know why I kept putting off and putting off opening up your lovely (if strange and somewhat scary) book. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and it has gotten me thinking, which was likely of course your precise intention in writing it.

Mostly, I have this one question: Why? Yes, this book was an interesting study in power, but (and granted this is generally my critique of any work which has strong feminist, racialist, or anything-ending-in-ist connotations) what prompted you to write such a thing? Why would you want to imagine Gileadean society? Why would you want to cause your readers to imagine this? What point can be made by creating a fictional totalitarian universe like this?

We’re not in danger of women being subjugated in this fashion and weren’t when the book was published in 1985. Granted, yes, we have some way to go before full equality among the sexes is achieved, but we’re not slipping back to the land of losing the vote. We’re actually becoming more and more enlightened each day (I would say), despite the high-powered execs not being paid as much as their male counterparts. Despite the prevalent sexist attitudes still ingrained in society. Despite the objectification of women in the media and especially in pop culture.

We’re nowhere near Gilead and I think that it’s not a stretch to say we never were.

Moving past this, I began to think about women’s roles in good ‘ol Gilead and how the color of their clothing represented their entire identity. Women, objects in this world, functions of the universe rather than active participants in it, were able to be accurately assessed by a single glance at their appearance. Atwood’s world is dictated by appearance and everything must be as it seems. Women, no longer allowed the luxury of reading, must be communicated with via pictures. In a way their whole beings have been reduced to these pictures. Their world within Gilead is entirely a world of things being as they seem.

I also thought about the brilliance of the division of power amongst the women. To the upper-class men, the women’s function in the home is spread between three to four women. One serves his needs for companionship, one for breeding, and one or two for keeping house. No single woman fulfills all the requirements of feminitity within the life of this man. Thereby, the woman holds no power in his household. Most especially regulated is arguably the aspect which could hold the most power over the man, sex. Come on folks, Aristophanes knew it too, sex is power. And sex is the ultimate power when you’re talking about a household. The Handmaid, the reproductive vessel in Gilead, is so far removed from the man she is vesseling for that if she were a man I’d say she was emasculated.

The poor men receive a single woman to perform all of the necessary chores mentioned above, but who cares if a woman holds power in their household? They’re poor. These men have no sway over anything important in Gilead, a woman can run his life if she wants to. What’s the worst she can do, tell him how to be a janitor?

So Bravo Gileadean government. Not only are women objects, but they have nifty little compartments where they must reside and refrain from contact with anything outside of their world. That’ll show them their place in society.

It seems to work well enough. We are never told why Gilead falls, but eventually it does.

That brings me to my last item of note: the ending. I’m really not sure how I feel about it. Yes, of course, there is more room for discussion of a book which ends in a cliffhanger than that which has a nicely lain out happily-ever-after. The Handmaid herself is a mysterious figure whose life we are given an entirely-too intimate look at, why should the book be any different? We are visitors to Gilead, we can never truly understand it. It would take a man’s perspective, not a woman’s, to explain to us the delicacies and intricacies of the Republic. Since all the narrative voices in The Handmaid’s Tale are women we will never receive that perspective. With so much uncertainty, it is perhaps only sensible to end on an equally uncertain note.

In the end, does it matter what happens to our Handmaid? She is a cog. Granted, a cog we come to know over the course of the novel, but a cog nonetheless. Her fate does not affect the fate of the Republic. It makes no difference really whether she is saved or damned, either way, we are assured of the ultimate demise of Gilead, entirely independent of her story.

I can’t tell if this is hopeful or nihilist of me. Perhaps a little of both.

In short, good Meg, thank you for writing this intriguing little piece, even if I'm not entirely certain what the hell you were thinking.


Next to come: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.

1 comment:

Adrienne said...

"What-the-hellism" - that's what I asked my mentor after I read this book. She said that around the time the book was first published, there was a very noticeable backlash against the women's rights movement. The book was meant to keep people thinking, and to keep working for equality, despite resistance, because otherwise everything that had been gained could be lost.