19 Apr 2017

The hidden warning of The Handmaid's Tale

There's been a lot of talk about The Handmaid's Tale--not just in the run-up to the release of the Hulu series, but pretty much ever since the US election last November. Sales of the book increased 200 percent after it sank in exactly what the presidency could spell for women, and not before time. Since I read the book myself as a 17 year-old in the early 2000s, I've only watched it become less and less like a far-away, freakish impossibility and more like an actual prediction of things that could come to pass. Anyone who hasn't read it and been discomfited at its prescience clearly hasn't been taking notice of the world around them, with its forced vaginal ultrasounds, rape clauses and "women as livestock" bills--or rather, they haven't considered news regarding women's bodily autonomy to be actual, y'know, news.

I haven't actually watched any of the trailers for the Hulu series because I want to see this adaptation so badly (the actors responsible for Peggy Olson and Poussey Washington taking on the leads? YUSSS please!!) but it's not available in the UK yet so I'm refusing to torment myself for now. However, I have re-read the book recently (thanks to writing work being so abysmally paid that I moonlight as an A level English Literature tutor), and as will happen when you revisit a work you thought you knew so well already, something struck me anew. [SPOILERS UPCOMING]

What women are being warned about in the book is not just misogyny, not just men who hate women and know that rolling back their reproductive rights is the fastest way to keep them servile, not just the power structures and institutions that will give such men a pass to do so. It's something much more insidious; it's the lure of anti-feminism itself, to women.

To put it another way, the danger isn't just that men may hate and oppress women--it's also that women may side with those men. As protagonist Offred says when the rollback of women's rights begins:
What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?
Now, I know Offred is supposed to be an imperfect heroine, a regular woman who finds herself a reluctant freedom fighter. She's not the fearless lesbian who can fix her own car or find a weapon with only a toilet cistern at her disposal, she's not the rowdy 2nd-waver who marched for women's rights. And that's why we're supposed to like her, relate to her as an everywoman, a flawed protagonist. She's not too extreme. Indeed, she admits that pre-Gilead, she always saw feminism as somewhat unreasonable
I didn't much like it, this grudge-holding against the past.
That is, until it was too late.
That is what makes Offred such an object lesson. And that is what makes me want to shake her whenever I read The Handmaid's Tale. Because I find it such a terribly cautionary tale about a woman who never cared about feminism until the state came for her rights. 

In the pre-Gilead days, Offred admits that she found her feminist mother embarrassing and overly militant. While we can all understand how a mother's expectation for a daughter to be "the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas" could indeed send their child running in the opposite direction, Offred's mother is absolutely right to castigate her daughter for taking her freedom for granted. Watching Offred's husband Luke helping with the dinner, she tells Offred:
Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don't you know how many women's lives, how many women's bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?
But Offred's pre-Gilead world is a determinedly apolitical one. She watches her mother go on marches for women's rights with absolutely no desire to join in. Later she admits that there was an "animosity I used to sense in men, even in Luke. . .saying bitch in his head," but never joins the dots to consider how that animosity would play out if left unchecked. She reflects how living in the shadow of men's violence against women was normalised, and how she never baulked against being expected to live with it, but instead reverted to #NotAllMen to try and explain it:
 You'd remember stories you'd read, in the newspapers, about women who had been found. . . in ditches or forests or refrigerators in abandoned rented rooms, with their clothes on or off, sexually abused or not; at any rate killed. . . But all of that was pertinent only in the night, and had nothing to do with the man you loved.
She lets her best friend, radical lesbian Moira, tease her about being in league with the patriarchy, but, most heartbreakingly, never takes her warnings seriously - until the day "they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. . . that was when they suspended the Constitution."
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone, here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They've been building up to this. It's you and me up against the wall, baby.  
Even as the world order she knows is crumbling around her, it still hasn't occurred to Offred that women's rights will be first on the chopping block--she needs a radical feminist to tell her this. And of course, Moira and Offred's mother is right. Women's passports and bank accounts are declared void. Their identities and freedoms are quickly erased. And only then, when the political becomes personal--when Offred realises her husband is not being disadvantaged by the changes at all--does she acknowledge, too late, what feminism won for her, offered her, and warned her against.
Something had shifted, some balance. . .He doesn't mind this, I thought. He doesn't mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's any more. Instead, I am his.
Yet even as her time in the repressive Gilead state shows her how complacent she was to consider women's rights already won and ergo not requiring any further fight, Offred steers clear of ever getting too political. When the Commander asks her about the steamrollering of women's rights "What did we overlook?" and Offred responds "Love. . .falling in love," as a reader I always want to smack her. I find myself inwardly screaming LOVE? LOVE?! What about financial independence, work, freedom of movement, bodily freedom, being seen as more than a set of ovaries and a womb, or how about just NOT ROLLING BACK WOMEN'S RIGHTS TO THE STONE AGE?! Offred's response seems like such a wussy, wishy-washy answer that does nothing to address the utter misogyny in the Commander's assertion that "this way [women]'re protected, they can fulfil their biological destinies in peace." He's sitting there spouting exactly the kind of dangerous, faux-reverent, determinist propaganda about women being nothing more than reproductive vessels, and Offred doesn't challenge that. Instead she mentions the one thing that's supposed to distract women - romance. Flowers and hearts and having a man. It's a feminist facepalm moment - but I suppose that's why it's convincing.

Because we've all known those women, and we've all been those women, at some time or another. We've all fallen short of what we know are feminist ideals, resorted to individualism, trodden on other women. We can relate to Offred's human shortcomings--she meets her husband Luke by having an affair with him during his first marriage, she feels little solidarity with many of the female characters in the book (Janine, Serena Joy), rejecting the idea that women necessarily have any kind of obligation to one another just by virtue of being women. But I believe Atwood constructed Offred's character in this way to show just how ultimately disempowered these failures will leave us, if we take them to extremes. If we persist in screwing other women over for male attention, if we think it makes us look cool and tough to say we don't need feminism or to dismiss feminist women as angry, ugly or unreasonable, if we fail to take notice of the world around us and understand that justice witheld from women anywhere is injustice to women everywhere. . .

. . .then we will have no one to turn to, and no one to blame but ourselves, when we and our rights end up against the wall.

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