Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale: The Fragility of Equality

This is a guest post by JD, my fiance.  He graduated law school in May, and like me, is currently looking for work.  He has previously written a published legal article, and is a part author of a chapter of one of the authoritative texts on federal civil procedure. .  He is one of the most insightful and wonderful people I know.

I picked up a new novel last night with the idea of reading for an hour or so before bed. At around 4am, I finally put down The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood after absorbing its startling epilogue. Atwood spins her dystopian fiction as a disjointed narrative that approaches stream of consciousness, a style that seems to mirror the mind of the novel’s protagonist. Attempting to summarize the plot would not do the book justice, but suffice to say I couldn’t put it down and it gripped me with an odd emotion I don’t normally get when reading: fear.

Fear isn’t actually a response I encounter often when reading dystopian literature. Classics such as 1984 I took in as warnings, with the knowledge that their goal was to teach us to be on our guard, to teach us that being aware of the possibility of such a future was a step in combating it. But 1984 didn’t leave me with a feeling of immediacy, a feeling that such a future could easily come to pass. Though it dealt with sex somewhat, and was partly about the freedom to love, 1984 did not have as its focus a theocratic dystopia based around the subjugation of women. Such a world is the focus of The Handmaids Tale.

Why does that particular structure frighten me more than the dystopia imagined by other authors? Why should I be any more disturbed by that than by Orwell’s emotionally repressed world? The answer is that it hits too close to home. At one point in the novel, the protagonist asks her “Commander”—one of the male leaders of the new theocracy—the all important question: why? His answer is multi-faceted, but mainly is concerned with giving men something to live for again. The rise of feminism and the status of women as equals removed men from their role as protectors, usurped their former place in the world. Rather than combat that emptiness with a new goal, they sought to return to the former status quo. There is no adaptation here, but rather true conservatism on the part of the men; a refusal to adapt to changes in the world and in society. Part of the “Commander’s” defense is that they were merely returning to the way it always had been, that feminism was the anomaly and merely a blink in the course of history.

Those words fill me with fear because in a way they are true. The equality of women is a recent accomplishment, and in a non-legal sense there are still many battles to be fought. The 19th amendment, granting women’s suffrage in the U.S., was not ratified until 1920—less than 100 years ago. What women have fought so hard for is truly a recent attainment, and parallels the civil rights movement in that regard. The Handmaid’s Tale is frightening because it contemplates a step back and an unraveling of all that has been achieved and that has helped make women more than brood mares and domestic slaves.

Even more frightening is that there are those out there who still argue that women belong in a situation like that portrayed in The Handmaids Tale: they are lesser, they exist only for breeding, they shouldn’t be educated. The source of those views is irrelevant, they could be biblically justified, as those in The Handmaid’s Tale were, or they could be the result of individual hatred and stem from individuals who went through bad divorces or have grown to hate all women because of some unfortunate personal experience. Regardless of their origin, people who would embrace the world of The Handmaid’s Tale exist.  They exist, and they must be fought. The battle is not over, and The Handmaid’s Tale shows us a world that might be if those who still believe that women should not have the same rights as men succeed.  In that way it is more than a parable and is to some extent, a call to arms. We cannot take for granted the equality of the sexes; we must remember the struggle it took to get here, and we must continue that struggle against everyone who would try to take that equality away. Regardless of who uttered these words originally, they remain true: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.


rowmyboat said...

Scares me, too, and more each time I reread it.

For a similar book, try Sarah Hall's Daughters of the north (called The Carhullan army if you're not in the US).

Anonymous said...

Me too!

In regards to the recent history of feminism, I feel that people have gone straight from loudly protesting any changes of the status quo to creating the backlash against the movement, saying "feminism has gone too far!", without that many changes actually being made.

Also, at least where I live, there are so many people exclaiming that feminism shouldn't be about "pretending men and women are the same", because we all know that's what feminists are saying now and we all know it's wrong. Modern feminism should be about celebrating our differences! Let women be women! Let us have make our wombs the centers of our lives, stay at home as domestic slaves and suffer to achieve the beauty ideal! Because it's natural.

It scares me how many people (willfully) misunderstand feminism. And really, in The Handmaiden's Tale, it was about subjugating women while making it seem like it was for their own good and like they were celebrating femininity.

isspenguin said...

WOW. That post was inspirational and thought-provoking. I'd like to add that in a dystopian world where women are subjugated, there are no heroes. The Commander is an emotional wreck, stuck in an unhappy marriage and dissatisfied with the role society has thrust upon him.

Men too are trapped in a cage when womens' rights are revoked. They too lack the freedom to be who they are and accomplish all they can. When feminism is undermined, everyone loses.

- Divya

Robert said...

You mention how in the novel women would be nothing more then "brood mares and domestic slaves"...that's odd, because in a manner of speaking that's what I feel is happening to the male gender right now....and its not some fictional tale...its reality in the matriarchal gynocracy. As a father I have to say that I truly feel worried for the future of our sons.

Poester99 said...

"We cannot take for granted the equality of the sexes;"

I totally agree.

Those who believe that others with vastly different priorities will respect and preserve their rights are foolish.

Sandal Malhi said...

I agree that the equality between sexes is fragile. But I have a question...what does the novel aim to show by examining casually held beliefs about women like they should stay home and they prefer company of other women?