Re-Reading The Handmaid’s Tale

When it was first published, The Handmaid’s Tale won both the Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Margaret Atwood, the writer, has called the work “speculative” rather than traditional science fiction. It makes sense, there’s very little science in the book. That said, she’s also said in interviews that her guiding rule while writing the book was that everything had to have already taken place, no degredation was invented by Atwood. Everything in this novel is still happening.

There is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel, Luke is trying to reassure Offred (but that’s not her name yet) that he will take care of her now that the government has closed the bank accounts of all women. This is right after they enact a law barring women from working outside the home. Luke’s reassurances that she’s only lost a job and that she’ll be protected sound patronizing to Offred and the reader. He’s not angry enough in that moment. Their relationship changes there and the reader can never see them as partners again. Offred will never have partners again, not in any real way. She’ll walk with another handmaiden to and from the shops. She’ll be paired with a Commander to breed a child for him and his wife, but she will not be a part of that child’s raising She’ll be reunited once or twice with her best friend from before, Moira. She’ll even find compatriots of sorts in Ofglen and Nick. But she is, from this moment on, isolated.

Offred, not whoever she was before the architects of a violent coup that supplants the United States government with the Christofascist Republic of Gilead, is made through this repeated isolation. Her body made be made literally docile, she suspects, through forced drug use when she’s first sent to the Red Center after her capture at the Canadian border, that is only the most physically obvious preparation. In all aspects of her new life, she is meant to be and feel alone. Camaraderie is not encouraged at the Center, though the women find ways to talk. They learn to lip read. After however, they are placed in the homes of men high enough in the organizing structure of Gilead (which we never fully understand, as Offred herself would have no real understanding of this new system of government), they are fully isolated. Offred is regarded with suspicion by one of the residence’s Marthas (maids and cooks, unable to procreate but not classified as Unwomen. Marthas still have usable bodies for work inside Gilead.)  She’d met with controlled hostility by the Commander’s wife inside the home (a Phyllis Schafly-like character named Serena Joy, who Offred recognizes as an anti-feminist religious TV personality from the time before) and outright contempt by Econowives when she leaves the house for her daily shop run.  It is not an accidental byproduct of the new system of government, but its organizing structure. Women who are separate cannot resist the subjugation. The Republic of Gilead creates categories of female bodies based on their use value. The role of the handmaiden is to be raped until she bears a successful, preferably male, child. She’s moved from qualifying man to qualifying man (three times, we’re given to understand) in the hopes of bearing “fruit.” Offred specifically does not call the Ceremony rape:

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because that is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there is some, and this is what I chose.”

Offred needs to exist in a world where she has some choice in what she does, however false the choice. At the Center, the Aunts charged with re-training women into handmaids explain that before they had the freedom of, now they have freedom from. I suppose this is how Offred must be conditioned to feel. The reader knows better. In order to exist, Offred further isolates herself in this moment from the parts of her body that mark her as biologically female. The construction is entirely passive, removed by degrees from any activity on Offred’s part. In the Ceremony, The Commander’s wife sits behind Offed, who rests between the wife’s thighs. Offred is reduced to her reproductive organs. It is the only part of her the government is interested in.

It’s hard not to read (or re-read in my case) this novel as a dire warning. It isn’t just that the novel’s focus on a totalitarian government’s complete subjugation of women—reframing the role of women, not as people but as vessels (or hosts)—but also the government’s efforts to vilify Islam. The terroristic coup that precipitated the rise of Gilead is initially blamed on Islamic terrorists, as are later attacks during the nation’s founding. All of them, however, are carried out by the Sons of Jacob, a patriarchal, theocratic movement reacting against what it sees as the moral degradation of modern society. By suspending the U.S. Constitution, deporting people of color, referred to in news broadcasts as the “Children of Ham” (referring to Noah’s dark-skinned son), disallowing all second marriages, and severely delimiting the rights of women, the group is able to instill their own regime. These acts are all coordinated and should not be read as distinct.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale during the second Bush administration. I don’t remember if I was in high school or college at the time, but I barely called myself a feminist and, though I saw hints of the book in attempts to roll back the rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, the novel was speculative. When I re-read this novel in grad school, we were in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign and the Republican candidates, including the party’s presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney, were coming out in support of personhood amendments. An abortion bill signed into law earlier that year by Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, calculated the gestational age of a fetus from the first day of a woman’s previous menstrual cycle, rendering Arizona’s reproductively viable women pre-pregnant, rather than the binary pregnant or not pregnant. The presidential nominees were also campaigning on the need for immigration reforms that emphasized tighter border security. This year, I re-read the novel again a day or so after the Virginia house of delegates voted to defund Planned Parenthood and the Trump administration issued a disastrous Executive Order banning immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations, while also attempting to prioritize Christian refugees over others. This is to say nothing of then-candidate Trump’s assertion on the campaign trail that women who seek abortions should be punished by the law. Not the men who get them pregnant.

These policies are coordinated and should not be read as distinct. This increasingly extreme conservative view of reproduction, generally characterized as a moral issue in political circles, is part of a larger nationalistic narrative and indicative of an underlying fear of globalization wherein the threat of the non-White, non-Christian non-American citizen must be met with more White, Christian, American bodies.  It’s part of a worldview that acts out nationalism on bodies, both the bodies it deems worthy or unworthy of citizenship and the reproductive bodies it charges with creating new Americans. When viewed this way, we see a different, possibly more frightening narrative take shape.

When I re-read the novel in 2012, a co-worker mentioned in passing that he didn’t care for it because he found Atwood to be “didactic.” He also mentioned in passing—about a decade into the War on Terror—that atheists were the most hated group in America. I don’t think I need to tell you that this man is both white and in a heterosexual relationship. I don’t need to, but I am making a point. In the novel, his body was not controlled. He would have been able to pass. Although, he was technically correct at the time (though no longer), that atheists were less popular than Muslims, that distaste is not marked by hate crimes, just eye-rolling at parties when they bring up Richard Dawkins again. He had to largely invent a means of oppression. He didn’t see it acted out on his body at borders or in state legislatures or airport security lines or calls made to his house of worship threatening to blow it up. Maybe it felt preachy to him because he recognized himself in Luke, stooping down to hush Offred when her job and economic independence were stripped from her, but before they took her name. He would want her to know that he’s just trying to be helpful, supportive. Offred—and maybe more importantly—the reader know better.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book
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Feminism is for Everybody

bell hooks defines feminism in the introduction of this work as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” It’s as succinct a definition as you are liable to find. As much as I love my tee shirt that reads “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” it does not encapsulate the project as well as hooks’s definition because the work of feminism doesn’t actually just involve women. The patriarchal power structures feminism seeks to undermine also affect men who do not perform their masculinity in the manner narrowly defined by a patriarchal society. Sexism exploits men as well…but that doesn’t work as well on a tee shirt.

hooks is clear that feminism will not work if feminists don’t interrogate race and class in power dynamics alongside gender. A person cannot consider herself a feminist if she is only interested in raising herself up. This is why claims on the right that women from Megyn Kelly to Margaret Thatcher present a version of feminism that ultimately misappropriates the term. Kelly and Thatcher both aligned themselves with patriarchal white supremacist* power structures in order to gain prominence.  She extends this intersection outside the United States to show how feminism must also be anti-colonialist. This is perhaps where hooks shines brightest.

When I mentioned starting Feminism is for Everybody at the end of January, I was only about 10 or 15 pages in. hooks’s writing style in the ensuing 110 pages leans away from the rigorously academic as she repeats the need for a broad feminist movement. She does this purposefully as she sees feminism in the moment she is writing, fully ensconced in academia (with all its attendant obtuseness and circular reasoning.) I wish she hadn’t positioned herself as outside the academy so thoroughly because she is not. bell hooks is a distinguished professor. I understand her concern that the constant dialogue within a university setting can start to feel bloodless and theoretical. That said, I wish she’d at least included footnotes. Instead, her work feels anecdotal. She refutes the claims of other feminists without citing them. hooks calls for a feminist movement that does not leave out non-academics and perhaps that’s why she’s presented this text in this way, but the work feels incomplete. Not the work hooks is calling on the rest of us to do, though it also still needs doing. hooks’s call to arms itself does not always feel fleshed out. When hooks asserts that some women rely on abortion as a form of birth control or that repeated dilations of the cervix cause serious health issues, I would like to know where she’s getting her information. She’s not a medical doctor and her readers have the right to know why she feels comfortable making this claim. Her writing on abortion feels moralistic and hand-wringing even as she asserts that it should be safe and legal. I would like to know what has formed this worldview. hooks does not offer me this. hooks never offers her readers footnotes because she wants to reach readers outside an academic setting. However, I fail to see how her informal style (wholly necessary for her project) would be hampered by an unobtrusive notes section.

Ultimately, this seemingly minor issue of notation and sourcing (when she is responding the theories of other feminists, I don’t need to suggest hooks’s ideas are not her own) undermines her thesis: we need a bottom to top approach to feminism. hooks calls for the distribution of picture books, movies, bumper stickers—anything and everything that would bring feminism to the masses. There’s room in there, somewhere, for the obscure academics, but hooks disregard for this academic formality seems dismissive of the work of other feminists. Their names aren’t worth mentioning, even in contrast. It’s odd. The book should function as an introduction, but without that exposition, it seems writing for folks already in the movement.

After some cursory Googling, I can’t find books writing in either anticipation or response to the recent Women’s March. She’s checked in a number of articles on the march, with good reason. I similarly couldn’t find an article or essay in which she responds to the uptick in feminism as a fashion statement. Even as she calls for this at the beginning of this book, she does not consider wearing a tee shirt to be feminism. Your tee shirt will not dismantle sexist oppression. Similarly, she wants to see feminism explored in popular music, but criticized Beyonce’s Lemonade earlier this year as being violent, hypersexualized and commodified. Considering that response to arguably the highest-profile feminist statement we’ve seen from a pop musician in the last decade, I’m not sure what hooks is holding out for. I don’t know what unproblematic feminist art looks like. I don’t know if I (or bell hooks) will ever see it.

This is starting to sound like I wish I hadn’t read this book. I am glad I read it. I don’t know if it is the primer it intends to be, but it is a worthwhile read.

Reading Syllabus note: I haven’t decided how much work I need to read by each author I list in order to consider their work read. bell hooks has written around 30 books so far. It’s wildly unrealistic to suggest that I am going to read all thirty this year.I think two to three books per author should be enough to give me a better sense of their work.

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*hooks does not use “white supremacy” in the same way we see it in discussions of high-profiles members of the “alt-right” like Richard Spencer or Milo Yiannopoulous. These men have overtly declared their racist ideologies. When hooks uses the term, she’s typically referring to the way the vast majority of white people do not question the privilege whiteness affords them and do not to anything to dismantle the institutionalized racism that continues to marginalize people of color while still proclaiming that they are not racist. It’s not terribly difficult to be overtly not racist. It’s much harder to be anti-racist. That takes work.

January Update: Oh right, I have a reading syllabus

This month I didn’t read any books that fit any of the criteria below. I started to read Wicked, which is good (at least the 50 or so pages I’ve read are good) but couldn’t hold my interest for long stretches. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read it, I just wasn’t reading it. Every time I picked it up, I felt like there was something else I was supposed to be reading.  I did finish three books, however, A Wrinkle in Time, Hope in the Dark, and Trainwreck. The first two deal, both literally and figuratively, with beating back the darkness. The last is a reminder of how little room to act out women are allowed in our society–as if I needed the reminder.

I missed A Wrinkle in Time when I was a kid. I can’t remember a teacher assigning it or a friend reading it around me or a librarian recommending it. I wish they had. It would have come in handy before I had Harry Potter. Despite my upbringing, I was never a fan of the Narnia series so I can’t recall reading any books growing up of the plucky-young-kids-take-on-evil variety. Truth be told, by the time I really enjoyed reading as a preteen, I was more interested in the evil than I was the plucky kids. Maturity (what all of it I have) has made me sentimental. After last year’s election, book people I follow online recommending reading hopeful fantasy like Rowling and L’Engle. I started using my Audible credits to collect the Harry Potter series to listen to while driving or cooking dinner. Right now it’s more relaxing than NPR. NPR used to be what I listened to when panic attacks made listening to a lot of music hard (songs all start to sound like sirens. It’s a very The West Wing season 3 side effect of my anxiety and I don’t care for it.) It seems other people had the same idea since I had to wait a few weeks before I could pick up A Wrinkle In Time from the library.  I won’t go through the novel’s full plot, but in the novel’s climax Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O’Keefe travel to the planet Camazotz with the help of their supernatural neighbors, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. They’re hoping to find their father, a research scientist working for the U.S. government. They do, but not before Charles Wallace falls under the thrall of the planet’s overseeing brain, IT. IT enforces total homogeneity on the dark planet. The children’s father is held captive there because he would not succumb to uniform thinking. Meg is ultimately able to rescue her little brother because she loves him. IT is not capable of love and Meg is able to use emotion to underline the brain’s control. It’s a good lesson for children—that difference is to be celebrated, not stamped out and that love unites us. It’s a good lesson for the U.S. right now. I’d say it’s a good lesson for the president, but he doesn’t  read and the Ava DuVernay-helmed adaptation isn’t slated for release until 2018.

The “dark” in Hope in the Dark is less literal than in the black cloud consuming planets in A Wrinkle in Time. Instead, it’s the Bush administration’s neoconservatism, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. But still, Solnit is able to find places for optimism. In particular, she points to the Zapatista’s anti-globalist guerrilla resistance to the implementation of NAFTA in Mexico. The Zapatistas did not rebel to overthrow the Mexican government per se, but instead to critique power dynamics. They advocated for indigenous and women’s rights at the same time. In the Zapatistas, Solnit sees a model of activism in praxis that “does not sacrifice or postpone one kind of justice for another.” Elsewhere, she highlights how the anti-proliferation movement of the 1980s eventually led to nuclear arms reductions but failed to see full disarmament because people when back out their lives. “It’s always too soon to go home,” she writes (and I would do well to remember when my voice starts to go a little hoarse and my feet hurt and I start to worry simultaneously about the sheer size of the assembled crowd and whether anyone is actually paying attention):

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes–you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

I got Hope in the Dark when Solnit made it available for free through its publisher, Haymarket Books, just after the election. I read it in short bursts, leaving it to set for weeks before actually finishing it. I lumbered through A Wrinkle in Time. By the time I got around to buying Trainwreck by Sady Doyle two days after the inauguration, I was ready to be angry again. If the book has a patron saint, it’s Britney Spears. Toward the end of the book, Doyle notes that hers and any other book on celebrity meltdowns are now haunted by Britney, even though she has survived (however scathed.) Doyle’s premise is fairly straightforward: we expect female silence. Female abundance—sexuality, ambition, advocacy, addiction, displays of anything but the blandest emotional compliance— is met with harsh and continual critique. Even fictional women are ostracized when they can’t quiet down–the same abundance of emotion that makes Meg Murry her brother’s rescuer alienates her from most of her classmates and marks her as a problem student.

Doyle touches on the lives of everyone from Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Plath to Valerie Solanas, Hillary Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky (The last two being held up as reliefs of the other—the overly sexed and the sexless.) While I was reading, it came out that Trump’s team in the White House have been using private email addresses for official business. The outrage from the campaign’s “but her emails!” crowd was predictably nonexistent. The dig against Clinton, for a lot of folks at least, is her inability to fit a collective gendered notion of ambition and leadership. Her loss will be* our collective loss too.

Thursday morning, I started the syllabus in earnest with bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody. I’ve read essays and excerpts from hooks over the years, but never her book-length work. She is an uncompromising scholar and activist. Her writing style is purposefully undemanding—she repeatedly expresses the concern that feminist theory has requested itself in academia, making it inaccessible for the people who need it most—but that ease belies an undergirding rigor. bell does not come to play, ever.  That does not mean it’s not possibly to disagree with her. Her suggestion that we do not yet understand the long-term effects of abortion seems to go against the opinion of medical doctors who understand the long-term effects and potential risk associated with abortion pales in comparison to the risks of pregnancy. More on that when I actually finish the book.

In thinking about this list after a month, I wonder if it might need reworking. Part of my reaction to this presidency has been to commit myself to small, daily resistances. Twice now, that’s meant leaving my house and standing outside in D.C. to physically protest his ideology and policies (once at the Women’s March and once in front of the White House after he issued the executive order banning immigration from seven-majority Muslin countries.) Once, it’s meant attending a town hall meeting held by my congressman. I’ve been setting aside a little money here and there for organizations like Earthjustice, the SPLC, and CAIR in addition to my monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Most days, it’s just calling my representatives at the state and federal level about upcoming legislation, etc. But it’s also less obvious (or more frivolous.) I’ve bought A LOT of books this year and this year is only a month so far. In addition to a small-scale spree at a nearby used bookstore a couple days into 2017, I’ve bought ten new books. That’s a lot, even for me. Most of them are conspicuously opposed to a Trumpian worldview. They are foregrounding the lived experience of people of color or women (or both). One is Mexican novel in translation. Two are written by John Lewis. One warns that humanity is still susceptible to the ideologies and impulses that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Two are about difficult women. One was literally written in response to Trump’s election. Are three Russian novels from different eras as necessary to the work that needs doing as reading my way through the Middle East? Do I have the time for long-winded world building in a fantasy novel, when everything feels so urgent? How many William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy novels do I need to read to get a sense of the two men? I’m not sure. Reading has always felt at least a little political to me, even when the reading itself is largely apolitical. But during this administration, it feels like an insurgent act. 

2017 Reading Syllabus:

  • Authors:
    • Elena Ferrante
    • Toni Morrison
    • Margaret Atwood
    • Virginia Woolf
    • Joan Didion
    • bell hooks:
      • Feminism is for Everybody
  • Books:
    • Wicked
    • Blood Meridian
    • Sound and the Fury
    • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Genres:
    • Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
    • Epic Fantasy
    • Urban Fantasy
  • Regions:
    • Living African Author
    • Living Central or South American Author
    • Living Middle Eastern Author
    • Living Asian Author
  • Other Criteria
    • A book about Whiteness
    • A pre-Soviet Russian novel
    • A Soviet novel
    • A post-Soviet Russian novel
    • A book about Reconstruction
    • A book about Islam
    • A book about the Holocaust
    • A short story collection
    • A poetry collection
    • a STEM book

*Will be? Who am I kidding, it already is.