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.

This little light of mine…

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Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Saturday morning, I got up around 5. Zac made coffee. I gave the dog her pill and started to get dressed. I did it that morning with more intention than I do most days. I had to stay warm. I had to be comfortable. I had to make a point. When I boarded the Metro with friends, it wasn’t too crowded. Women—mostly women—clustered together carrying clever signs and wearing pink knit hats. A group on the car we entered all had peach buttons tacked to theirs. They’d all traveled from Georgia. Everyone looked a little tired. Everyone smiled. Everyone except the man boarding in a “Make America Great Again” hat. We ignored him. I wonder if it bothered him to be ignored by so many women at once. I hope it did.

 

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Sweatshirt available at Shout Your Abortion

 

Saturday’s march sprawled, both literally and figuratively. From where I stood between the American Indian Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Air and Space Museum, I could not see the end of it. I had no idea that it stretched over streets. I tried not to think about how many people were around me. I’m not great with crowds and have a tendency to get overwhelmed and anxious when I feel like I don’t have a clear exit strategy. When it got to be too much, I shifted my focus to the tops of buildings. I kept a few Xanax and some Advil in a contact lens case in my purse just in case. I’m still surprised I didn’t need either. When an ambulance needed to part the crowd, I wasn’t sure how the space—already so full of people—would make room, but it breathed into itself and seemed to push the vehicle along. Later, when a young girl went missing the crowd moved the information along: “Winnie’s been separated from her group,” followed in short order by the news that Winnie had been found. In front of me, a woman realized she was talking to her husband’s former teacher—a woman with waist-length curling white hair and a pale pink fleece cap. At times the crowd grew restless. Some people wanted to start marching because the speakers were taking too long. We took turns squatting down to relieve the pressure on our backs, each lifting the other up in turn, giving her something to lean against. Standing that long on concrete in misty weather isn’t easy on your back or knees or feet.

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possibly my favorite sign that day.

But we stood anyway. We stood and listened and cheered and booed and held up our fists. We sang when we knew the words. We sang when we only knew half the words. We chanted and marched. It wasn’t perfect. The marchers were pretty white and didn’t want to be reminded that a simple majority of us white ladies voted for Donald Trump, a lot of the signage and some of the chants focused on physical anatomy as a marker of womanhood further marginalizing transwomen, and Michael Moore was allowed to carry on for entirely too long. But still, I’m going to carry Saturday in my heart. Saturday felt pretty far away while I was reading a report Wednesday that the Trump administration was planning to issue regular reports of crimes committed by undocumented persons, a move straight out of Hitler’s playbook. It feels further still when scientists working for the EPA are told their work, already peer-reviewed, will be subject to review by political appointees. It feels completely out of reach when the expanded global gag rule will invariably kill women under the guise of “protecting life.”

Saturday felt a lot closer when I reached out to the woman organizing Solidarity Sundays for D.C. It felt closer when I made a point Sunday night to buy two books, one on race and one on gender, as a means of supporting writers already doing the work that really needs doing now. It feels closer every time I pick up the morning paper. It feels close when congressional staffers thank me for calling. So that’s what I do now: every day I pick a thing I can do, I do that thing, and I write down what I did in my planner. It doesn’t keep it all at bay and but it chips at the problems and it’s what I know I can do right now. It’s not nothing, which is what I’d been doing for way too long.

The Women’s March needs energizing joy, not internalized misogyny.

“Another part of the Puritan legacy is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia. Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited […] Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Last week, writing in the Washington Post, Petula Dvorak implored women heading into the District on January 21st to leave our bright pink pussy hats at home out of fear that we might look silly. Now is no time to be silly, Dvorak says.But this is exactly the moment we shouldn’t lose our sense of humor.

The Pussyhat Project is the brainchild of Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, who wanted to create a unifying visual statement at the march that’s expected to draw as many as 200,000 people. Why handmade pink hats that give the wearer the illusion of cat ears? As the organizers point out, knitting is a historically female art form and pink is a culturally female color. Also the president-elect likes to grab women by their vaginas without their consent. The hats are a bright cozy “fuck you” to the sentient cheese doodle that will be our molester-in-chief come January 20 around noon. The hats are cute and clever and the president-elect won’t get the joke and it’s going to drive him insane.

Petula Dvorak, however, would like us to remember that men didn’t take our bra-burning, second-wave foremothers seriously and if we wear these hats and tote jokey signs, they won’t take us seriously either. What Dvorak’s editorial fails to understand is that the men she refers to won’t take us seriously. Full stop. We could march down Constitution Ave. in matching shapeless gray coveralls and carrying identical signs and those men would call our concerns superficial distractions. To pretend there is a mode of dress or means of expression we could adopt that these men might take seriously is to internalize the patriarchal notion that the feminine is frivolous. Men on the Right will deride us for abandoning traditional values, as if organized dissent in not ingrained in the Constitution.  Men on the Left will dismiss us for choosing “identity politics” over the real economic concerns of the day, as if access to adequate medical care, including birth control and abortion, is not an immediate economic concern for women in this country. There are men on all sides of the political spectrum who think the issues women face in this country are separate from the issues this country faces. We’re not going to get through to those men next Saturday, but we can start shouting over them. They don’t like it when women yell. But I’m not interested in accommodating them anymore.

It’s ironic that Dvorak points to the 1913 women’s march for suffrage as a protest remembered for its single-minded goal rather than any attendant frippery. But Dvorak ignores how those early feminists also used fashion—the all white dress that suggested purity and virtue, both of the their movement and their members—as a means of protest. She also seems to forget that the dresses weren’t the only mostly white things at that march. White temperance suffragists, courting support from women in southern states who resented the passage of the 15th amendment, characterized African-American men as whiskey-crazed mobs. I’d rather a large, messy, many-hued sea of pink that takes all comers willing to fight for real equality than a dour monolith that ignores the needs women of color or LGBT communities or the disabled or immigrants, etc.  in favor of a supposedly streamlined message that leaves most of us behind.

I can’t think of a better way to protest the explicit and implicit racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, authoritarian wave of utter bullshit (and allegedly urine) that Donald Trump rode into the White House than to gather together as women (and people who don’t hate women)—festooned in weather-appropriate metaphors for wherevers out of which many of us bleed—and take pleasure and joy in the abundance of our intersecting communities to spite him. What a way to steal his thunder.