The Twenty-first Century
I'd been meaning to read this for years. I missed it in the obligatory college period-- not being an English major I missed a lot of the canon, & most of the gender studies courses I took were of a more sociological, psychological or anthropological bent. Like a lot of "classics"-- but by no means all-- now that I have read it I totally see what the fuss is all about. In fact, I wonder if it gets enough attention. I'm late to the party, but now that I'm here, lets get it started! My big concern going in was that this was going to be preachy. I really dislike texts that overly moralize-- give me a Tolkien over a Lewis any day-- but this never stooped to use the hammer of demagoguery. The second worry I had was that it would be too "near future" & thus cause suspension of disbelief to suffer -- & that Atwood answered with a deft hand. By drawing religion into it-- not awkwardly but under the cloak of "of course"-- she sold the transition from late-Eighties America to first-generation Gilead with eerie plausibility. I mean-- we've got Quiverfull movements & communities enforcing "modesty" active in America right now in 2011. Offred's Commander says offhand at one point that he considers the state of affairs in Gilead to be a return to normal-- that the gender relationships of the Twentieth Century were an freak occurrence, a blip of historical oddity. & that too brings up a very good point-- we've got history & politics to look at. Offred's situation would not have been unfamiliar to a Puritan Goodwife or to a woman under Taliban gender apartheid. Nothing as messy as the tacked on & awkward ending of 28 Days Later here; the picture Atwood paints doesn't have to struggle for believability-- there is plenty of precedent. Now, another note on Atwood-- really, Margaret Atwood? You're going to adopt a patronizing attitude about being labeled "science fiction?" Seriously? How disappointing. That sort of snobbery is ignorance at its most base. Still, you write a heck of a science fiction story, so I can overlook it, though I admit that your silly statements did cause me to put this on the back burner till now.
What is Offred's situation? Well, to break it down-- there has been a sharp decline in birthrate. That is what started everything off. One theocratic revolution later, & America has toppled & Gilead has risen in its place. Not neatly or unopposed, but there it stands. Women are its most valuable commodity-- & that is what they have become, commodities, objects of value. The division among the men isn't too different from any military or authoritarian hierarchy-- there are those who fight, The Angels; those who enforce, The Guardians; the ruling elite are The Commanders & any one could be one of the Eyes, the secret police of Gilead. Women are broken up in a much more complicated fashion that hinges on their marital status & their reproductive ability. The elite are the Wives, married to Commanders; Wives are served by Marthas, infertile women who function as housekeepers; & if a Wife hasn't produced offspring for her Commander, they may request a Handmaid; Handmaids are women kept solely for the purposes of bearing surrogate children, following the biblical precedent of Abraham & Hagar; Econowives are the wives of lower status men, who fill all those roles; Aunts are the women who train the Handmaids. They all operate under a intensely repressive regime; those who falter in their roles are either executed & displayed publicly or exiled to "The Colonies" which is largely a euphemism for being put on a clean-up team in some toxic or radioactive location. There are racist undertones to Gilead as well-- non-whites are dubbed "The Children of Ham" & shuffled to ghettos, & Jews are given the choice to convert or go to Israel. In my Oubliette Role Playing Game, there is a utopian group called The Unity, where I like to take elements of dystopian fiction & invert them, make them into utopian reversals, the flip-side of the coin. Gilead is going to be a tricky one to flip; I'll have to consult my Sarah Blaffer Hrdy I think.
What do I have to say? Well, for one-- & this came up in the comments on my review of A Game of Thrones-- part of me agrees with the Commander when he says that the gender relationships of the Twentieth Century are atypical. I of course see a different conclusion than he does, but the stratification of post-Agricultural humans has always been hardest on women. The movement towards egalitarianism-- gender & racial-- is a feature of post-Industrial society, if you ask me. A very positive feature. I think the successes of feminism are historically radical & utterly important-- enfranchising half of your population is a real social coup. I think there are reactionary forces that resent that, that want power structures to remain as autocratic & hierarchical as possible & I think that threat shouldn't be dismissed. Atwood's book is an all too chilling portrait of how easy it would be. The characters in The Handmaid's Tale are above all human-- there aren't heroes or villains, just stupid hominids grappling with their shifting socio-political circumstances. Frogs in water where the temperature is oh so slowly rising. Spooky stuff. I couldn't help think about-- don't laugh-- Dave Sim's Cerebus. Now, Dave Sim is a noted misogynist-- I mean the hardcore kind with weird mystical justifications of how women are cosmic voids & men are creators of light, all kinds of stuff that would be perfect for Gilead's cosmological propaganda. Of course, the problem with Dave Sim is he also made a great piece of art in Cerebus, & part of this is his attempt to parody feminism-- which ultimately reinforces his patriarchal notions. The Handmaid's Tale mirrors Sim's creations-- Atwood's Aunts echo Sim's Cirinists, & his Kevillists are reflected in Moira & Jezebel's. Atwood of course has much more nuance, & isn't above jabs at the various wave's of the feminist movement. Sim, on the other hand, fails-- & when you use The Handmaid's Tale as an answer key, you can see why. Sim's Cirinists & Kevillists part of the problem, are the machinery of oppression.