A best-selling novel widely regarded a modern classic, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, has fascinated readers since its 1985 release. The novel depicts a dystopian society set in the land of Gilead, once known as New England, USA. This society acts as the manifestation of contemporary misogyny, resulting in a patriarchal civilisation in which the rights of humanity¬¬¬ and particularly women, are oppressed. Through the lens of the narrator ¬– Offred, a handmaid whose sole purpose is to act as a child-bearing vessel – the reader is exposed to a theocratic, dysfunctional, and patriarchal society. So fascinating is Offred’s world, that in 2017 the novel was adapted into an Emmy award-winning television drama series with four seasons to date. Evidently, in the 21st century, The Handmaid’s Tale is regarded as a brilliant novel, perfect for ideological readings which underscore Atwood’s chilling notion that “nations never build radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t already there” (Atwood, 2012). Despite this, during the novel’s initial release critics did not quite see the brilliance of Atwood’s social commentary, dubbing it “paranoid poppycock,” “paranoid feminism” and lacking in the “courage of its own misanthropy,” (Gray & Gardner, in Fallon, 2017). Compared to previous futuristic cautionary tales, The Handmaid’s Tale apparently squandered “the direct, chilling plausibility” of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), perhaps reflecting a time when the capitalist ideology was entrenched, whilst second-wave feminism was still held at arm’s length. Despite this, the novel is often subject to feminist readings.
To demonstrate an evaluation and simultaneous defence of ideology, I decided to look beyond orthodox feminist readings and instead focus on the construction and representation of oppression within The Handmaid’s Tale. There is little freedom in Gilead, yet complacency by its men and particularly woman is demonstrated as they willingly and strangely, submit to this oppression. Whilst this is certainly achieved through an aggressive male favouring within a male/female binary, the repression within Gilead is also multi-faceted. For example, surveillance and religion are weaponized and used to weave oppression into the symbolic order, resulting in its naturalisation, with Handmaids such as Offred remaining unaware yet complicit in their own oppression within Gilead’s discourse. Given the complex nature of repression in Gilead and the emphasis, Atwood places on the power of observation, a variety of theoretical tools from Michael Foucault’s Panopticism, Laura Mulvey’s theory of Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema and Louis Althusser’s Interpellation may be employed to explore how repression in Gilead is constructed as hegemonic. This leads to the focus of this exploration and evaluation of literary theory: To what extent has surveillance been used as a tool for oppression and the naturalisation of such, in Gilead?
The feeling of being watched is widely viewed as an almost psychological intuition; one which is separate from the human senses yet just as penetrating. Utilising this human instinct, the Panopticon —translating to ‘all-seeing’— was a concept introduced by Jeremy Bentham, to describe an ideal prison. Its design allowed for continuous surveillance of the inmates through the entirely circular architecture. This architecture was comprised of two main structures with a central watchtower encircled by a building divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows light to cross the cell from one end to the other’ (Foucault, 1977). Through this design, the inmates are isolated from each other whilst simultaneously subjected to perpetual surveillance by the guards. Foucault describes this process as assuring ‘the automatic functioning of power’ as the prison allows for the ‘non-reversible subordination of one group of people by another, with the ‘surplus’ power always fixed on the same side (Foucault, 1977). That surplus is yielded to the guards who are given the power of visibility, whilst the prisoners are subject to the unsettling, unverifiable surveillance; permanent in its effects, discontinuous in its activities through the notion that the inmates are never exactly certain that they are being watched, ‘only that they may be being watched’ (Foucault, 1977). Thus, it effectively maintained order within the prison. This panoptic scheme, however, whilst initially intended for prisons, guards, and criminals can be used as a metaphor to analyse the social significance of surveillance in society as a whole. According to Foucault, panopticism–the uncertainty of being watched– establishes a direct relationship between ‘surplus power’ and ‘surplus production’, through ‘the vigilance of intersecting gazes’ by ordinary people who replace the circular, ordained watchmen (Foucault, 1977). This is easily achieved, as the panopticon metaphor provides the masses with ‘the pleasure of power, the pleasure of sadism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, scopophilia, and narcissism,” as they watch their pupils, perhaps not intently or consistently, but certainly subconsciously. Because of the intoxicating and perverted pleasures gained, panopticism can be imposed on the basic workings of humanity to achieve a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms’ (Foucault, 1977) as, due to this possibility of observation, most civilians will act with desired productivity. They will not commit crimes whilst contributing positively to their society. This discipline is effectively acquired by imposing the Panoptic mechanism of power; one which simply utilises a primal fear of punishment and basic self-consciousness among humans to ensure the order of human complexity, leading to the ultimate aim of docility and utility in the system. Gilead certainly obtains this, as it is penetrated by discipline and surveillance or at least the fear of such; hence, its considerable efficiency and naturalised oppression.
Whilst control within Gilead’s society is imposed through a number of systems, the most potent and insidious form is surveillance. Similar to the watch-house guards, the rulers within Gilead are invisible; with the ambiguity surrounding who they are, where they are, and what they do. In terms of the Commander and Offred, it is stated multiple times that she is unaware of ‘who he is, or what he does’ (p.282). This ambiguity paves way for the subjection of civilians within Gilead as they live within the structured ‘disciplinary mechanisms’ whilst being unfamiliar with the rulers who order for such, a similar uneasiness that the prisoners feel towards their distant and hidden guards. Despite the lack of absolute rulers in Offred’s world, every character, no matter their class or role, remains intertwined within the panoptic network of surveillance and counter-surveillance from both authorities and the ‘intersecting gazes’ of civilians. This idea of potential surveillance through intersecting gazes is emphasised by Atwood herself as she highlights the omnipresence through the word ‘eye’. ‘The Eyes’ are Gilead’s secret police in being representatives of authority and judgement within the absolutist state, their role directly relating to panopticism in its translation of all-seeing. In other words, seeing is equivalent to knowing and knowing equates to having the ‘automatic functioning of power’, as Foucault suggests. The Gilead goodbye of ‘under his eye’ demonstrates this, acting as a reminder of the divine gaze and the ceaseless surveillance or capacity to be subject to such; the panoptic phenomenon as demonstrated through a religiously weaponized allusion, stimulating utmost paranoia under the theocratic ruling and hesitation to exist in any fashion which would contradict governmental desires. Not reduced to simply a divine power, even Offred herself participates in counter-surveillance through the ‘eye’ motif as she silently warns the commander to ‘watch out… I have my eye on you (p.99). This validates the idea that no one, not even men of power, is able to ‘fly under the raider,’ as counter-surveillance is used to impose their own docility and utility within the state. For Offred, however, her panoptic reminder remains forever imprinted on her physical being, as she ‘cannot avoid seeing, now, the small tattoo on her (my) ankle. Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse’ (p.76). Like all within Gilead, she is branded with the threat that she may always be watched; a disturbing thought that effectively induces terror in the Gileadean authorities and inculcates the panoptic idea that no act that fractures the desired conventionality of the State can go unnoticed and therefore, unpunished. Through this pervasive and panoptic surveillance tool, those within Gilead are fearfully disinclined to act contradictory to the Puritan theocracy, forcing them to instead remain highly complicit in the state’s potent discourse and blatant oppression.
However, whilst panopticism is useful in investigating the potential to be watched and the paranoia that one could be, the most acute aspect of surveillance within The Handmaid’s Tale is yet to be explored within this essay. The powerful male gaze along with the less powerful yet still present female gaze, unlike the ambiguity and implicitness of the panopticon, act as an overt signal of dominance or threat, thereby remaining a primary culprit for the naturalisation of Gileadean oppression and Offred’s abjection.
The “male gaze” was first theorised in 1975 by Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema. Mulvey argues that the primary “gaze” of the cinema¬¬ –the way directors film and the way audiences conceive “normal” film style– is masculine and patriarchal at its core as it favours the power of a male gaze, directed at a submissive feminine subject. Echoing male desires and motivations ubiquitous in Western media, cinema fetishizes female bodies as objects to be possessed and controlled, reinforcing an overall patriarchal unconscious which derives pleasure from voyeurism and narcissism. This perverted pleasure is necessary to understand Mulvey’s theory as she commonly refers to the Freudian psychoanalytic theory aptly named the unconscious. This describes the deepest part of the mind “as a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness” (Cherry, 2019). Being outside conscious awareness, these voyeuristic behavioural patterns occur automatically and intrinsically; they are unable to reach through introspection. This psychoanalytic theory is therefore relevant in “demonstrating the way… the patriarchal society has structured film form,’ as Mulvey explains that chauvinistic film techniques have developed inadvertently and simply through patterns of the male psyche; the patriarchal society who watch and make film projecting their own sub-conscience and arguably discriminatory thoughts of females, into scripts and onto the screen. Film technique mirrors the thoughts and values societally favoured or perversely desired, with the over-sexualisation of the female body by a strong male gaze being one of those things, with pleasure derived from an active/male and passive/female (Mulvey, p.24). Solidifying this more explicitly, Mulvey states that “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly” (Mulvey, p.62). These phantasies are translated into eroticized pictures and characters, from which ‘visual pleasure’ is derived; the construction and functioning of a film and by extension, humanity, are entirely dependent on what is pleasant to witness as a phallocentric society. Because society functions to favour such, the male gaze is therefore steady and oppressive; the patriarchy refusing to budge and hard to reverse. The female gaze, a woman’s viewpoint as she traverses the masculine-bound world around her in comparison is fleeting, patient, and observant in the brief moments of power as she practises counter-surveillance.
The mechanism of control in Gilead is an extreme form of what Foucault calls a “carceral texture of society [with its] capture of the body and its perpetual observation,” (Foucalt, 1995). The perpetual observation, as established, is exercised mainly through what Mulvey would describe as the male gaze. This is seen as Aunt Lydia in the early chapters, explains to the Handmaids that “to be seen (…) is to be penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable” (Atwood, p.39). Aunt Lydia is likening being observed to a clearly sexual act, and because homosexuality is unlawful in Gilead, the reference relates only to heterosexual sex. Thus, the Handmaids are seen as sexual objects to “be penetrated” through the overbearing male gaze.
Through this observation, coupled with the absolute patriarchal authority of an all-pervading male God, unpacked earlier through the panoptic farewell of ‘Under his eye,’ Mulvey’s theory is reinforced, as the masculine ownership of ‘his’ eye is emphasised. In turn, women in Gilead are reminded that there is always a male, whether divine or mortal, watching; masterfully constructing “the proprietorial eye of male desire … (as) the weapon of fascism in Gilead,” and thus control within the regime (Cooper, p.50). Being the eye of this constant male desire and ‘penetration’, as mentioned by Aunt Lydia previously, observation is immediately equated with sex or being desired for such. This, therefore, demonstrates that Handmaids can either be one of two things: Firstly, when observed they act solely as sexual objects for men as their “visual pleasure.” Secondly and opposingly, when unobserved, they are reduced to an imperceptible sexless body, and subsequently, invisible. The male gaze thereby determines female identity in Gilead as it “projects its fantasy;” forcing women to adhere to the “sexual imbalance” by becoming passive bodies for “penetration” or the lack thereof, as Aunt Lydia suggests. Females in Gilead are subject to the masculine gaze imposed upon them, resulting in the reduction of their human capabilities and autonomy, with surveillance– particularly male— directly linking to female oppression in Gilead.
Despite this, there are multiple moments within the novel when the male gaze is exploited, as Offred harnesses its sexual imbalance and power to her advantage. This is seen as Offred and Ofglen walk home from the market and Offred intentionally teases the guards with her body. She says, “…I know they’re watching… They touch their eyes instead and I move my hips a little…I enjoy the power…They will suffer, later…They have no outlets now except themselves, and that’s a sacrilege” (Atwood, p.22). Utilising the imposition of male surveillance, Offred demonstrates a subtle upturning of power within the conventional male/female binary. As there is no legitimate “outlet,” for the erotic “projected fantasy” that the male guards experience through observing Offred’s body, she has the power to inflict suffering as their “visual pleasure” is forced to be suppressed and restrained. Unusually, the format of power between the male gaze and female erotic objects has been reversed, as Offred subverts the tools which were initially created to restrict herself. Here, observation and surveillance in the form of the male gaze is used as a tool of oppression for the men who exercise such.
Whilst this male gaze can be declared a pervasive tool to ensure repression, the naturalisation of such is better explained through Louis Althusser’s Interpellation. Louis Althusser associates identity with ideology through the idea that “ideology exists in discourse within the society and unconsciously affects the awareness of the subject in the society” (Althusser, 1970). Because ideology imposes the subject with a preformed narrative which guides them to act in certain ways, the subject’s understanding and formation of their identity is, therefore, an illusion; one which has been shaped by everything but the individual themselves. In Althusser’s terminology, this is entitled ‘interpellation’, where, more specifically, “ideology hails or interpellates individuals as subjects”, with subjects not existing idyllically as self-determining and free individuals, but rather “as one inserted into the complex set of practices…by which her society produces the material conditions of its members’ lives” (Althusser, 1970).
Within the novel, Handmaids are interpellated by the phallocentric ideology and are the product of the Giledean regime. This is seen explicitly as Offred is forced into her identity through the power of surveillance, once again used as a potent form of oppression. In this case, the female gaze is wielded; however, as it originates from Serena Joy, a female in power over Offred, it effectively causes her to be interpolated into the subject of Gileadean theocracy. Walking home, Offred states, “I lower my eyes to the path, glide by her, hoping to be invisible, knowing I’ll be ignored. But not this time. ‘Offred,’ she says. I pause, uncertain. ‘Yes, you. “Come over here. I want you (Atwood, p.179). Previous to Serena Joy’s call, Offred believed she went unseen and because of this, she was essential without an existence. This stems from the notion that without being seen, one is unable to ‘project their fantasy’ shaped from ideology, onto an individual, rendering that individual ‘entirely invisible. When Serena indicates that Offred has been noticed, she is given an identity; a particular role to play within the phallocentric world. Considering this identity was imposed upon her, it remains as an illusion and is the imprint of ideology from which the ruling class seeks to utilise Offred, explicitly evident when Serena asserts ‘I want you.’ This interpellation, which allows for the naturalisation of patriarchal power, is intertwined with the power of gaze and surveillance within The Handmaid’s Tale, as it is the dominating factor in mediating oppression and order in Gileadian life.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich and complex narrative, functioning with almost biblical power for active feminists. Within its pages, patriarchal oppression is highlighted through the notion of surveillance; a tool which has been used highly effectively and vigorously to achieve such. In light of this, the Gileadean world manages to present two dichotomous choices for women; either be seen, resulting in utter objectification and over-sexualisation, or remain unseen and thereby lifeless. Each route as dehumanising as the other, the women in Gilead thereby exist as oppressed entities who are denied autonomy and are instrumentality reduced to their genitalia. This disturbing crux of Atwood’s novel has been masterfully constructed through ideology and a perpetually observant society that imposes such. Living within the hegemonic world, the only solace Offred finds is in remembering,
- “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”.
- To not let the bastards grind you down.