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Feminist Dystopia in Handmaid’s Tale

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Manifestation of Modern Feminism in Handmaid’s Tale It was in the early nineteen hundreds with the addition of women’s suffrage when the first waves of modern feminism began. This was one of the first steps in altering women’s previously thought power, identity, and individualism. These factors continued to be at the crux of later feminist movements especially the second and the third. A manifestation of the perceived issues of the time period along with a humanistic approach to showcasing these issues to an extreme was through the publishing of the book The Handmaid’s Tale. Specifically the dystopia’s issues lie on their erred belief that women’s rights are not human rights. Although Margaret Atwood portrayed the focal issues at their peak, she also highlighted the double bind women face when being complicit to their own marginalisation. This novel is a complex piece on what it truly means to be a woman in the darkest of circumstances, and how feminism is truly reflected in light of this piece.Atwood’s formative years coincided with the second wave of feminism, this influenced her work as through her work one is able to see the evolution of feminism, even in this novel, the heroine’s mother is a radical feminist, portraying ideals of second wave feminism but the book itself as well as Offred, portray mostly the ideals of third class feminism (Howells, 2005 p13). Atwood is also a devoted environmentalist; the destruction of the world’s leading to toxic waste and infertility as seen in the novel are reflective of her persistent movement for the protection of the ecosystem. Some of her other works such as Surfacing and Bodily Harm as well her poetry True Stories chronicle women being oppressed by society by gender stereotypes (Rigney, 1987. P104)

The concept of self-ownership began with philosophers like John Locke who started sharing a perceived belief that the individual, ‘has a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits of what he did.” In the 19th century and on, issues with human and civil rights would rely on the belief that some individuals are more deserving of those rights than others, or than certain people were not even considered individuals in the first place. When humans begin to lose key distiguishers in their lives, they are rendered heavily incapacitated in society. Allowing the possibility of people being born as little more than an inanimate object without emotion and feeling, to be bought or sold.

In the past the idea of individualism was often one of the most discouraged and oppressed concepts by regimes. The French aristocratic political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) described individualism in terms of a kind of moderate selfishness that disposed humans to be concerned only with their own small circle of family and friends. Likewise, critiques have been made by advocates of communitarianism, who tend to equate individualism with narcissism and selfishness [6]. This sort of negative connotation was instigated and encouraged to suppress women’s ability to congregate and form a power capable of toppling the Sons of Jacob, but left them feeling empty and alone.

Margaret Atwood was very specific when designing her famous dystopia. She pieces clues in the fabric of their society, inadvertently allowing the reader to recognize women’s lack of perceived self. Their names were altered to reflect which ever commander they were assigned to at the given moment. They were reflections of a man’s need to have a child, nothing else. They were little more than glorified property, and ends to a means, discarded when no longer useful. Another concept that aided in undermining their ability to differentiate themselves from objects was their lack of belongings. There were not allowed to keep any keepsakes, mementos, or even photos of their past. Hardly even allowed to look at themselves in mirrors, and forced to wear the same clothes as anybody who was constricted to play their same role. This lack of distinguishing factors almost make them forget who they were before the new government, “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”, further alienating them as belongings. The girls in red would be required to provide only one service and exist for no purpose outside of it while the same is true of those in blue or green.

Although many are inclined to quickly assume that Margaret Atwood’s novel is a strong figure of the feminist movement, it also highlights issues of the other spectrum where there is female complacency in subjugation. It was said in the text that after the government fell women lost the ability to hold currency. Eventually many were sent to a retraining center called the Red Center. Other than Moira it seemed that most women were scared or too drugged to attempt to rebel. The creation of the Aunts almost lead the girls into a false sense of security. They were being subjugated by someone of their own sex so they weren’t able to recognize the true extend of what was hapening to their own personas. The novel almost regarded a sense of femininity as a weakness in where the more feminine women tended to be more docile and afraid. On the other side of the spectrum, women like Moira who broke those molds were less afraid to rebel and break those bounds. The same concept applies to Offred’s mother who was unmarried but a very forward thinker who took part in many marches and female protests.

The acting government of the Sons of Jaccob in Handmaid’s tale, is in one way taking advantage of the fear in movements like Take Back the Night and worked to intensify a notion where the villain of the country in the novel is the possibility of rape. Although normal society does percieve rape as an isssue, the dystopia altered who was to blame shifting it to the women. This sentiment of blaming all of the girls for actions they were not in control of is a deep rooted idea that aid in making such a dramatic change in the society, “There is more than one kind of freedom,’ said Aunt Lydia. ‘Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”. It deeply alters the identity of women in the context of their society. They are to blame for any harm that could befall them from men. They are to blame if they cannot conceive a child for a sterile commander. WHat it meant to be a woman was completely restructured for the benefit of the Sons of Jacob and the commanders in power. Going further into altering the image of what it means to be a woman in that society, the government implemented certain steps and ceremonies to create the concept of what it meant to be a handmaid or a wife. Having the wives replicate the birth as well as actually going through the birth on a specific chair all aided in drawing the conclusion that the handmaid were not women or mothers simply instruments to give the wives and commanders children. Similarly the bible reading at night went further ways in establishing the identity of a handmaid as she is the only one that sits kneeling as if in repentance of praying. It was almost as if the handmaids are now to blame for the lack of children in the society. Despite what was metabolically happening to the women their lack of conception could result in them being shipped off the nuclear waste site.

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Many philosophers have attempted to tackle the true meaning of ones identity. Some even attempting to isolate what makes up the body of one’s own self perceived person. These texts are the most debated by historians for many philosophers because of the ambiguities that lies in their shared commonalities. A woman with an education was not dependent on others for support, for she had the skills to gain an income. On an individual level. Real Woman hood saw education as beneficial for a woman as a means ‘to combat neurosis, depression, and mental illness’ and ‘to widen her horizons and enrich herself as a person'[7]. Women lost the right to read in the society of Handmaid’s tale to further render then incapactitated and completely dependent on men. Their identity as women was contingent, and centered around a world of men.

Women were not allowed to have face creams or any sort of beauty enhancement or self care. This further rendered their identity restricted to than of an objects whose sole purpose was to give birth to a child who would not even be their own. In Handmaid’s tale, the dystopia created by the sons of Jaccob rendered women incapable of being feminie without relinquishing power. Their only option was to live as weak women dependent on the charity of whichever men they belonged to, or as hidden prostitutes in a brothel for “holy men”. They either maintained the small shred of femininity they had, keeping the opportunity to even have children of their own one day, while the other option was to become sterile but live somewhat more freely with slightly more control over their lives. Either way to be female meant to surrender control, simply because it was established that women were lesser than men.

This new identity of women in the story would make them too weak to congregate or fight back. As when they started to lose individuality it became more difficult to isolate what made them individually who they are outside of the governments constructs. The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through childrearing and homemaking. According to Friedan’s New York Times obituary, her book “ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world” and “is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.” Friedan hypothesizes that women are victims of false beliefs requiring them to find identity in their lives through husbands and children. This causes women to lose their own identities in that of their family. [5] The same could be said of the women who were slowly being immersed in this misogynistic society. Finally, a psychoanalytic theoretical perspective could be adopted because Offred reconstructs her identity numerous times and through the stream of consciousness method we are able to see symbols and patterns of thinking she created for herself, possibly as a coping mechanism. This review, in the subsequent segment, will undergo a deeper analysis of these theories can be used to dissect the novel. [9]

The largest issue for the feminist movement as well as was the power dynamic slowly established with minimal resistance in the new government of the Sons of Jaccob. “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “women will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” There was a very complex power dynamic between the aunts in the retraining process, they out of all of the women seem to have the most amounts of free will and power when it comes to dictating their own decisions. They took advantage of what little power they had and seemed to be allowed to walk around much more freely than the handmaids or even the wives. It was the wives in fact who still seemed to have some sort of authority over the

The régime also uses and misuses language to establish control and disempower its citizens. Since it likes to pretend that its oppression is beneficent. The women who control the Red Centre, using cattle-prods and steel cables, and who run the Particicution, are called by the apparently kindly name of ‘Aunts’. The state’s soldiers are called ‘Angels’. Shops are named after quotations from the Bible, such as the ‘Loaves and Fishes’. Gilead sees itself as a fundamentalist Christian régime, and the Bible is often cited – but very often the quotations used, for example by the Aunts, are subtly altered or perverted. More pervasively, education is strictly controlled, books and magazines are banned and women are not supposed to read or write, unless they are workers on state activity, such as the Aunts. Gilead knows well that language is a very powerful tool.

Atwood’s Gilead is undeniably an oppressive regime that employs a warped version of biblical moral instruction in order to propagate a perverse ideological structure. The most prevalent example of power dynamics within the novel is that of the relationship between men and women in a society where women are brutally subjugated. The Commanders epitomise the new establishment of patriarchal power and could be seen as being responsible for shaping the power dynamics throughout the story. The Commanders, holding high status roles, have been ‘issued a woman’ after ‘gaining enough power and living to be old enough’ to be ‘allotted a Handmaid of their own.’ Atwood employs a lexicon of defamiliarization as she uses commercial, business-like terms to describe men and women. The words ‘issued’ and ‘allotted’ have direct connotations of bargaining and rewards; in light of the initial quotation, this choice of language presents the ‘oppression against women’ in Gilead and how their only status is in relation to men.

These warped power dynamics become internalised even by the women they are meant to oppress. Offred describes herself as having ‘the power of a dog bone, passive but there’. Atwood suggests that it is the narrator’s acute self-evaluation of a ‘passive’ ‘dog bone’ that depicts her true subjugation despite the ‘power’ that she ostensibly feels. The lexical choice of ‘dog bone’ reminds the reader that women are a reward in this society, a treat for men to enjoy. The description of the ‘bone’ and ‘dog’ gives the idea an aggressive image as the bone, representing the female form, can be consumed and the dog, presenting the man, gives an animalistic and wild presentation. This ‘passive’ position that she holds mirrors Laura Mulvey’s concept of ‘The Male Gaze’. We see Offred become the object of titillation as she becomes aware of her objectification within the patriarchy but does not seem to be bothered, instead welcomes the possibility of being looked at as more than a provider of children.

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Feminist Dystopia in Handmaid’s Tale. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
“Feminist Dystopia in Handmaid’s Tale.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
Feminist Dystopia in Handmaid’s Tale. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 27 Nov. 2022].
Feminist Dystopia in Handmaid’s Tale [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2022 Nov 27]. Available from:
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