In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood depicts a feminist narrative revolving around a dystopian society where men hold dominion over women. In this society, called the Republic of Gilead, women are limited due to the extremist Christian government’s policies. The ideologies of this dystopian government are depicted through the flashbacks and first person narration of Offred, a Handmaid, whose role is to serve as a “breeder” for Gilead. Within Offred’s flashbacks, she portrays the society prior to the revolution and creation of Gilead, and after. The display of the society before and after is significant in demonstrating the way in which Offred highlights the cultural and political attitudes towards women through the power dynamic embedded in society after the revolution. Despite the lack of extremity, the cultural and political attitudes perceived in The Handmaid’s Tale can be identified in the current political climate and culture of America and should serve as a cautionary tale to prevent further development of gender inequality and patriarchal power structures in society today.
The correlation between language and masculinity is a prevalent notion within The Handmaid’s Tale. The women in the novel are forbidden to read or write so that they are incapable of expressing ideas deemed “unlawful”, or in other words, go against the views of Gilead. In Gilead, reading and writing are perceived as masculine and as a component of a patriarchal system. Or, in other words, writing holds power and only men are allowed to be powerful. Writing and reading are the keys to enlightenment, to freedom, “the pen between [Offred’s] fingers is sensuous, alive almost, [she] can feel the power of the words it contains. Pen is envy” (186). Offred having had the knowledge of reading and writing prior to the revolution causes her to be more conscious to the subjugation of the Republic. The laws the Republic enforce serve to subjugate the women to being not more than bearers of children. The idea of women being able to read and educate themselves scares the government of Gilead, because knowledge is a power that can’t be suppressed. Even the bible is not allowed to be read, instead it is presented through fabricated audio, in which Offred “knew they made that up, she knew it was wrong, and they left things out” (89). The relationship between writing and masculinity portrays writing almost as an artifact within Atwood’s universe. Writing being seen as an artifact signifies the politics of the language and the authority it holds. By acknowledging the power of writing, and the breadth it holds in being used to oppress groups, such as the women in Gilead, further depicts the politicization of writing and how it’s used to control the women’s ideas on society.
Outside of the fictional work, it can be argued that male writers have more representation in literary publications today, in fact, that they are over represented. In media and the narrative world, stories are illustrated to identify with male protagonists, contributing to the “male gaze,” which appeals to the male perspective. Society runs off of the depiction of women as sexual objects, industries thrive off of what appeals to the male viewer. Cognizance of the power structure men hold in conveying information through media that is actively consumed by society can allow for society to incorporate a more inclusive scope that benefits both men and women.
The Republic of Gilead functions off of the willingness of women to oppress other women. The commander’s wife, Serena Joy, serves as a symbol of the loss of power women have after the revolution and yet, while at a loss of power still manages to exploit women around her, such as Offred. Prior to the revolution, Serena publicly advocated for traditional values which supported the Gileadean state, “Time or Newsweek it was, it must have been… Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home” (55). The irony of Serena’s values is that she actively spoke out against women having an active role in society while she was doing the opposite. It was with her own free will that she managed to take her own power away, “She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word” (56). Serena’s unhappiness almost makes the audience sympathize with her, yet she lacks redeemable qualities. Her frustration with her own situation causes her to take out her anger on Offred instead, reflecting her lack of compassion by her willingness to exploit Offred’s loss of a child to gain her own. Serena perfectly exemplifies the cruelty in which Gileadean society thrives off of, oppressing women.
Examples of women exploiting other women or supporting an institution which takes rights away from them is evident in modern society and in fact, prevalent. Tomi Lahren, notorious for her radical right wing agenda and criticism of liberal politics, spoke out against the Alabama abortion ban, saying it is too restrictive. The irony of Tomi’s values is that the institution she firmly supports is contradictory to that opinion. In addition, Tomi’s support of an institution which goes against women having control over their reproductive health not only disadvantages her, but women as a collective whole. Serena and Tomi display similarities due to their support of a group which exploits them and the women around them. Thus, the willingness of women oppressing women in Gilead is not at all far off from modern day, in fact it’s happening.
The objectification of women appears on a grand scale within the Republic of Gilead, yet these transgressions are also evident in America today. The infatuation with childbearing is central to the functioning of the Republic of Gilead. The concept of being pious and submissive is engraved in the Gileadean women, the women are seen as vessels for childbirth and they don’t recognize the fault in that. To them and to the government, their bodies are not their own, their sole purpose in society is to conceive and it’s reminded to them every morning, “Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear fruit upon my knees, that I may also have children by her” (88). Mantras such as this, the longing for pregnancy, and the birthing ceremony are all instruments used by the Gileadean government to oppress women, to force them to submit to a patriarchy that owns them and their decisions. Women of Gilead are also conditioned into believing that any rape/sexual assault is a result of their own lack of modesty, “her fault, her fault“ (72) and as if the act itself wasn’t reckless enough, the women who experience assault, such as Janine, are cruely ostracized by their peers.
There’s a parallel between how women are degraded in this patriarchal dystopia and modern day society. Although the role women have in America today doesn’t restrict them to being baby making machines like in The Handmaid’s tale, there are still struggles that objectify them, ranging from the fight for reproductive freedom to societal expectations which pressure survivors of assault/rape into staying quiet or getting asked questions such as “What were you wearing?” or “How much did you have to drink?”, and even to the own president making vulgar comments about “grabbing women by the p—y.” To say the democracy of America is as limiting as the theonomy of Gilead might be far fetched, however, it can’t be denied that women’s reproductive rights are primarily dictated by the white, old, privileged men in the government. Although Gilead is a dystopia, all it takes is silence, an abuse of power and a lack of resistance to make a dystopia into a reality.