The novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood uses the anti-feminist rhetoric of Phyllis Schlafly to create the dystopian society of Gilead, “the logical extension not only of Puritan government but also of the agenda articulated during the 1980s by America’s fundamentalist Christian Right” (Neuman 857). Atwood recognizes that the agreement on the oppressive nature of sex by the feminists and anti-feminists of the 1970s and 1980s was the crux of the feminist movement’s downfall. She uses female characters to analyze the end of second-wave feminism under the Reagan administration and the split in the feminist movement (Neuman 859-860). The only character who truly gains freedom is the one who gains it through sex and prostitution, Moira. Through Moira, Atwood argues that the success of the feminist movement is contingent on sex positivity and overall acceptance.
Second-wave feminism discussed the origin of female oppression and one of the common denominators was that men and intimacy were the destruction of female autonomy (Gordon). For some, like Offred’s mother, this meant that sex was oppression. This mentality led her to allow her daughter to participate in the feminist book burning of pornographic magazines. However, when Offred sees the women tied up, hanging from the ceiling, Offred “thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine” (38 Atwood). By obsessing over the possible sexual objectification of women that can happen from exploitation in pornographic industry, Offred’s mother strips the women in the industry of their humanity. Offred’s mother rejects that sex can be empowering. However, despite her youth, Offred can tell that the situation on the magazine is not one of stripped autonomy or forced submissiveness, rather it is fun and consensual. It is reminiscent of the pure joy and spontaneity of a children’s story, Tarzan. By refusing to see this act as consensual and therefore valid, Offred’s mother fails to believe in a world without the subjugation of women. Feminism in its broadest definition did not call for an anti-man movement, rather a movement towards equality and the anti-man mentality took away support from the feminist movement itself (Neuman 858). By not allowing women their sexuality, but allowing men sexuality, Offred’s mother tears down equality and become the antithesis of a feminist.
The anti-feminist movement believed that sex could be used to strip women of their freedom. At the Red Center, Aunt Lydia preyed upon the fear that sex was the weakness of women, the thing that caused the inequality between men and women. Aunt Lydia showed the girls “old porno film, from the seventies or eighties…women tied up or chained with dog collars around their necks…women being raped, beaten up, killed” to highlight the fact that the women in the films could “have been doing something useful” (Atwood 118). By having both Aunt Lydia and Offred’s mother misinterpret and vilify the same type of porn, Atwood shows that despite wanting different things, the desire to eliminate and demonize sex is identical in both women and both ideologies. However, Aunt Lydia goes farther than Offred’s mother by creating fear through the misrepresentation of porn as sexual assault by combining and equating them in the videos. This weaponizes the idea that sex was only used in the pleasure of men and the soiling of women. By participating in sex, the women were stripped of their womanhood and any autonomy. This fear used to coerce the women into staying home. This fear is what sustains the entire system of Gilead. The generally accepted image of sex, a woman submitting to a man, to entice women was justification to “let their husbands provide, and to use their femininity and feminine wiles as the core of their success and fulfilment as women” (Neuman 860). Serena Joy does just this. She makes women captive to their own femininity and sensuality, “her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home” (Atwood 45). Serena Joy strips herself of her words. Serena Joy’s words create a government that uses gender to discriminate and force women into a singular role, subservient to the man.
The mentality against sex creates a system that uses sex as an oppressive tool. The fear of sex advances and normalizes the enslavement of women. This system is Gilead and the route to escape it is known as “the Underground Femaleroad” (Atwood 246). In one of her attempts for freedom, Moira uses this route. Atwood alludes to the Underground Railroad through the route’s name and compares Gilead to the system of African American slavery in America. By utilizing something as natural and inseparable from women as sex to justify the usage of them as breeding stock is identical to the exploitation and enslavement of African Americans based on the color of their skin. Atwood shows that Offred’s mother, Aunt Lydia, and Serena Joy do not have a sustainable idea of freedom, because they decide who deserves freedom based on their prejudice against sexuality. To Atwood, the acceptance of all people and the fight for everyone’s freedom is necessary to create to equity and equality, to a achieve a world that truly aligns with the feminist vision of the world.
The only character who truly advocates for freedom and becomes free is Moira. As a sexually active and accepting lesbian, she would be ostracized in both the feminist and anti-feminist movements. Moira states that within lesbian sex “the balance of power was equal between women was an even-steven transaction” (Atwood 172). Moira understands that sex is a part of life. She does not try to cut it out because that denial has the potential to become female oppression. She accepts it as an aspect of life, as key to freedom and equality. Equality can only exist if both men and women can be empowered and freed by sex. Moira does not see equality as being able to work or being able to fulfill oneself off an arbitrary metric. She sees it in being free to make one’s own decision in love, sex, career, and any other facets of life. Moira’s openness and freedom from sex is shown in how casually and playfully she discusses it, “I’m giving an underwhore party. …You know, like Tupperware, only with underwear. Tarts stuff” (Atwood 56). Her openness and acceptance are a direct foil against all the other characters’ open rejection of sex. Moira appreciates it and liberates herself through it. Sexuality is her power and her escape from the world before Gilead and from Gilead.
Moira uses her body to gain freedom at Jezebel’s. She gives herself power from sex, stating blatantly about the Commander “I’ve had him, he’s the pits” (243 Atwood). Through sex, Moira has made herself equally powerful to the Commander. She can insult him without fear of repercussions because both are operating outside of the rules of Gilead. In fact, she can insult his prowess; she can break him down just as much his system has broken down women. Moira liberated herself with sex. She is free because “[the Aunts] have given up on us, so it doesn’t matter what sort of vice we get up to” (249 Atwood). By embracing sex as an essential aspect of humanity, she attains freedom and equality in the restrained society that she exists in. In fact, she is the only woman in the novel who truly gains freedom. Moira is the only woman in the novel who gains her freedom, who can give into her vices.
In her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood creates a dystopia that oppresses women through the fear of sex and the idea that the oppression of sex is the only way to achieve a semblance of equality. However, Moira, the only woman for whom freedom exists, is the one who is unburdened by sex, who is accepting of it. By marking Moira as the only free woman, Atwood argues that sex and the acceptance of women, regardless of their sexual activity or profession, in the feminist movement is the only way for it to succeed and the ostracization of these women was the fall of second-wave feminism.