The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

July 25th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part two in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 06)

By far, the most pervasive theme in The Handmaid’s tale is misogyny and the oppression of women; in fact, female oppression The Republic of Gilead is so ubiquitous so as to suggest that the nation was founded for the sole purpose of reinstating a true theocratic patriarchy. Every facet of society works in concert to control Giliadean women; their subjugation is total.

Women are segregated into groups based on their social functions, as are men. However, unlike the men, women have no chance for upward mobility, only down. A man, for example, may move up in rank from a Guardian to an Angel. There is no such opportunity for women. Wives (and Econowives) may only become Widows; Handmaids, Marthas and Jezebels may be cast off as Unwomen should they fail to fulfill their roles. And Unwomen become laborers or are sent to die a gruesome death in the polluted Colonies. To add insult to injury, a woman’s status is largely determined by her birth, loyalty and reproductive function. In contrast, Gilead does not so much as acknowledge that a man’s reproductive function may be lacking, theoretically or in practice.

Women, with the exception of the Aunts, are not allowed to read or write. Women do not have access to books of any sort, including the Bible. Every household has a Bible, of course, but this is kept under lock and key. Nor do females have writing implements – neither pens nor paper – at their disposal. The no-reading edict is so strictly enforced that the neighborhood markets advertise their wares with graphic signs as opposed to written store names: Lilies of the Field, which sells habits, sports a golden lily on the sign out front; Milk and Honey has “three eggs, a bee, a cow”; and All Flesh “is marked by a large wooden pork chop hanging from two chains.” When the Handmaids are sent out on errands, they are given small cards (similar to tokens) with which to purchase groceries and other necessities. These, too, are decorated with pictures.

The prohibition of reading and writing for women is obviously done to keep women ignorant, unaware, dependent; Knowledge is power. Though Gilead is a pious nation, women aren’t even allowed to read the state’s holy book. If they wish to pray, they must either recite the verses from memory, or ask their husbands to read to them from the family Bible. As Gilead uses Biblical doctrine to justify their draconian rules, permitting women to read – to investigate and hold their government accountable – most likely would lead to widespread discontent, if not outright rebellion.

For the Handmaids, the ban on all things cerebral has an added dimension. Handmaids exist solely to give birth, nothing more. They are but mere vessels, empty until filled with child. In order to be “good” Handmaids, they must empty their minds as well, so that they remain open to “the Lord’s gifts”. Thus, a Handmaid’s life is especially barren, vacuous, boring. Kate finds Gilead so devoid of intellectual stimulation that she’s pleased to discover a small seat cushion in her room – apparently overlooked during Gilead’s sweeps – that has the word “faith” embroidered on its face. Finally, something to read, to study, to digest! A subversive kind of pleasure, at that.

While the different classes of women have differing degrees of freedom of movement, no woman is free to come and go as she chooses. The borders of Gilead are ferociously guarded and few Gileadeans – women or men – are allowed to leave. Within Gilead’s borders, women’s movements are tightly restricted as well. The nation is saturated with checkpoints, guards, spies, nanny-cams, and searchlights. Aside from the Aunts (who still must answer to men and sometimes require Guardian escorts), Wives and Econowives have the greatest freedom of movement, while Handmaids are only permitted a daily shopping trip and the occasional ceremonial “field trips”. Oh, and monthly doctor’s visits for a fertility check that’s simply livestock-esque in nature. Marthas, Jezebels and Unwomen appear chained to their respective posts, almost never leaving the job.

Women’s bodies, too, are the source of myriad rules and regulations. This begins with the clothing that women are told to wear. Every woman, Aunts included, has to don a uniform identifying her social function. Aunts wear brown dresses; Wives, blue dresses; Widows, black dresses; Daughters, white dresses; Econowives, dresses striped red, blue, and green; Handmaids, red habits with white headdresses (“Wings”); Marthas, green smocks; Jezebels, revealing vintage contraband from “the days before”; and Unwomen, gray dresses.

Women do not have a right to privacy or bodily autonomy. Young, pre-menopausal women undergo extensive medical testing in order to determine whether they’re fertile; if so, they become Handmaids and are subjected to a litany of probing, poking and prodding throughout their tenure. Because they must be in peak physical health, Handmaids are subject to a rigorous health regimen: no smoking, no drinking, no sweets. Even their three square meals are regulated by the state; Handmaids must eat whatever meal they are served, and they must eat it all – otherwise, the Marthas are required to report the transgression to the Commander’s Wife.

Presumably, Wives and Econowives must submit to medical exams as well, particularly if they and their husbands wish to request a Handmaid (i.e., to prove that they are strerile and “in need”). Jezebels, of course, must maintain a certain weight, lest they lose their sex appeal and get shipped off to The Colonies (no one likes a fatty, dontchaknow!). Otherwise, it’s unclear whether Aunts, Widows, Daughters and Marthas receive mandatory medical care, or any medical care for that matter. It’s safe to assume that Unwomen do not; wading in radiation and nuclear waste, they are effectively the walking dead.

Gilead wouldn’t be a theocracy without much pearl-clutching and hand-wringing over sex – and when it comes to sex, Gilead about as fundamentalist as a theocracy can be. Sex is only acceptable when it’s done for reproductive purposes; Just lie back and think of Gilead. Thus, husbands and Wives (or Econowives) may have sex, but only if conception is the goal. Aunts, Widows, Daughters, Marthas, Unwomen – all are effectively celibate. So too are Wives, if they have been assigned Handmaids. To rub salt in the wound, a Wife’s presence is required at the monthly Ceremony; a Wife must hold her Handmaid’s hands while she watches her husband rape the Handmaid. (Yes, despite Kate’s protestations, this is rape. A choice between life as a “vessel” or a radioactive death in The Colonies is not a choice freely made at all.) It goes without saying that the Ceremonies are carefully timed with the Handmaid’s menstrual cycle so that they only take place on her most fertile days. (Wouldn’t want to have any pointless rape-sex now, would we?) Only Jezebels may have sex for pleasure; some “pleasure”, the life of a sex slave must be. (Jezebels are routinely raped as well, as their “choice” is similar to that of the Handmaids.) Masturbation is strictly forbidden, as is contraception and abortion.

Gilead’s subjugation of women is so complete that the government is able to control a woman’s behavior, her thoughts, her will – even her personal connection to her own body. A continuous theme throughout The Handmaid’s Tale is Kate’s disconnect from her physical body. This split is both physical and psychological, and is achieved through various methods.

The Handmaid’s habit (a type of sack-like dress) is almost as concealing as an Islamic burqa: it covers the Handmaid from her wrists to her ankles. She also wears red gloves and stockings, so that the only pieces of flesh that are visible are her neck and face – and even those are somewhat obscured, what with the red veil and white headdress. Underneath her scarlet red habit is a white cotton underdress and bulky, oversized underwear, both of which further conceal her body – from everyone, herself included. At night, there is scant relief from the stifling uniforms. In bed, a Handmaid must cover herself head-to-toe in a long white cotton nightdress; nevermind that she always sleeps alone. During the hot summers, she switches to a habit made of lighter material, but it’s no more revealing than her winter wardrobe. Consequently, a Handmaid almost never experiences her own naked body. The only time she’s completely nude is when she’s allowed to bathe. Even during the Ceremony, only her torso is exposed.

Thus begins the alienation Kate feels from her physical body. Mentally, she sometimes curses it, for it alone determines her fate. After three unsuccessful postings, a Handmaid is assumed infertile and sent to certain death in The Colonies. Serena Joy and Commander Fred are her second assignment, and Fred is almost certainly sterile. Such a shame, The Republic doesn’t recognize male sterility.

Her body, too, is the reason for much of Kate’s suffering: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler the universe who has not created me a woman. Because she just so happens to possess a vagina, she cannot read, write or even think freely. She is hated, despised and abused for the mere fact of her sex. A roll of the dice: XX or XY, submission or dominance, what will it be? Had she been born a man, Kate’s lot in life would be marginally better. At least she wouldn’t be property, livestock, a vessel – figuratively and literally.

Kate’s physical body also serves as a reminder of “the days before” – of a time when she once used it with abandon, as an agency of change or simply pleasure. Those days are gone now, and she can only recall them in short bursts, ration them out, lest she use them up too quickly. Lest they use her up – her sanity, that is – betray her, ensure her exile to The Colonies.

The disconnect Kate feels from her body is so profound that she cannot bear to look down at herself on those few occasions when she is free of the habit. While bathing, she takes care to look straight ahead. She doesn’t wish to be reminded of “the days before”, of the freedoms she took for granted, of her husband Luke, or the daughter whom she nurtured with that very body. Only after she begins her affair with Nick is Kate able to reflect on her body and enjoy the pleasures it can impart. Through Nick, Kate also faces the all-too-human needs that she still has, needs which Gilead’s social engineers have sorely underestimated – namely, companionship and love.

In a way, Nick becomes Kate’s vessel. Ironic, that.

In addition to concealing her from the outside world, Kate’s clothing also serves to conceal the outside world from her. Kate’s headdress – her “Wings” – act as blinders. Literally “blinders” – the type you might see on a horse. The headdress is a hat, of course, that covers the head and hair; but it also has extra appendages, wings, that wrap around the Handmaid’s head and obscure her peripheral vision. She can only see straight ahead, and even then, she’s usually expected to look down, at the floor, in yet another show of subservience.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

One of the most memorable (heartbreaking, chilling, infuriating) passages in The Handmaid’s Tale is Kate’s recollection of the day American women were so deftly stripped of their rights. In one morning, women were summarily fired from their jobs and their bank accounts were frozen. Money equals power, and the state turned it all over to the men, creating an unequivocal patriarchy:

I went to pick my daughter up from school. I drove with exaggerated care. By the time Luke got home I was sitting at the kitchen table. She was drawing with felt pens at her own little table in the corner, where her paintings were taped up next to the refrigerator.

Luke knelt besides me and put his arms around me. I heard, he said, on the car radio, driving home. Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s temporary.

Did they say why? I said.

He didn’t answer that. We’ll get through it, he said, hugging me.

You don’t know what it’s like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn’t crying. Also, I couldn’t put my arms around him.

It’s only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.

I guess you get all my money, I said. And I’m not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.

Hush, he said. He was still kneeling on the floor. You know I’ll always take care of you.

I thought, Already he’s trying to patronize me. Then I thought, Already you’re starting to get paranoid.

I know, I said. I love you.

That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted to make love. Why didn’t I want to? Desperation alone should have driven me. But I still felt numbed. I could hardly even feel his hands on me.

What’s the matter? he said.

I don’t know, I said.

We still have…he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.

We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?

He kissed me then, as is now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his hands around me, gathering me up, I was as small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his.

Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.

So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn’t afford to lose you.



The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Table of Contents

1. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Intro & Plot Summary

2. Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

4. The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

5. A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

6. Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

7. Dear Dystopian Deniers

8. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

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