The Handmaid’s Tale(s): The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too

August 8th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part four 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.

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

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 03)

While the women of Gilead bear the greatest burden of living in a patriarchy built on a misogynistic religion – after all, they are property – most of Gileadean men don’t fare well, either. The patriarchy hurts men, too.

Like women, men are ranked according to Gilead’s rigid social structure: Commanders, Eyes, Angels, Guardians, common working men, and dissidents. Those who helped form Gilead, the original loyalists and its founding fathers, sit at the top of the social ladder. Next come the newly converted True Believers ™, and then down the line until you have the political dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities, and those who sinned in “the days before”. Some of the “troublemakers” are executed, while others may be sent to work in The Colonies alongside the Unwomen. Such an intractable hierarchy only benefits those few men lucky enough to sit atop the pyramid.

(Interestingly, Gilead does not have a corresponding term for men; there are no “Unmen”. Perhaps this can be attributed to Gilead’s cult of mother worship in a time of rampant infertility? Here, all women are expected to aspire to motherhood as their greatest, indeed their only goal. So the worst thing you can call a woman is not-a-woman, an Unwoman. What does this say about the value of men in Gilead?)

All men are expected to obey their superiors unquestioningly. Though they have greater access to knowledge than the women, their freedom is severely limited. The government controls the media: the television only broadcasts religious programming and propaganda-disguised-as-news. Printed material must also submit to government regulations. Subversive materials from “the days before” – books, magazines, CDs, VHS tapes, etc. – is banned by the government. Citizens were instructed to destroy these sinful possessions, and to ensure complicity, Gilead conducted house-to-house raids in which all “contraband” was confiscated and destroyed. Ditto for other insufficiently pious items such as unauthorized clothing, blasphemous knickknacks and any items with written words that the womenfolk might read on accident.

In Gilead, all new marriages are arranged, usually by the Wives (i.e., the mothers of the Daughters). Men have no say in who they may date (indeed, there is no dating allowed in Gilead!), who they may love, or who they may marry. The greater a man’s rank, the more desirable a wife he will receive. Men’s sex lives, too, are dictated to them by the state: no recreational sex, no protected sex, no extramarital sex, no gay sex, no masturbation, no pornography.

Many men who were married before the Civil War and the formation of Gilead saw their families broken up by the state. According to Gilead, the Bible frowns upon divorce and thus second (and third and fourth) marriages. Thus, every marriage involving a divorcee was annulled by the state. If children were involved, they were seized from the couple and placed with more “deserving” families. Later on, all marriages not performed by Gilead were declared illegal. In a world in which women and children are property, men can dominate, abuse and mistreat their property – and so can other men, particularly the state. (A modern-day example of this is the FLDS Church; here, the Church leadership routinely “reassigns” a man’s wife(s) and/or children as a form of punishment.)

Even Gilead’s highest ranking Commanders are not safe from the patriarchy they’ve built. We learn from the scientists of 2195 that Kate’s Commander was executed in a government purge after her escape. His high rank notwithstanding, Commander Fred’s peers suspected him of aiding in Kate’s getaway, and of possibly feeding her state secrets to boot. When they searched his home, no doubt they discovered all that contraband – retro issues of Vogue and Cosmo, women’s clothing circa 1976, etc. – that was supposed to have been destroyed on his own government’s orders. Off with his head! (The patriarchy devours penises too, dontchaknow!)

Under a fundamentalist dictatorship’s thumb, we are all victims. “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”, indeed.


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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