The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists

August 29th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part six 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.

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

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 07)

This blamer was just a wee little babycake when Margaret Atwood was penning The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet twenty-plus years later, the characters and political climate still ring true. Has our society progressed so little?

Serena Joy, who receives relatively little attention in The Handmaid’s Tale, is perhaps the most engrossing character aside from Kate. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Beverly LaHaye, Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly (she of “it is legally, morally, and technically impossible for husbands to rape their wives, because women have consented to a lifetime of sex-on-demand through marriage” fame) and the like. In “the days before”, Serena Joy was an evangelical preacher on the teevee. The type of woman who made a living by scolding other women for working outside the home. In other words, a hypocrite:

She put her cigarette out, half smoked, in a little scrolled ashtray on the lamp table beside her. She did this decisively, one jab and one grind, not the series of genteel taps favored by many of the Wives.

As for my husband, she said, he’s just that. My husband. I want that to be perfectly clear. Till death do us part. It’s final. […]

It’s one of the things we fought for, said the Commander’s Wife, and suddenly she wasn’t looking at me, she was looking down at her knuckled, diamond-studded hands, and I knew where I’d seen her before. […]

Serena Joy was never her real name, not even then. Her real name was Pam. I read that in a profile on her, in a news magazine, long after I’d first watched her singing while my mother slept in on Sunday mornings. By that time she was worthy of a profile: Time or Newsweek it was, it must have been. She wasn’t singing anymore by then, she was making speeches. She was good at it. Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay at home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.

Around that time, someone tried to shoot her and missed; her secretary, who was standing right beside her, was killed instead. Someone else planted a bomb in her car but it went off too early. Though some people said she’d put the bomb in her own car, for sympathy. That’s how hot things were getting.

Luke and I would watch her sometimes on the late-night news. Bathrobes, nightcaps. We’d watch her sprayed hair and her hysteria, and the tears she could still produce at will, and the mascara blackening her cheeks. By that time she was wearing more makeup. We thought she was funny. Or Luke thought she was funny. I only pretended to think so. Really she was a little frightening. She was in earnest.

She doesn’t make speeches anymore. 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.

Serena Joy squandered her freedom; she wasted her rights and liberties (hard won by actual feminists before her) to fight for the oppression of her own kind. Now that she’s gotten her wish, it’s a hollow sort of satisfaction: confined to the home with little else to do but knit, garden and gossip with the other Wives, she’s not even allowed an opinion on how her own Biblical vision has played out. She is powerless, voiceless, speechless.

Are you listening, Beverly LaHaye, Ann Coulter, Phyllis Schlafly, et al.?

While Serena Joy’s own success in mixing church and state eventually made an honest woman out of her, the Commander is a Gileadean hypocrite of the highest order. Like his Wife, he fought hard to outlaw everything deemed sinful by The Sons of Jacob and other like-minded evangelicals: unchaste, immodest and insufficiently pious magazines, newspapers, books, television shows, movies, clothing, cosmetics, furniture, even. All prohibited items were supposed to have been burned, destroyed, annihilated. Yet, like many high-ranking men, the Commander has a secret stash of contraband; stored in his home office, natch. (So much for the “sanctity of the home”, eh?)

The Commander entices Kate with forbidden games of Scrabble, retro issues of Esquire and Ms.; books, even. While he ostensibly does so in order to buoy Kate’s spirits (the previous Offred hung herself from the chandelier), the Commander also derives a perverse sense of pleasure from watching Kate engage in prohibited, “deviant” acts:

While I read, the Commander sits and watches me doing it, without speaking but also without taking his eyes off me. This watching is a curious sexual act, and I feel undressed while he does it. I wish he would turn his back, stroll around the room, read something himself. Then perhaps I could relax more, take my time. As it is, this illicit reading of mine seems a kind of performance.

In forbidding even mundane acts such as reading, Gilead has endowed them with erotic undertones. Here, the Commander derives sexual pleasure by “corrupting” Kate intellectually. Given his views on men, women and social structures, this is a fairly blatant case of hypocrisy.

More blatant still is the “field trip” to Jezebel’s, which is undertaken specifically for the Commander’s pleasure. The Commander, you see, isn’t the only man in Gilead to violate his own social rules; everyone who’s anyone does it (well, everyone who’s anyone butnotwithavagina). Jezebel’s is a “whorehouse”, a secret “boy’s club” located within Gilead’s borders; it’s a way station for the uppity women (the pretty ones, that is) before they arrive at their final destination, The Colonies. Some were “working girls” in “the days before”; others were professionals, social workers, lawyers and the like. At Jezebel’s, they entertain the Commanders, as well as foreign dignitaries and investors, both sexually and intellectually. After all, they rarely receive either type of stimulation from their own Wives. Yet, this was of the men’s own choosing, was it not?

After a few months of secret rendezvouses in his home office, the Commander ferrets Kate away to Jezebel’s for the night. While most of the women are in-house residents – Jezebels – a few are “rentals”, temporary dates “imported” by Commanders for an evening. Kate masquerades as a rental, donning a “glittering and theatrical” number, “an old theater costume, or something from a vanished nightclub act”, a handful of mauve and pink feathers, purple sequins. A garish approximation of what women wore to “go out” in “the days before.” All the women at Jezebel’s are wearing these outfits: cheerleaders, Playboy bunnies, French maids. They are sin, forbidden, as are the drugs and liquor given to the Jezebels in order to keep them submissive and dependent.

After dressing Kate up like “The Whore of Babylon” and showing off his “date” at Jezebel’s, the Commander rapes her in one of the rooms above the club. He’s not supposed to have sex with rape her outside of the Ceremony.

I guess rules are made to be broken, no? If you have a penis, that is.

Pen Is Envy.

Upon their arrival at Jezebel’s, the Commander justifies his unequal, gender-biased standards to Kate thusly:

“I thought this sort of thing was strictly forbidden,” I say.

“Well, officially,” he says. “But everyone’s human, after all.”

I wait for him to elaborate on this, but he doesn’t, so I say, “What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t cheat Nature,” he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything, so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different cloths, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new on each day.” […]

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.” This is irony, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.

“It solves a lot of problems,” he says, without a twitch.

Though conservatives like to slur feminists as man-hates, it is the Commander’s anti-feminist philosophy which is truly misandrous: men cannot control their libidos, so all of society must suffer. (And suffer it has; aside from the oppression of women, non-whites, homosexuals, liberals and religious minorities, Gilead is in the midst of a Civil War, complete with food shortages, economic woes and countless needlessly dead soldiers.)

Also of note is how women’s supposed biological roles as mothers tie them to Gilead’s strict social rules, while men’s procreative imperatives free them from these same rules. Why even pretend to constrain the menfolk with rules in the first place?

Because, in addition to the myriad “isms” already mention, Gilead is also a classist society; only the upper-class, privileged men are granted leave from Gilead’s oppressive laws:

Why do you have this? I asked him.

Some of us, he said, retain an appreciation for the old things.

But these were supposed to have been burned, I said. There were house-to-house searches, bonfires…

What’s dangerous in the hands of multitudes, he said, with what may or may not have been irony, is safe enough for those whose motives are…

Beyond reproach, I said.

Again, the Commander’s hypocrisy shines through, as does the damage done to men at the hands of The Patriarchy.


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)

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists”

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Intro & Plot Summary » V for Vegan: Says:

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

Leave a Reply