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Male neutrality and female bodies in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Book cover of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 before I was born, yet even today this novel holds an extremely terrifying place in contemporary politics surrounding women’s bodies and bodily autonomy. The red and white aesthetic of the handmaids in Atwood’s novel has become protest colours across the U.S. and the world at large.

The novel is extremely disturbing. Reading this as a woman I could not help but feel simultaneously fearful and rage-filled. The novel is dystopian and is written in the form of an oral diary that has been transcribed for a history conference from the year 2195. The ending of the novel discusses the veracity of the recount and reliability of the narrator. It questions the plot holes in the narrative and the overall history of the formation of Gilead.

As many people have already read the novel and/or seen the T.V. series based on Atwood’s novel, rather than focus on plot reductions I wanted to look at the neutrality and often times indifference of men in Atwood’s novel. For me, one of the most bone-chilling moments in the novel is when Ofglen talks about the time leading up to the formation of the Republic of Gilead. Banks around New England suspend women’s accounts and transfer all of the women’s money to their husbands or next-male-of-kin. This moment for me was horrifying not just because female financial autonomy is taken away in one fell swoop, but that Ofglen’s partner before Gilead, Luke, brushes off the political act and says that he will look after Ofglen. On the surface of this statement, one could deduce that Luke is trying to comfort Ofglen, yet digging a little below the surface of it, Luke’s indifference and apolitical response to the removal of Ofglen’s financial autonomy exposes Luke’s position of power as a male within the community. His ability to be casual and indifferent shows that he is untouched and unbothered by these laws.

When Gilead is formed, the men in the community are also politically indifferent and neutral towards the plight of women. The commander tells Ofglen countless times that it is the commanders’ wives that make the decisions for the female community. When men wipe their hand’s clean of the ‘women’s problems’ they are at the same time trivialising the plight of women and showing extreme apathy. The women become hyper-vigilant in the Republic of Gilead internalising all the misogyny of the community and using it to police other female bodies. The hatred, mistrust, and abuse other women dish out to one another is a testament to such insidious growths of misogyny in communities.

So whilst this neutrality is the pinnacle of male privilege, what is the message that this book is trying to give? It shows that in order to truly support and protect discriminated groups of people, those with power and privilege cannot stay neutral. Men are needed in movements in feminism just like straight activists are needed in LGBTQIA+ rights movements. When we say that something doesn’t directly affect us and therefore we don’t need to do anything about it, the silence condones the oppression. As for women policing other women, it feels to me at times like a warped collective Stockholm syndrome where women are trying to compete for the love of their oppressor. Newsflash, in a world of misogyny and the Republic of Gilead, you will always be secondary. The power women hold in the novel seems all-mighty, yet the truth is that the power of these women only functions in a society where male power, apathetic to women or otherwise, is still above all else.

In today’s society, we are seeing debates arise again about women’s bodies in particular to abortion rights and I would urge people to be informed. I remember talking with someone who said they were pro-life and were definitely against all forms of abortion especially late-term abortions, but had never heard of Savita Halappanavar and the tragic loss of her life in 2013 because medical staff refused to save her life, by giving her a late-term abortion, after her child died in her womb. Savita died of blood poisoning and left behind a husband and living children. The reasons for female bodily autonomy are varied and include political, legal, medical, scientific, and personal facts and reasons. Even if your pro-life stance is based on religion, it has been long established in most Western countries that church and state should be separated.

Today’s post is tough to write about and thinking about the viability of Atwood’s Republic of Gilead breaks my heart. However, Atwood has also armed countless women and men around the world with a new fire that burns even today 35 years after she wrote her novel. As always, share the reading love.

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One thought on “Male neutrality and female bodies in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

  1. Pingback: Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments”: did we need this sequel? | bound2books