Monday, April 30, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale

I always feel utterly terrible when a week passes without a post being written.  Unfortunately, I've been busy.  Finals snuck up on me, along with lots of work, and a small nightmare of things to do other than post writing.  And it isn't just my blog that's suffering:  my novel is completely stalled on Chapter 2, mid-sentence in fact.  I haven't been drunk in a week!  What has gone wrong with my life??

"The Handmaid's Tale" is a 1985 dystopian future novel written by Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.  I just happened to be digging through the back catalog of titles in my Kindle*, and "Handmaid's Tale" was there.  I've been meaning to read that book for about five years now, even since I went through a small dystopia craze in high school after reading "1984".  I actually bought Atwood's novel right after reading over my review of "Atlas Shrugged", since I wanted to read a dystopian SciFi novel that didn't - to use a complex academic literary phrase - suck.  Now I've seen dystopia based on total government control of the mind, and dystopia based on bureaucratic inefficiency, and dystopia based on the Internet destroying all ability to think, and even Ayn Rand's dystopia based on hilarious unbelievable stupidity, but "Handmaid's Tale" is probably the scariest of them all.  Because I happened to be reading it right at the same time that the media was blaring about a War on Women.  Its one thing to read "Feed" and think "wow, a lot of teenagers today really don't use the Internet to best of its possibilities and wallow in their own ignorance".  But its another thing to read a dystopian novel about the future slavery of women right when idiotic Republicans around the country keep passing anti-abortion laws of every flavor.

Essentially the plot of "The Handmaid's Tale" is my darkest political nightmare:  the United States has been overthrown and replaced with a fundamentalist theocracy.  Al-Qaeda hasn't conquered us, but you might think that they have on first reading.  Right-wing Christianity has completely outlawed all gender freedom.  Women must serve either as maids, stern elderly matrons, wives, or walking incubators that exist only for procreation.  The unnamed narrator is a walking uterus essentially.  She belongs to a caste known as "Handmaids" for no particular reason that I know of.  Freedom of speech is gone, freedom of religion is gone, freedom of choice is gone, you must serve your job without question or be executed and hung-up on a wall for all to see.  Basically Rick Santorum masturbates to this book.

Since Margaret Atwood is big on feminism, I guess I should point out to those who haven't figured it out by now:  I'm male.  And I'm typically of the opinion that feminism has won and that gender equality should naturally form in the next few generations without much drastic action needing to be taken.  Unless of course Right-wingers get in the way, but that's another story.  I wouldn't ever call myself a "feminist".  I may have in fact said some things that feminists might hate me for, whatever.  I regularly watch "Queen's Blade", sue me.

What's interesting is that "Handmaid's Tale"'s backstory begins in a society where the sexual liberation movement has won, and won big.  Pornography is everywhere, prostitution is fully legal, sex sells and it sells big.  The narrator comes from a place of deep feminism:  her mom and her best friend are pretty radical.  In fact, her mom seems to have totally cut the narrator off from her father, and its never explained if he wanted that situation.  The feminists hated pornography since they viewed it as the cultural objectification of women.  The fundamentalist hated pornography because they're fucking fundamentalists, they hate everything.  When the fundamentalists come to power, the narrator does nothing when the pornographers are secretly killed.  But she has a problem with the situation once America turns into the Taliban and she can no longer own property or keep a job.  I'm not even sure where Atwood's fundamentalists are getting their opinions on Christianity, its about the least Biblical Christianity I've ever seen.  They just have to make things up whole cloth in order to get their Taliban.  Then things get even worse, because her husband is a divorcee, and their marriage is annulled.  Now the narrator is shipped off to become a Handmaid.

The books gets even more disturbing when you learn what a Handmaid's actually job is.  Of course they're shipped to some upper class officer of the Republic of Gilead, America's new name.  They cannot speak to anybody but their immediate households, they must constantly walk with an assign buddy Handmaid who will report any seditious activity to the Secret Police, the Eyes of God.  And when its time for them to do their duty for the Republic, they have sex with the officer with their cloths on, while the wife watches in the most comical yet frightening display of human sexuality I've ever seen.  And I've watched clown porn.

"Handmaid's Tale" is told entirely from first-person, so you never get to see the full scope of the kingdom.  The narrator herself admits that she may be unreliable, since she's telling everything from memory and often glosses over details.  She can never know what's really going on:  is the Republic winning the war against various other sectarian sects, is it losing?  Is her five-year-old daughter okay?  Is her husband alive?  The book is also written in steam-of-consciousness, shifting from the present to the narrator's life in what we'd recognize as the actual America, and to her miserable period being trained in Handmaid School by sadist nuns.  The narrator is never joins any resistance movements or even learns to truly hate the people directly oppressing her.  She can't help but be sympathetic to everybody's misery around her.  The wife of her master was a former fire-brand fundamentalist on TV, but when women lost all rights she lost her place in society.  She got exactly what she wished for, and hates it.  The narrator's commander is racked by double-think and is desperate for intelligent female companionship.  On some level, the guy just wants somebody to play Scrabble with.  On another level, he's a monster supporting the Gilead Taliban.

Now what makes this all scary is that women's rights are actually being attacked in this country right now.  I wanted to write a quick paragraph here about all the crazy laws Republicans are passing around the country, but I don't even know where to start.  Its that bad.  Like there's those laws that force women to have transvaginal ultrasounds - which means that they are penetrated by medical equipment - if they want to have an abortion, this based upon no medical science of any kind.  There are all kinds of laws this year that let doctors hide information from patients that want abortions, or they can refuse them treatment.  There's everything that cuts down on funding for Planned Parenthood and funding for birth control, which is especially bad for poor women who cannot afford any other way.  The Protect Life Act allows hospitals the right to refuse LIFE SAVING TREATMENT if that treatment happens to be an abortion.  Santorum hates abortion so much that he'd force women to have kids even in the event of rape or incest.  But I've been over why he's such a fucking waste of humanity before, don't need to get into that again.  Wisconsin recently overturned a law enforcing equal pay for men and women.  This is just so insane, I don't know what to think.

I really do try to be centrist in my political beliefs.  But Jesus Christ, can you do something about these morons acting in your name?  Can you please come down and take care of this rabble?

Luckily I don't have to go ahead and say something as radical as '"Handmaid's Tale" is coming true'.  Because that's hyperbole, and its really unwarranted.  Margaret Atwood was writing about the fundamentalist movement of the Eighties, those times have changed.  Women currently make up a huge part of the fundamentalist front lines.  Just got through the names:  Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, etc. etc.  This is the age of Momma Grizzlies fighting the good fight against liberalism.  Feminism has been so successful that even a movement that at its roots despises feminism has been forced to bring women to its forefront.  Do you think Sarah would ever sit quietly in a house while Todd Palin made all her decisions for her?  I really doubt it.  There's also the intellectual contradiction that exists within modern Conservatism anyway.  On the one hand they want government to back off, contract, and let them rule their little homesteads on the prairie their way, without regulation and restriction.  On the other hand, they want to use that government power to stop people from doing things that offend them, like being gay or using birth control.  That contradiction means that we'll never have an American Taliban.  Conservatives have too many guns, they would never allow Secret Police into their homes.  God bless them for that, at least.

Still, its scary stuff.

* Most people have a natural reaction to cry "Oh my god, that's awful" every time I mention that I read books on a Kindle.  Since its a digital book, it represents the dark new age where all paper will be rejected for a glowing screen.  However, they probably have never read off of a Kindle, because generally it is awesome.  The screen is basically entirely opaque, it doesn't even look like a real computer screen.  So it has the proper consistency of paper, meaning you can read it with the same convenience of a paperback novel.  Also, it came with about $150 dollars of credit, which I plan to spend rigorously on various Eco, Sanderson, and Le Guin novels during the summer.

God, its so nice to finally have time to read again...  Don't go to college, kids.


  1. If I remember correctly, Gilead isn't the entire US - it's just a small, unstable nation that's segregated from its surroundings.

    1. We kinda have the Oceania Dilemma with Gilead. The narrator doesn't see far enough to actually describe its borders. Even then, who can be sure of anything in a propaganda police state? Still, this is a theocracy in the Northeast, one of the most consistently liberal regions in the entire country. The historians at the end mention that Gilead collapses pretty fast anyway. Whatever its size, it was apparently responsible for the fall of traditional Western civilization. To the point that somehow upper Canada is now a major academic area.

  2. I hated the ending of 1984, at least from an emotional standpoint. There aren't any problems with it technically, and the tone is consistent, I just hate it when the villains win. Of course, that is more than likely what George Orwell intended the audience to feel.