Karen Swallow Prior wrote an interesting take on the Handmaid’s Tale called, Dystopia by Proof Texting. She speaks of scripture being taken out of context, of biblical hermeneutics gone awry.
Well yes, but that does not go nearly far enough, that does not capture the often missed qualities of the Handmaid’s Tale, qualities that perhaps even Margaret Atwood herself did not see. Gilead, rather than Christian fundamentalism backed by state power, is actually the matriarchy realized. It is complete freedom, unrestrained by anything resembling traditional values.
The Handmaid’s Tale speaks the truth about the nature of matriarchy, about the contradiction between the feminist desire to overthrow the patriarchy, to redesign our family structures, to create an imaginary utopia where things are ordered in a way we find more pleasing. The inherent conflict between freedom and feminine empowerment versus complete totalitarianism. It is a novel that does not even see the nature of its own feminine self.
Gilead is the very essence of matriarchal totalitarianism. I recognized it the moment I saw it and Atwood is to be credited for leading me to begin questioning feminist, to start challenging the narratives that were being written, are being written today.
Margaret Atwood is often associated with the quote “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” There is some truth in that saying about the nature of our fears, but it leaves off the other part, the biological truth and harsh nature of reality that just screams at us silently throughout the whole novel, nothing stands between women and the State of Gilead but the love, honor and protection of men. Gilead is what life is like without them.
Gilead, rather than a patriarchal fantasy cloaked in religious fundamentalism, is actually a matriarchal fantasy, one that toys with the nature of feminine power, not unlike 50 Shade of Gray did. People tend to miss the essence of that tale too, distracted by the porn and poor writing, but lurking beneath the masochism of 50 Shades is the triumph (and sadness) of having overpowered, conquered, reformed this wounded and broken man. Her love alone allegedly saves him, changes him, heals him. It’s very heady stuff, intellectual porn rather than carnal. She herself of course, needs no healing, has no issues, never even thinks to begin to question the nature of her own self….
Margaret Atwood’s novel does much the same thing, but with far more literary skill. The Handmaid’s Tale refuses to see the nature of its own self, it perceives itself as a hapless victim of religious fundamentalism, of a regime, and never realizes that the hands who enforce the oppression are always female hands, and that all hope of rescue, of resistance, of freedom, are always hidden in the men.
This latest version of the Handmaid’s Tale will be touted as an important warning against Trump’s America, yep right on schedule, and it will be perceived as a rallying cry for reproductive rights, for opposition to Christian fundamentalism, a warning against patriarchy and oppression, but those things are all boring, superficial, they’ve been said and done a thousand times. What is far more interesting is what lies beneath the surface, the secrets revealed about the nature of feminine power, the paradox between believing that what women need is more power and control, versus the stubborn truth of what unrestrained power and control in our hands really looks like.
I always find it so fascinating that our feminist heroes are always in a state of perpetual victimhood, of oppression, of complete powerlessness. That is no accident either, that reveals yet another secret desire of the feminine heart, to be unburdened by the world’s responsibilities and cares, to actually simply submit to a Higher Authority.
Submission hardwired right into us. That Higher Authority is not necessarily men by the way, but there is wisdom in knowing the essence of the never-ending internal conflict, men tend to avoid responsibility when they should be picking it up, and women tend to pick it up when we should be setting it down.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.