In the current social climate, women are powerhouses. Previously, there has always been a stigma against women. They have long been seen as lesser than men, their only use being bearing children and cooking and housework. Now, even though we aren’t fully there yet, the playing field is starting to be evened. Upon reading the first seven chapters of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has painted a picture that is damaging to today’s female ideal and yet, somehow, still give the women involved power and personality.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, we see a society that both undermines, and holds at a twisted dystopian high esteem, women in their many different jobs, but at the highest (and lowest) the handmaids. The handmaids are tasked with bearing the child for those who cannot. It’s degrading, and similarly an honor, as the handmaids are chosen because they among the few left who can conceive. They are given to commanders and their wives as property, and are forbade relationships with others, the ability to read or work, or any other basic things women today are given. Gilead treats women’s sexuality as like a weapon. Women have to cover themselves from head to toe and not reveal their sexual feelings. In chapter 4, when Offred catches the attention of the Guardians, she feels that being able to attract them is the only power she has left, and fantasizes about coming to one of them in the night and giving herself to him. Which makes sense, because there’s nothing left. Gilead wants to control women’s bodies, their sex lives, and their reproductive rights. They even hang the bodies of abortionists on the Wall. It’s saying feminists believe that women must have the right to abortion, their own choice, and in Gilead, giving women control of their bodies is a terrifying and dangerous crime. And yet somehow, despite all of this, handmaids are shown respect for their roles, and given some privileges that other women are not.
From the novel alone, it would seem that Atwood isn’t really a fan of women, despite it being the contrary. Gilead was formed in response to the crisis caused by dramatically decreased birth rates, so everything about it is built around a single goal: control of reproduction. The state tackles the problem by taking complete control of women’s bodies. Women cannot vote, work, read, own property, or do anything else that might allow them to become independent undermine the new society. Despite all of Gilead’s pro-women undertones, the society the story builds arounds really makes women seem like objects. They are nothing but their fertility, nothing more than a body, ovaries and a womb. The way Atwood writes Gilead shows that the now patriarchal society seeks to deprive women of their individuality in order to make them silent, non-complaining carriers of the next generation. And of course, this, without further exploration into text and its hidden meanings, would certainly make it seem like Margaret Atwood hates women. But that’s wrong.
According to the Financial Times article, Margaret Atwood doesn’t really connect herself to a particular type of feminism. When asked whether The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist novel, she stated that if you mean an idea that all women are either perfect or immoral, then no, and if you instead mean a novel in which women are portrayed as human beings, then yes. The New Yorker article makes it clear that while writing The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood only included things with a historical or a modern point of comparison. The re-rise in popularity of the book following Trump’s election obviously proves that she accomplished her goal. Her words in The Female Body, a somewhat satirical tribute to the woman and her power, cement her view on feminism; she names everything the female does, everything the female body has to offer, but poses it as if the female is less than the man, when really Atwood knows that she is more. She ends with the understanding that men finally value the female body when they feel like they lack something within themselves. They can never admit that they value women because they fear that they will soon lose it, which is ironic, because you usually need to value something if you want to keep it. Atwood talks feminism throughout this whole essay, emphasizing the degradation that women get daily because of their body. Atwood makes it clear that both men and women should be treated equally because they are both humans. That is Atwood’s true view on feminism.
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