Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood is the favourite feminist horror novel among the women of my generation. The author describes society after a Right-wing Christian extremist coup in the United States, in which women have become the legal property of men. Interestingly, the rationale the author offers for the regime’s emergence is a racist one, not a sexist one, but oddly enough, black people are almost never mentioned; the Handmaid’s Tale is very much a novel about white people. This, as I shall argue below, is somewhat strange.

The idea, we find out only at the very end of the novel, is that white-supremacist elements in the Establishment were worried about the fact that the non-white birth-rate in the United States was so much higher than the white birth-rate, so they decided to implement a eugenics program to breed more white people. In order to do this, they staged a political coup and seized power, and implemented a regime in which women were legally classified as the property of men. Any white woman who is deemed by the regime to have led a less than moral life before the coup is re-classed as a ‘handmaid’, or concubine to a ‘commander’, a male member of the ruling regime. A handmaid is expected to become pregnant by the Commander and deliver a white baby, but they are only permitted a very limited number of copulations. It seems that any form of artificial insemination is outlawed, because it is never mentioned. The Commanders are all elderly, and their ability to impregnate a woman naturally is therefore severely limited. The Handmaid, predictably, gets the blame for not getting pregnant quickly enough, and after doing a short tour of duty with three different commanders, if she is still not pregnant, she is sent to ‘the radiation pits’ to clean up nuclear waste without any protection. In other words, she is killed.

The novel is undoubtedly a horror story aimed at white middle-class women. The horror derives largely from the setting of the novel; as with ‘1984’, it is the society forming the background to the events of the plot rather than the plot itself which is important, as the events of the plot can only be understood with respect to the context of the setting. However, I will argue that, unlike 1984, this setting is completely incoherent.

The Setting
I would like to discuss the question of where political sovereignty lies in the society created by the author; as a novel set in a feminist anti-utopia, this is an important question. The society is intended by the author to be a ‘Patriarchy’, a word which is normally taken to be the rule of men, but technically means the rule of the father. The rule of men would be ‘andrarchy’, but there is no such word in English. The society in which the novel takes place is certainly not an ‘andrarchy’, however, because most of the men in the society, as indeed in our own, have no political authority whatsoever, have little or no control over their own lives, and do not seem to benefit from the regime in any tangible way. Their lives seem to consist mainly of military service and hard work with very little reward.

The only men who have any authority are the ‘Commanders’, an elite group of elderly rich men, who constitute only a tiny proportion of the male population. However, they have to share some of their authority with their wives, as is evidenced by the fact that wives are always present while the Commanders are having sex with their handmaids. We are specifically told by one of the Commanders’ wives ‘This was something we had to fight long and hard for’. We can, therefore, reasonably speculate on what other concessions the Commanders wives could have won for themselves, but the fact that they exerted control over this one issue shows that they wielded considerable power in the regime. In a perfect Patriarchy, if they had demanded anything, they would simply have been slapped down; they would have got nothing. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to imagine some Commanders in a perfect Patriarchy simply having their aged and inconvenient wives shot in order to make way for a small harem of youthful slave-concubines, if sexual gratification is what they were after. However, it seems that in the novel, the Commanders were unable to do this. Of course, it might be that the case that the whole rationale for the Handmaid system was something other than the Commanders’ sexual gratification, but if so, then I cannot imagine what, because it served no function in a eugenics program, as I shall argue below.

In conclusion, then, as black people and almost all white men and women had no share of sovereignty whatsoever, and ruling class men were forced to share sovereignty with ruling class women, the society portrayed cannot be a pure Patriarchy. It is in fact a kind of oligarchy, which is the rule of a (usually self-appointed and self-perpetuating) minority. In other words, a system of sovereignty much like our own - however, in this case, the Oligarchy consists of extremist Right-wing racist and Christian elements in the government, corporate, military and religious communities.

The Eugenic Program
As I mentioned above, the whole justification for the regime, and therefore the setting of the novel, and ultimately the novel itself, is a eugenic breeding program to maximise the white birth-rate. However, this program as described is hopelessly ineffectual. In order to properly understand why, it is necessary to think about what such a program would have to consist of.

The birth-rate depends on what some anthropologists call the ‘reproductive potential’ of the community, which is the number of reproductively-healthy females in the population. In the case of humans, this means the number of women of child-bearing age (i.e. post-pubescent and pre-menopausal) in the population. As each woman can only produce one child per year on average, the maximum number of babies the community can produce in a year is roughly equal to the number of women of child-bearing age. The reproductive potential of the community does not depend on the number of men, because in a year, one healthy man could potentially father hundreds of babies; we could remove several percent of the adult male population from the community, as we have done many times in the past through war, without affecting its reproductive potential significantly. When it comes to reproduction, women are the limiting factor.

If you want to change the demographic mix of the population to artificially increase the proportion of one ethnic group over another, and you are absolutely without scruple, there are two things you can do:
(1) You can organise a eugenic program to breed more of the people you do want.
(2) You can use military force to exterminate some or all of the people you don’t want.

Fascists may be evil, but they are not all stupid. Any self-respecting fascist is going to undertake both of these measures at the same time, and pursue them using all available means. In the case of the Handmaid’s Tale, the entire economic, technological, military and industrial might of the world’s most powerful country would be brought to bear on the problem, and so it is likely that a significant impact could be made on the population demographics in a relatively short time. Measures taken might include some or all of the following:

Part 1 (Eugenics)
• The outlawing of racially-mixed marriages.
• The outlawing of contraception, abortion and homosexuality in the white community.
• Fertility treatment offered to white women.
• White women prohibited from smoking, drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
• Compulsory health and fitness program for white women.
• National awards given to white women who have had the greatest number of children.
• White ‘handmaids’, or concubines, to be awarded to young white men for military prowess or other service to the state.
• Sperm to be compulsorily harvested from the most physically fit young white men and used to artificially inseminate white women.
• Compulsory medical examinations for white women who fail to become pregnant after a specified time.

Part 2 (Extermination)
• The introduction of military conscription for all white men.
• The complete banning of the ownership or use of weapons in the non-white community.
• The forcing of the non-white population into ghettos surrounded by a militarily secure perimeter. Anyone trying to leave to be shot on sight.
• White military death squads to mop up any other non-white people in the countryside.
• If there is dangerous work to be done, such as cleaning up radiation, the obvious thing is to force non-white slave-workers to do it.
• The non-white ghettos to be exterminated by military means, such as aerial fire-bombing.

There are plenty of historical precedents one could draw upon in designing such a program. This would be something approaching a realistic program to achieve the ends described in the novel. However, let us consider the measures actually taken by the regime.

Women on the breeding program.
If the regime really wanted to embark on a eugenic breeding program, it did a remarkably poor job of organising it. This is a government which sends young white women to certain death in the ‘radiation pits’. How is that going to raise the white birth-rate? The regime, rather than trying to maximise the white community’s reproductive potential as we might expect, is deliberately reducing it! This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

There were other classes of women apart from handmaids, for example, ‘Marthas’, who acted as cooks and housekeepers to the ruling class. It is implied in the book that most of these women were sexually inactive. So, as a proportion of the population, very few women were on the breeding program in any case. It would make far more sense to mobilise the entire white female population to child-rearing.

Men on the breeding program
The idea of only assigning handmaids to Commanders was also nonsensical. To have frail old men as the only men on the program was self-defeating. A possible rationale might be that as most of the authority lay with Commanders, they decided to give themselves Handmaids for their own sexual gratification, but this view is contradicted by the fact that the Commanders had almost no opportunity to derive any sexual gratification from their handmaids. I think part of the real explanation is the long-standing feminist love-affair with the idea of male sexual impotence. Perhaps the author wanted to portray heterosexual sex as a sad and seedy affair. It could also be a plot device to make the Hand-maids’ job of getting pregnant more difficult, and therefore increase the horror of their situation.

In short, there were very few people actually on the program, and only men of the lowest quality in the entire male population. As for the other side of the fascist eugenic coin, extermination, there was absolutely no sign of it. As I mentioned at the beginning, black people barely get a mention in the entire novel. As a eugenic program, then, this is hopelessly misconceived, and doomed to almost certain failure. However, if she had described a more plausible one, such as the one outlined above, her society would not then have been a sexist hell, but a racist one. In order to write her novel, the author needed to contrive an excuse for creating a feminist anti-utopia, and in my view, she failed. Basically, she couldn’t come up with any plausible reason why anyone would want to do the things that she wanted her characters to do, and I have to admit, neither can I.

There is a scene in the handmaid’s training camp, where most of the guards are women. We are told 'The nazis also used to use women against women'. This is interesting because female nazi guards are forgiven. They weren't nazis themselves, they are merely 'being used' by nazis. It's somehow not their fault that they are concentration camp guards. Of course the same thing would never be said of any male guard, conscript or not. Feminists insist on women's status as innocent bystanders and victims. Even when women are perpetrators, they are somehow still the victims. Even when men are the victims they are somehow still the perpetrators. Luckily, the judges at Nuremberg didn’t take this view, and convicted many female guards.

The one man in the novel who is portrayed as being sympathetic to women’s rights gets kicked to death by a group of them. Most of them do it because they hate him, but one more reflective individual does it as an act of mercy.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is political pornography for white middle-class Western women, in which they are given permission to hate men, feel sorry for themselves, and take violent revenge. No wonder it sold so well.


jw said...

I've long been concerned that there is real risk of Attwood's dystopia coming true.

As misandry and discrimination against males grows, more and more males are withdrawing from interactions with society. As males withdraw, we have fewer and fewer men to stand against a totalitarian regime.

Thus, we stand an improved chance of a totalitarian group taking control.

My thinking is we could go in several different directions:

A) Into a full blown Matriarchy with males defined under law as workers.

B) Into some form of radical theocracy.

C) Into some form of dangerous Patriarchy with females defined as "mothers."

D) Into some form of rightist oligarchy.

These have the greatest threat value.

I will not make a prediction. I will say that if we do not start taking male withdrawal SERIOUSLY we will arrive at a culture we do not want.

Nilk said...

Way back in the day, I read The Handmaid's Tale.

I'm proud to say, as a feminist, that it made sfa sense to me then, and my view of it now is as a confused waste of paper.

I am a long way from being a Feminist; I am more than aware of the discrimination against men in our western society and the agendas of our so-called "feminist" ideologues.

I don't have any solution to offer, unfortunately. Just know that I'm on your side. :)

bdfytoday said...

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Anonymous said...

just a couple if points: the 'children of ham' as black people are refered to in the novel were forced to leave as were the jews,

secondly, they used the commanders because they were the model males as they helped to create gilead, also i think it mentions the fact that the eyes also get handmaids.

lastly i think anti-utopias are generaly refered to as dystopias

Jose said...

Personally, I'd considered the idea that the sex is actually one of the many displays of power by the government. The fact that none of the involved parties enjoyed the sex and that the chances of conception were so low said to me that the sex was clearly not about pleasure or procreation, but more about making the handmaids and Commanders do something they don't enjoy.

By making the handmaids partake in sex they were further putting them down, and making them easier to control. At the same time, they were creating a type of "class indicator" for the Commanders, or almost a reward system. This may also make the Commander's easier to control.

That was just my take on the whole thing. You raised some very excellent points about the ceremony, it really made me think about it in a new light. Thanks. :)