Feminists, please stop watching The Handmaid's Tale.


Feminists, please stop watching The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was published in an "unburnable" edition by Penguin Random House in May of this year. Atwood was seen celebrating by torching the copy, which later sold for $40,000 and the money went to PEN America. The performance seemed fairly underwhelming. What was it exactly that was not burning? The book itself, which is brilliantly dark and politically dubious, or what it has come to represent? A TV show, a crimson cape, and the feminist movement losing its sense of reality. Are those actually terrifying to anyone?

The outfits from Atwood's 1985 novel have become recognisable over the previous five years. The handmaid's cape has become "one of the most potent current emblems of feminist protest," according to the Guardian, as a result of the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent release of the TV adaption.

Being a feminist, I adore the book. But I'm tired of seeing the cape and, along with it, the notion that Atwood's writing can be read as a commentary on contemporary gender dynamics. It now serves as a means of misrepresenting them both.

Offred is the primary character of the narrative, and while dressing up as her is a common trend worldwide, liberal feminists in the US have made it a special emblem of their pro-choice movement. Vanity Fair speculated in 2018 that "these dissenters in eerie cloaks and hats might not restore Roe v. Wade," but they "do present a continual, scary reminder to Washington, D.C. that women are watching."

Red-clad protesters gathered outside Amy Coney Barrett's home in May of this year in response to a leak that suggested Roe v. Wade would be overturned. It's possible that "scary cloaks" don't have the same authority as the supreme court. However, as one "handmaid" stated, "this is performance art; we're not protesting."

A movement is down, and I don't want to kick it. However, I wonder whether existing strategies are assisting or impeding. This is feminism that is running away from reality; it is not feminism that uses storytelling as a creative outlet. It may not be the cause of the current crisis, but mainstream, US-centric feminism's plunge into fantasy — and its shame of any woman who keeps a toehold in material reality — is impeding the development of cohesion in resistance.

One advantage of the handmaid's attire, according to some, is that protesters don't have to speak when wearing it. We are protected from words like woman, female, biology, sex, and gender. We utilise symbols without realising that once you become the symbol, it no longer serves any symbolic purpose. The red cape has completely replaced the role of a critique rather than serving as a shorthand for it.

The growth of Handmaid's Tale feminism has coincided with an unparalleled curtailment of reproductive rights in America, which organisations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL have vehemently (and correctly) resisted. However, these organisations have also worked to limit the terminology that women can use to describe their situation, with NARAL telling us that "not just women" require abortions.

It's trans males, AFAB non-binary persons, cis women, and other uterus owners, therefore of course it's not. Plus, the adult human ladies from Atwood's Gilead, it is all of them. For whatever reason, "handmaid" is a more appropriate pronoun for the person who requires an abortion than "woman." You might find it simpler to defend fictional characters than actual people when you can't even say who conceives.

This has nothing to do with the content of the book itself or Atwood's own views on the current gender conversation (she recently "taught" us about the "flowing bell curve" of gender using transsexual fish, gay penguins, and slug sex, according to Pink News). Good literature thrives outside of the author's precepts; it can and often does challenge established hierarchies, but it does not dictate.

Feminist analysis has been strengthened by literary scholarship, and feminist analysis has played a significant role in literary scholarship. The Handmaid's Tale is a work worth reading because it raises more questions than it provides solutions in addition to its rigorous examination of difficult subjects like complicity vs force, the allure of adaptability, the boundaries of sisterhood, and feminism itself.

Offred is the main character in the story, but there are other women in it as well, including other handmaidens, Marthas, aunts, wives, econowives, unwomen, and Jezebel's employees. These women are all negotiating a new normal on their own terms. It is still unclear whether episodic assault, as opposed to organised, systematic abuse, is the most that women may expect.

Better never equals better for everyone, to quote the Commander. For some, it always means worse. This can be interpreted as the patriarch offering his typical justifications or as one of the major challenges to attaining an intersectional feminism. The book's greatest merits lie in this simultaneous occurrence of unrelenting horror and ambiguous ideologies, as well as the brutal truths that even the worst characters speak.

The draining away of this nuance is what has happened to The Handmaid's Tale as a current cultural phenomenon. According to the protests, you would have assumed that the novel was only about Christian rights and abortion. However, Handmaid's Tale feminism claims that the antagonists of the story neatly correspond to "our" antagonists, and vice versa. It spares us all the trouble of having to think, let alone the danger of having to empathise with the other.

The worst aspect of the attack on Roe v. Wade, in the eyes of an elite element of the Left, is that it makes the sex-based oppression of women so obviously visible. This simplification and distortion fill that need. If you subscribe to the notion that admitting the existence of biologically feminine persons identifies you as a fascist, this is politically embarrassing.

With Handmaid's Tale feminism, every feminist analysis that considers sex difference is called into question by the uniqueness of a made-up scenario. By insisting that the Republic of Gilead's views on women are an exact replica of those of the modern US right, the current abortion crisis is turned into a debate about economic concerns, religious fundamentalism, and other topics unrelated to the nature of female bodies and how they differ from those of men.

Women, however, "are not an afterthought of nature, they are not subsidiary participants in human destiny, and every culture has always realised that," Atwood said in a recent forward to the book. Human populations will eventually become extinct without reproductively capable women. Left and right may dispute about the best ways to carry out this exploitation of female bodies as a resource, but all sides contribute.

Any discussion of the rise of commercial surrogacy is the Handmaid's Tale feminism's most obvious omission. The non-believing, pro-surrogacy Left is undoubtedly doing the most to legitimise women's status as "two-legged wombs" if we are to draw parallels between the specific ways in which handmaids are exploited and modern reproductive injustice.

The left's pick-and-mix reconstruction of patriarchy, in which female bodies may be rented out piecemeal in the name of choice, mirrors Gilead's separation between econowives who are "not separated into functions" and the more complex hierarchy of wives, handmaids, and underground sex workers. If you treat a person as an "ambulatory vessel" in the name of upending or reinstating the conventional family, or whether you force her to wear red, it doesn't really matter to the vessel herself.

Handmaid's Tale feminism is currently devouring itself, as is the way with a feminism that is no longer about or for women. According to the Washington DC Women's March in 2021, handmaid outfits promote "greater fragmentation, frequently around race and class." The red cape has also been criticised for being overly protective.

While "Black Lives Matter T-shirts advocate an America that cherishes black lives in a way it never has before," according to arts journalist Alina Cohen, the women's movement is currently challenged to come up with an equally pithy, visually arresting symbology for the society we do want. The issue is that without a positive definition of women as a foundation, it is impossible to advocate for women. Women may only ever be shown as perpetually on the defensive handmaidens.

Even while I dislike its imperialist tendencies, I don't want to be too critical of the feminism that is primarily North American in origin. This may seem overly harsh coming from a nation like TERF island, where surrogate moms still have rights and may access free abortion and paid maternity leave. The fictional "Historical Notes" that follow Offred's story do, however, include a reference to "the different Save the Women groups, of which there were several in the British Isles at that time." (I bet Mumsnet is where they got started.) That is one detail I can support if reality is forced into fiction.

Atwood, brandishing a blowtorch, has happily supported the devaluation of her own work. Regardless of her aspirations for promotion, I don't think it really matters because she cannot erase her own genius. My concern is not with her book, but with the sloganeering that has been associated with it. Feminism as shown in The Handmaid's Tale may not burn to death, but that's only because it never existed in the first place.

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