The Handmaid’s Tale is Watching You : The New Cultural Feminist Icon


The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be everywhere at the moment: its on the bookshelves – as the sales of dystopia novels reach record highs; its on the TV with the recent hit show of the same name on America’s Hulu; and its in the click bait on your Facebook newsfeed, dominating every political conversation that remotely touches the political position of women. As someone from the UK I am not yet able to watch the new television drama sensation – Hulu doesn’t cater to the UK *sob* – yet the recent popularity of the story of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to have engulfed so much of social media and current political conversation that watching the actual show or even reading the book seems almost incidental to getting involved with the current craze.

The novel and TV show follow the horrifying tale of Offred, one of the few fertile women left in the wake of a nuclear war who is forced to become a “handmaid”: one of many women who become the property of men and their barren wives and are forced to engage in a ritualistic form of rape so that they might bare children. Despite having a premise that would seem to defy mainstream televisation, the recent show has drummed up huge popularity for what was once a bit of a geeky novel, half-remembered by people from their English Lit A-level or undergrad days at university. Now the liberal arts course favourite has become not only a mainstream popular culture craze, but has come to define the political moment of the Trump administration, as women donned white bonnets and bright red capes during the recent Women’s Marches. The show has elevated the novel’s narrative from dystopian literary classic to an icon of a specific type of popular feminist politics where any action by a man in power that involves women’s issues can be interpreted as a malevolent and considered attempt to oppress women.
The widely shared meme showing a picture of President Trump surrounded by a white male congress signing a bill to limit the funding available to charities overseas with the much tweeted caption “men making decisions about women’s bodies”, began the recent hysteria over the precarious nature of women’s rights in the US. To clarify, the bill limits the conditions under which funding is available to charities so that said charities which receive funding are not allowed to offer abortion aid or advice. Now, holding charities to ransom in this way is an appalling practice, however making the leap from government withholding funding from certain overseas organisations to “women’s rights are being taken away – THE DYSTOPIA IS COMING!” Is a ridiculous and even dangerous one to make.

Yes, it is true that congress is largely male, and the president is male – this has been true for hundreds of years and its not a great situation but its nothing new. Also, the bill in question has been bandied around by both republicans and democrats for some time – so this is not like some huge new measure brought in by the trump administration. It’s become almost a truism now for bloggers and columnists to describe The Handmaid’s Tale using phrases like “frighteningly relevant” or “eerily similar to our own times”. While the position of women in the west is far from perfect it is hardly similar to the world depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale where women are raped en mass and prevented from reading and writing. However, what is most worrying is not so much the trend of deliberately misrepresenting news (and forgetting everything that happened before Facebook and twitter existed) in order to further a specific political agenda, is the way in which Margaret Atwood’s own work has been hijacked along with the TV show.

In a recent Jezebel blog post, Anna Merlan wrote about how the drama is problematic because of the production team and casts refusal to associate itself with the word feminism.

“To insist that the goddamn Handmaid’s Tale has no special relevance for women is, of course, intentionally obtuse in a way that suggests that the people shaping the show’s marketing campaign are worried. http://themuse.jezebel.com/isnt-it-relevant-that-the-star-of-the-handmaids-tale-be-1794667562”

In the current climate where popular mainstream feminism amounts to microaggressions, twitter SJ wars and moaning about protein shake adverts then who can blame them for not wanting to distance themselves from all that childish rubbish? Nevertheless, this sort of feminism has taken hold in the university campus and spread out to the rest of the milleniel generation and beyond. What’s most frustrating about this particular article, but also eye-opening, is the way in which (in the long tradition of feminist in-group fighting) everyone associated with the fiction of The Handmaid’s Tale is basically being described as doing feminism wrong. Not only is the TV, the cast and the marketing team behind the programme betraying the cause so is the author of the original novel on which the show was based no less!

“Disappointingly, even Margaret Atwood herself gave the NYT a terrible answer that fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the term ‘feminism.'”

It would seem that the only people who really understand the term and are enlightened enough to use it CORRECTLY are not the authors of ground breaking novels about women’s rights, but rather those who appropriate the themes and messages of those novels to further their own cultural and political aims. The story of The Handmaid’s Tale unfortunately no longer belongs to the artists involved in the creation of ‘texts’ associated with its narrative but rather is has been claimed as the intellectual property of the wider feminist rabble. Interestingly, Atwood herself never entirely distanced herself from the word feminism but rather was very clear about the specific type or definition of feminism she felt applied to her:

“When you say ‘feminist’ do you mean: Should women have the same rights as other human beings? Then, yes. But what else do we mean by that term? Do we mean women are angelically more perfect than men? Well, no. Women are human beings. That can be a plus or a minus.”

This is the real problem with the term ‘feminism’: it can mean almost anything, like so many similar ‘isms’ it is a highly vague term used to talk about something that is incredibly complex. An idea that should be treated with the utmost care and nuance is reduced to a single word which can be hijacked by the populist masses with ease. Feminism is not a complex political ideology anymore, its a buzzword for a growing cultural tide that now has as its mascot and poster child the perfect sensationalist image: a downtrodden woman in a heavy blood-red robe.

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9 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale is Watching You : The New Cultural Feminist Icon

  1. I’d be interested to see a comparison of the content of the novel, perhaps with some comparative quotation to see if there are any directly relevant passages that apply to what is happening in America at the moment.

    I must confess I’m also largely unfamiliar with the content of the novel so a brief synopsis or statement of the central themes at the start would have been a nice primer.

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  2. Fantastic article. I’ve just stumbled across this blog and I am very impressed your range of content! Forgive me for being forward, but do you ever share your work on any film or entertainment sites? I’m a content manager here at moviepilot.com and if you’re interested, we would love to share some of your work with our audiences.

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      1. Cheers! I’d be glad to, but you would actually have the ability to share it yourself. We’d simply promote it thereafter :). Send me an email if you’re interested and I can tell you how to get started!

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  3. Two brief considerations:

    1) Atwood insists that nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale is invented; what makes it a dystopia is that someone, somewhere, has already done this or had a pretty good idea of how to go about it. The “of course, it could never happen here” mindset is not what the book or (I imagine) the tv series is supposed to provoke.

    2) Atwood has indicated her support for a view similar to the kind expressed in the article you quote: https://twitter.com/MargaretAtwood/status/855459974478266368. Moreover, if you consult her active twitter feed, I think you will see that she is very critical of both Donald Trump and his cabinet.

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    1. My point was not that “it could never happen here”, rather that the recent political events which prompt writers to assume that a Misogynist dystopian empire is just around the corner. It’s a big leap from “this could happen one day under the right conditions” to a piece of legislation that has been flip flopping from one government administration to another for years means that we are on a direct path to state sanctioned rape and losing our right to education. As for Atwood disagreeing with the Trump administration – I’m glad she does, so do I – there are many good reasons for disagreeing with him. However, I that’s not really what my post was about. It was more the way we have a tendency to conflate issues and oversimplify complex problems, particularly in the internet age where it is painfully easy to mobilise people in the worst ways. As for the article you site – I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing. The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning in the sense that there are elements of that society that compare to ours. However, we are a very very long way away from being just like it.

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      1. I did not mean to comment on the politics, which is very much not my arena – my primary, indeed only, intent was to address the Atwood points. I take your point about simplification of the broader issues, and mea culpa – it is possible that in my response below I will again lapse, but “to err is human”.

        Nonetheless, I feel bound to weigh in once again on the representation of Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale. One scholar puts the date of the main action of the novel as 2005; the events which precipitate the societal change in the novel happen within the adulthood of Offred – that is, she is living in, as it were, perfectly ordinary American democracy in her late teens / early twenties, and by the time of the present of her narrative, the entire face of society has changed. This rate of change is comparable with those of the Miracle of the Han River, in which South Korea transformed from a devastated agricultural backwater into an economic powerhouse within approximately sixty years, or the Iranian Revolution, which completely disassembled a stable functioning government and rebuilt the society on Islamic principles within about thirty years.

        That is what I meant to say in my first point – according to Atwood it is always true that the dystopia is “just around the corner”. The steps you describe in the piece – “the leap from government withholding funding from certain overseas organisations to “women’s rights are being taken away – THE DYSTOPIA IS COMING!” – are almost exactly what Atwood depicts, and she has argued in interviews that this could happen, and, in other times and other places, has happened before. You can see Atwood’s comments approximately halfway through this article, which begins with a lot of US political context that holds no interest for me: http://www.politico.com/story/2017/04/25/off-message-a-handmaids-tale-stephanie-schriock-237539 Atwood’s closing thoughts sum it up for me:

        “The world always has been quite weird. It’s just that we took for granted in certain parts of this country that there was a normality, and that that was normality. And that rights were inalienable. I don’t know where anybody ever got that idea, because they didn’t come down out of a cloud. They were thought up and fought for by people. That’s where rights come from,” Atwood said.
        Thinking about the current moment, Atwood invoked the character from “The Handmaid’s Tale” who’s tasked with beating the new order into Offred and the other women.
        “That’s how they get taken away. People take them away. So, what is normal and how much can we count on it? And our idea of what is normal changes a lot, depending on the circumstances,” she said. “So, when Aunt Lydia says, ‘This may not seem normal to you now,’ it’s very scary. What is going to be the new normal?”

        Elsewhere Atwood argues that democracy is the hardest type of government to maintain, following Rousseau, in the following piece: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/jun/16/georgeorwell.artsfeatures
        The upkeep of democracy requires constant campaigning against exactly the kind of legislation you mentioned – which, as I understand it, prevents medical charities from providing abortion and family planning services to women in other countries as part of their charitable work – no matter if it has been bandied about by governments before.

        Consequently, my second point was meant to illustrate that Atwood is in fact one of the ‘wider feminist rabble’ you identify as having hijacked her novel, where we charitably treat feminism as an umbrella term rather than as a vague term – in fact Atwood has always had a uneasy relationship with the term “feminism”, as you indicated. Her most favourited and retweeted tweet in the last eight months is a picture of her at the Women’s March, itself a popular, politically-engaged, largely youth-orientated protest march.

        All of this is to say that I think Atwood’s text is amenable to being read in the light of the “specific type of popular feminist politics” you describe, and that Atwood has indicated some support for the idea of the handmaid’s blood red robe as an image of protest. Your concluding paragraph suggests that feminism is an attempt to address something incredibly complex, but that it is no longer a complex ideology and has become a buzzword instead – I can think of a great number of thinkers, including Atwood, who would think that phrasing is potentially troublesome, and who would have heard similar charges levelled at feminism many times in the past. In this case the protests do not seem to be about the depiction of women in protein shakes, but rather, about both a particular and important issue with real consequences for women’s health in other countries and a broader program to limit women’s reproductive rights in America. Again, while politics are not my bag, it does seem a little unfair to lump these concerns together with SJ twitter spats.

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      2. If I follow this argument correctly, essentially you are saying that Atwood’s novel and her overall political leanings indicate that we are always in danger of sliding into a dystopia. If we subscribe to this view then suddenly nothing has any meaning, and the tax on tampons can be considered as on a par with FGM or the stoning of female adulterers. These things are arguably connected by a thread of patriarchy that runs through almost everything we do in any society on earth (pervasive and ancient as it is). However, once we conflate limitations on certain charities with the mass systematic oppression of women both physical and mental on a national scale then we really have lost all perspective. I think this is what has happened to feminism. It has lost perspective in an over zealous attempt to rally the troops. And whatever else Atwood may think or may have been trying to say in her novel, her rejection of the term feminism does seem to suggest to me a refusal to engage in this sort of populist behaviour. You say that my concluding paragraph is troublesome in terms of Feminism. I would argue that Feminism as a movement as it currently stands is troubling. We live in a world where micro aggressions are lumped in together with abuse, where the expression of certain opinions is being described as a form of “violence”. In my opinion we ARE hurtling towards a dystopia, just not the one Atwood imagined. We are heading for a world where nothing means anything anymore, where we abide by lists of acceptable words and consult lawyers every time we write anything for fear of having our careers and reputations ruined. Rejecting a reasonable approach to argumentation, and above all being clear about what we mean is going to have a terrible price one day. The rise of the Handmaid as a cultural icon representing a vague idea that something bad might happen for women one day under conditions that we are not at all sure about which may or may not have something to do with overseas charities is just the sort of muddy thinking that we need to be very suspicious of.

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