The Handmaid’s Tale and the Politics of Sexuality

As far as science fiction goes, I prefer utopian/dystopian pieces because even those written decades ago seem to have a haunting connection to our present day society, and speak more tellingly than any news reporter or political piece as to the real condition of society. Often by thinking of trends that extend far into the future rather then the here and now, do we get more accurate representations of society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorites, and since it’s on my 1001 book list I was looking forward to writing about it. Written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1985, this strikes a particular vein in my heart because of its focus on feminine roles in society. And more and more, I believe that popular culture is examining the roles of women; and more particularly our ability to bear children. For example, the popular Children of Men movie (it’s been awhile so I probably need to see it again) is about a time in our not so far future when women can no longer bear children, and when the youngest person in the entire world is in his twenties. One woman, however, is pregnant, and a powerful political group vie for possession of her; the most valuable woman in the world.


But what makes Utopian and Dystopian novels so biting is the element of recognition. When we can look at a novel and recognize within it the strains of ourselves interwoven into the story, tying us in close, and sometimes frightening ways, to the society of the book, then we get a true feel of Utopia or Dystopia. For how can we write or read about a society when we don’t know what is lacking, or what is exemplary of our own society? But what also makes a good dystopian novel is the element of the “bite” or the “downfall” that we see in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxely’s Brave New World. While this novel can stand as a very viable and disagreeable projection of our future, there is nothing in it to turn us away, or to caution us from the same path. Offred, the main woman, has a sad tale indeed, of being a sexual slave of a wealthy and influential family; torn from her husband and child into a life of loneliness, torturous monotony, and degradation. But where is the desperation? The danger? The heartbreak? This book is beautifully poetic, but in creating a world of hopeless apathy, the reader finds his or herself likewise apathetic and sunk in helpless depression upon finishing.

Why? Why so helpless? Much of the book is built on a very dire future that many of us resent to accept: the inevitability of pollution and self-poisoning through our current lifestyles of waste and temporary pleasures will eventually destroy the society we have spoiled ourselves with. This novel is so laden with recognizable natural and man-made environmental disasters that it is indeed difficult to not imagine a similar world of much decreased population and possession. And what’s more, because of the environmental disasters playing directly into the fertility of the human population, all of a sudden fertility and sexuality become economical and political power cards: reducing one, as Offred puts it, “to a pile of flesh surrounding a womb that must be filled.”  When one becomes only as important as ones reproductive usefulness, how does one read such a novel and not feel a hopeless depression? Offred often ponders this helplessness in a very careful, roundabout way (much like all her actions in the book), comparing herself to the plants in the garden, beautiful and fertile. Yet, sadly, their flowers, or reproductive organs, are cut away to give more power to the roots below. Thus we have an idea both of her power, in being able to produce “flowers” (babies), and yet she is simultaneously powerless because her flowers are cut (taken away) to give those in power more control. Our own abilities to produce children is both used as a tool of procreation as well as a means to hold power; a very chilling idea indeed. How are we to help ourselves, when the very thing that makes us powerful as women is held against us?



About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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