Week 3 Day 1 Discussion Question 1

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a work of dystopian science fiction.  In the novel, Atwood develops a nightmare world — the Republic of Gilead — that projects recognizable elements of late-twentieth-century American life onto a possible dystopian future.  Based on your reading of the early chapters of the novel, discuss how a particular aspect of Gilead engages with an issue of gender inequality, feminist politics, and/or religious conservatism at the time of the novel’s writing.

3 thoughts on “Week 3 Day 1 Discussion Question 1

  • February 23, 2022 at 2:20 pm

    The way feminists and feminism are approached in the early chapters of The Handmaid’s Tale is interesting because it places blame onto early feminists alongside conservative religious groups. In the context of when this was written, this interpretation of feminism being “anti-women” makes sense with the shift between 2nd and third-wave feminism during the 1980s. 2nd wave feminism takes the approach of femininity being harmful to women, and that things such as makeup, beauty, and “provocative clothing” were part of why women didn’t hold equal status in a patriarchal society. In a way, this feminist thought blamed women for their mistreatment in society, a line of thought that is concurrent with the teachings of Gilead. OfFred mentions Aunt Lydia teaching the women about how they are better off now than they are kept covered up and oppressed because it saved them from being catcalled or raped in the streets. The handmaids are also forbidden from using beauty products or flirting with men which is reminiscent of 2nd wave feminists’ disapproval of femininity or open sexuality.

  • February 23, 2022 at 10:26 am

    I think one rather obvious instance of gender inequality in the Republic of Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the very role and purpose of Offred and the other handmaids. The handmaids’ worth and entire survival is dependent on their ability to produce children for a commander. In chapter 11, Offred has her monthly checkup at the doctor’s (which all handmaids must do in order to make sure they’re healthy enough to bear children) when the doctor whispers to Offred that he can help her. Offred feels the doctor’s gloveless hand sliding up her leg and he says “They’ll never know it isn’t his.” The doctor is offering to impregnate Offred, so she can give the commander a child and thus fulfill her purpose. While Offred is still in good health, the commander is an older man (as it seems most commanders in Gilead are) and will have more difficulty getting Offred pregnant. Offred then reveals to the reader that “There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.” We see the inherent misogyny in this system in Gildead: even if it is the man’s fault that a child cannot be produced, the blame falls solely on the woman – no matter how strong her health is. The commander will go about living his life, but the handmaid will die if she cannot produce a child for him. A handmaid’s only worth is placed on her child-bearing capabilities and must assume all blame for the failure to do so – so much so that there is no such this as a sterile man in the Republic of Gilead. In general, this shows a huge degree of gender inequality as men assume positions of power such as a commander, but women are subordinated to roles such as a handmaid where their very life is dependent on serving these men in positions of power.

  • February 23, 2022 at 12:16 am

    While there is plenty to discuss in the matter of gender inequality, religious conservationism and feminist politics in the Handmaid’s Tale, I find the general expectation for women to be reserved, the most akin to the the reality in the 20th century. As Offred discusses the gossipy whispers of Martha’s one particular line that highlights the expectation of the women by law is “ Must’ve been that drunk; but they found her out all right” (6). The phrasing of the quote implies that the women are discussing another woman, who committed the crime of being drunk and was punished for it. This informs the reader that the women in Gilead, or at least in the Dorm where Offered stays, are not allowed to drink. This parallels the reality in the 20th century, where it was and still is considered “unlady-like” to be drunk in public or at home. Meanwhile, men can drink themselves to an early grave and society treats it as normal human nature. Another form of gender inequality is that the men are the Guardians, who wield guns while women at best can be supervisors. At the time of the writing of the book and even today, men make up the majority of police officers, soldiers, security guards and gun owners. The misogynistic implication behind this being that women are not as physically strong as men.

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