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I have always had difficulty with Margaret Atwood’s writings, perhaps because her visions of the future are too dark. Listening to the audio version of The Blind Assassin, I got thoroughly confused. No surprise then that I hadn’t read her classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, until after it had been adapted for Hulu.
Reading the book recently, its poetic, precise, and evocative language took my breath away. Surprisingly, the adaptation managed to translate her words into striking, yet faithful visuals, a rare feat in itself. Yet the book left me dissatisfied.
For those not in the know, the story is set in the not too distant future where the environment is so polluted that the human race is struggling to reproduce. Young women are made into instruments of breeding, while older ones serve as guardians of a newly formulated patriarchy. If this description makes you think of the Republicans’ decades-long struggle to take control of women’s wombs, you are on the right track. Atwood wrote the book in the early 80s, when the moral majority was on the rise.
No wonder then that women dressed as Atwood’s handmaids protested a slew of anti-abortion bills in front of the Texas legislature recently, the Hulu television production having provided them with designs for their costumes of red robes and white hats.
I was heartened by the news of the march, until I heard an interview with Atwood on the radio. She sounded cautious, even conservative, calling herself a feminist only so far as a feminist was in favor of equal opportunities for women in education and employment. In other interviews, she has labeled feminists as people who are against makeup and bras and shied away from including herself in that group. Her ambiguity is clearly mirrored in her book, which I found constrained, even troubling at times. The main character, June is a fertile young woman who receives certain privileges simply because of the condition of her body. Yet, she seems to feel no compassion for the “barren” wives or the matronly “aunts,” whom she describes in the most ruthless of terms. I must issue a spoiler alert here; not only does June have no sympathy for the menopausal women in the story, she uses her sexual allure to earn favors from men who are in control. June’s background too is hardly feministic; we learn that she carried on an affair with a married man, even conceived a child by him, before the country’s takeover by the fundamentalists.
Yet, American feminists are claiming that The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist tract, even protesting the refusal of Atwood as well as the producers and the cast of the TV show, to label it as such. The feminist movement is desperate for literature it can herald, I suppose, but as someone who considers herself a feminist, I found no inspiration, no hope, no guiding light in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The moment of unease came early on for me. It was when the Commander, whom June serves as a breeder, offers her a women’s magazine. She accepts it gratefully; it reminds her of an earlier era when she used to put on lingerie and have sex with whomever she wanted. Had I been in her position, I thought, I would have flung the rag across the room, as being another vehicle for subjugating women by teaching them how to catch a man rather than how to claim autonomy.
Other, more troubling scenes follow. June’s identity is almost wholly tied up with her role as a mother; she sorely misses her daughter who has been taken away from her. The book makes no attempt to create a larger awakening in June. Only her lesbian friend Moira serves as a proxy for the kind of revolution that the reader expects June herself to contemplate. Similarly, June’s mother is depicted as a lonely, divorced hippie, a caricature of a feminist whom June views suspiciously and with some aversion.
Thankfully, the TV series seems to realize these flaws in Atwood’s book and attempts to cast the “barren” wife in a more sympathetic light than the book does. It also provides a hint of the rebellion that is to come in future seasons. Of course it needs to do so if the TV series is to go on for years. Atwood’s novel, on the other hand, ends on an ambiguous, even fatalistic note.
June sleeps with the Guardian, who is in charge of keeping law and order. She relishes the slinky clothes the Commander makes her wear to an underground brothel. She even asks the Commander for a jar of lotion. Lotion for Christ’s sake, not a weapon or a book or even a way out.
The problem with feminism today, I think, is that it is mainly driven by white, upper-class women who are prisoners of their own privilege and status. Why are African-American single mothers never labeled as feminists, only as objects of pity and charity? Why is there a compulsion to label June or Margaret Atwood as a feminist when in fact the former is simply using her natural gifts to survive and the latter has perhaps only suffered at the hands of patriarchy in her imagination, never in real life?
American feminists, why are you so desperate? Why do you feel a need to clutch on to any symbol you can find? Does this tendency indicate a paucity of good female role models in real life as well as the life of the imagination? The recent debate over The Handmaid’s Tale made me wonder about examples of truly feminist books. The only one that came to mind was Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Or perhaps Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, whose clueless heroine provides a lesson in feminism by her very lack her awareness of it.
Instead of projecting their dogma on to Margaret Atwood or Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays June, feminists would be well served I think, to write their own literature.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.