Controlling Female Bodies, Controlling Female Texts

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Since I can’t help but point out an obvious irony, the fact that someone tried to ban or remove Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale when the novel is a clear warning of the danger of censorship and government control makes me laugh a little (and cry on the inside).

According to Time Magazine, a superintendent in a school district removed the novel from an Advanced Placement English course in a high school claiming that the text, “was sexually explicit and offensive to Christians”. The decision was overruled by the school board in 2006.

Besides being well-written, the novel itself is both poetic and chilling. The first person narration comes off as an actual story told by the person it happens to. Offred, the narrator, is caught in a society of control and obsession with sustaining life and maternity. She is a Handmaid, forced to live with a family and attempt to conceive a child for the Commander and his wife.

The ceremonies around her position as a Handmaid are creepy. She is considered a sacred person because she has the ability to have children, and the reader knows this because her past life included a husband and a child. Ironically, the child has been taken from her and she is forced to be a Handmaid. She is not allowed to read, write, communicate with others, smoke, drink, and do anything at all besides attempt to conceive a child.

With obvious feminist overtones and hints, the book does well to reflect upon a past with homosexuality, atheists, and near-equality between the sexes. At the same time that it hints to a past much like our contemporary society, it pokes holes in our contemporary society.

Because Offred has the ability to recall what the past society was like, she is in a unique position to really reflect on the extremeness of the society she lives in. She narrates, “This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it” (Atwood 173).

***Spoiler Alert: I’m about to talk in depth about the ending of the novel.***

When I began reading this novel, I was on a flight home from Cancun. While I felt like this book was amazing and I needed to keep reading, I was also in the process of finishing my Master’s thesis. So I got a little distracted.

But when I finally got back to reading it, I was absolutely hooked on it. The final chapter of the book is what really drew me in and intrigued my interest--actually causing me to consider rereading the book through a new lens. The actual narrative ends ambiguously without really knowing what happens to our story-teller who is in danger and a part of an oppressive society that controls women’s bodies and lives.

The last chapter drops the bombshell that the story was transcribed from tapes found later on after the collapse of the society described in the text. The narrator’s true identity remains a mystery, and the text is discussed at an academic university and by men. In a story that is so devastated by male control of female bodies, the reader is lured into feeling comfortable with her female narrator and takes comfort in the freedom of allowing her to tell her story.

However, it turns out the text was transcribed and published by men. In my educational background, authors often begin by stating and situating the narrator which gives the reader time to consider it. Atwood breaks this tradition by adding on the final chapter and revelation of who has control of the text and stands as another amazing metaphor for the feminist mythology of their own female control--something I feel is critiqued by the narrator throughout the text.

Because Offred has the experience of the past contemporary society, she can reflect on the previous society’s values of gender. She often recalls her mother and old roommate Moira (who appears in the plot) and their feminist belief systems. The narrator often felt their opinions to be extreme and outlandish. But Offred draws from their extremeness in times of great fear in her present situation. She uses their strength to continue on but also feels weak by comparison to their fighting nature.

To me, the text is commenting upon a very realistic ideology in contemporary society. The feminist movement is meant to empower and strengthen women as a group. However a group of people can be moved and transformed in one particular way. Do we damage the cause by setting expectations women that society is contradicting and undermining?

For example, feminist movement believe that superficial beauty practices like makeup and high heels  should be a thing of the past. However, we value modeling and a woman’s choice to make her own decisions about her body.

So while we encourage people to not value makeup and outer beauty, it’s our own right to chose what we want to do with our body. Then we have advertising and tv shows that create standards outside of reality for the majority of women. Contradicting messages in society are very confusing and difficult to live up to. Then we feel the guilt of giving in to the urge of valuing those things.

But back to the text at hand (no pun intended), Handmaid’s Tale is an interesting novel that does look closely at sexuality, female control, and the female body. While I could see the potential for a concerned parent not wanting their child reading about the sex ceremony to impregnate Offred or her reflections on masturbation (which is discouraged in that society, probably punishable by death), I see the book as an important text that someone of any age can find value in it.

It challenges the notion that the women’s bodies are meant for procreation only. It challenges the extreme circumstances in the novel as well contemporary society’s refusal to see sexuality as important factor in both men and women’s life that is outside the means of procreation. Sexuality is human nature and part of mental stability for a lot of people.

Although the Commander upholds the society’s standards, he also takes the narrator to the secret sex club that all the upper class men seem to participate in. Although their society dictates that sex is for reproductive purposes, the men are allowed to participate in sex for pleasure purposes. The women working there are allowed to engage in same-sex relations. So even in a society hell bent on control of sexuality and female bodies, there is still a place for those things. It seems to speak to the fact that while you can try to control something, you cannot completely rid the world of it.

Not only would I recommend this book to someone, I would also participate in reading it with my children (the ones that don’t yet exist) or with my nephew when he enters young adulthood (it’ll be some time, Logan is about 12 weeks old).

I may see why it was opposed, but I do not condone the reasons it was opposed. Groups may have found things offensive in them, but those are the same groups who may not mind a society too different from Offred’s horrifying tale.

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