Thursday, May 18, 2017

Some Notes on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Intersectionality: Class Privilege Connects to Racial Privilege Connects to Heterosexism Connects to Misogyny Connects to Religion

A fascinating aspect of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, especially in the Hulu series that we continue watching, is how it weaves together issues of feminism, race, heterosexism-homophobia, class privilege, and religion. If anything, the t.v. series is making the interconnection of these issues even stronger.

The right-wing evangelical dystopia (it deliberately harks back to the Puritan colonies) that Atwood calls Gilead was founded by right-wing Christian men and women who had convinced themselves that the world was out of kilter because women had gotten out of their rightful places in the world — as child-bearers and helpmeets to their men.

But these right-wing Christian men and women who schemed to blow up the American government and found a theocracy in its place were white, privileged right-wing Christians. As soon as Gilead is founded, the men who have spurred its founding immediately inform "their" women that their services will no longer be needed — not to govern, but now to stay at home, look pretty, make the home pleasant for their men, and, if possible, have lots of children.

Those women then, in turn, begin using their frustrated energies as "just homemakers" to create a social system that subordinates other women to them — non-white women, "immoral" women who have had children out of wedlock, lesbian women. They immediately create (with their husbands as the armed enforcers) a ruthless social system in which women (almost always white women) with lower social status but a penchant for cruelty and bullying, are made "aunts."

These women train the "handmaidens" in their duties as what can only be called temple prostitutes, women kept in slavery as baby-making machines for high-status (white, privileged) men, at a point in history when fertility levels have dramatically dropped and the founders of Gilead are blaming this on feminist breakthroughs in the 20th century. The "aunts" walk around with cattle prods, shout bible verses, tell the "girls" under their total control what to do or else, and if the "girls" disobey, punish them ruthlessly — torturing them with shocks, gouging out an eye, chopping off a finger, genitally mutilating lesbians, all the while citing "the word of God" as the basis of their barbarity.

The women relegated to handmaid status are women whose social status was, prior to the revolution, lower than that of the privileged white women now running things in concert with their husbands, while those white women are subordinated to their husbands and kept at home. In some cases, they have had children without marrying. In other cases, they were poor. In others, they were black or Hispanic. In others, they were lesbians.

All of this merits their subordination to the high-class white women running the show on the women's side, and to the aunts who are their strong arm. The one thing the handmaids have in common is that they are fertile, while most of the high-status women and their husbands are not, hence the sacred prostitution angle, all propped up by bible verses, in which they are made the sexual property of high-status white males.

There are, of course, many allusions to slavery in all of this, many reminders of how slavery operated and just what slavery was, when all the rationales for it are peeled away. Also, the glimpses of how lesbian women are treated in this bible-driven world that accords privilege to people on the basis of social status, skin color, and sexual orientation are horrifying: when they are not killed outright as "gender traitors," they are genitally mutilated in the name of God — if they still seem capable of bearing children and are needed as baby machines.

A horrifying angle on all of this, something to think about as one reads Atwood's novel again or watches the series: the shocking percentage of white women who were willing to elect Donald Trump and refused to vote for Hillary Clinton. Atwood was right on target about the ugly drive of some privileged women to subordinate their less fortunate sisters to themselves and to their husbands — at any cost at all.

P.S. Please see this subsequent posting illustrating the topicality of Atwood's novel and how uncannily relevant it is as we read today's news.

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