I wish I had read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was twelve or thirteen, it would have made the underlying relationship structures between men and women much less confusing. It is as though men have built and fueled the engines of female subjugation but then found a way to pretend that they have always been there and were never the fault of men.
I was compelled to read this incredible book, by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985, after watching the TV series of the same name. Thankfully, one of our independent media channels, SBS, made the whole series available to stream. I am grateful to live in a country where we still have media that is happy to air contentious views that challenge the establishment. With a sustained attack on our government broadcaster, the ABC, by a right-leaning government, it is a freedom we may soon have significantly less of.
It is always a pleasant surprise when you read a book related to TV series that you have already watched and find that the creation is a faithful representation of the written text. With Margaret having a cameo in the series, it is probably fair to say that she had some influence on the screenplay and cinematography.
I won’t spoil the plot, but the subject matter is a stark and confronting look at the way in which society de-values women as people, and over-values their role as baby incubators. Written largely in the first person, for me the book was a chance to view various forms of male/female and female/female interactions in a different light. While the dystopian setting might alter the context, the interactions described almost all exist now, in our current society.
The experience made me angry, because I could see how by the time I was seventeen I had been completely indoctrinated into a male world of assumed privilege. Girls were all princesses, ready to swoon at my feats of strength and beg to bear my children. Utter-rubbish, that left me with many years of recovery and many needless hurtful actions until I arrived at a place of some balance.
There are no happy endings in the book, no one is winning. Like in any violent takeover of a society, China’s Cultural Revolution, the French Revolution, Lenin, it is the ones at the top who are often in the most precarious of positions. When you build the machines for un-checked state violence against the people, they can always be turned on you.
While religious fanaticism plays a part, Margaret herself points out in the new forward to the 2017 release, that it is power and it’s pursuit which is to blame, rather than a specific type of religious fervency. The Communist Atheists murdered their teachers just as gleefully as the Christian Europeans burned their witches.
My main takeaway from this book was to look very carefully at the mental structures that underlie the relationships between the sexes, both domestic and intimate. It is not enough to be aware of your own foibles and fears, but that we should be sensitive to the lens that is distorting the other person’s view of the world.
I don’t want to pick apart the plot further in this post. I thoroughly enjoyed both the TV series and the book and would encourage you to read/watch them yourself. The subtlety of the author that I most loved is the way in which absurd, horrific, situations are presented in a dystopian world, but then with a few sentences the veil is withdrawn, and you realise that you have actually been looking into a mirror. It is this type of work, that shakes the foundations of some rusted-on indoctrination, which I most enjoy.