You Can’t Handle An Autonomous Woman
Both wildly popular and chillingly accurate, The Handmaid’s Tale spins a story about a woman being only as valuable as the child she carries. Centering around Offred, who literally belongs to Fred (Of Fred), the story highlights themes never touched before in the way that Margaret Atwood attempted to cover them in the late 1980s.
Throughout the story, it becomes apparent that women in Gilead are concurrently idolized by what they could do (birth babies) and dehumanized for what they were (as human beings).
In reality, though, Gilead could be America. While we have come a long way from women’s suffrage and the 19th Ammendment, there is still much more to do. Sadly, America still needs to deal with the shame of its obsession with the female body and its control over the women who seek to stand up for themselves.
For those living in Gilead, particularly for those who have been deemed fertile, life is simply wrapped up in the unborn.
The women like Offred and Offglen, two of the main heroines of the story, find themselves and their bodies at the mercy of the men who “own” them and the children they hope to bear. Even tiny fetuses are given funerals and are deeply mourned.
“No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive.” (Chapter 6)
In chapter 6, Offred sees the bodies of hanged doctors who have carried out abortions and comments that ‘in the time before… such things were legal.’ Clearly, in Gilead, abortion is no option. The women are having these babies, regardless of if they want them or not.
Later, towards the end of the book, Offred notes that there are no ultrasounds or scans carried out in Gilead, and the rationale for why is chillingly haunting.
“What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term.”
While some may argue that Atwood’s world of Gilead seems farfetched and unlikely, there are some in Congress whose views on women eerily align closely with those found in Gilead.
This was a statement made by a man who is currently seated in Congress and is up for reelection in 2020. He won 2 to 1 in 2018. Clearly, there are people who agree with what he has to say.
Women thought they were in charge of their bodies. Obviously, however, women’s bodies really belong to babies and old white men in Oklahoma.
A few states over, Ohio introduced HB565 in March 2018 and further revealed that women don’t truly have ownership of their bodies in the eyes of the government when it comes to reproductive health.
Under the Ohio bill, a pregnant person or abortion provider could be subject to criminal charges, including the charge of murder. They could face life in prison or the death penalty. (Casey Quinlan)
Even those who struggle with miscarriages could have come under scrutiny if the miscarriage was seen as suspicious. While the bill did not pass the House Committee in Ohio, it showed just how far conservatives would go to protect the unborn.
Through the story of Offred, rape is a topic that comes up often. Never mind the fact that Gilead was built on the backs of women who were raped every single month.
The handmaids are kidnapped, sold as sex slaves, and then used every month until they are able to produce the desired result. Despite the fact that these handmaid’s are essentially the hope of Gilead and that they are the ones bringing new life into the world, they are forced to wear red as a sign of their shame and guilt, even though that guilt and shame is not on them.
Like Offred, the women are “used for exclusively sexual duties and their bodies are defiled when they are raped all for the sake of bringing new life into the world, even if it destroys the very lives of the women who experience it” (Rape and Women’s Disempowerment).
The latest season of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu got a lot of heat for the episode in which Offred is clearly raped, despite being 9 months pregnant. It was triggering for many, regardless of prior experience with sexual assault, however, it showcased just how some women in America have to live to get by — be it in the sex industry or in an abusive home with a husband who sexually and physically assaults her.
“You treat it like a job,” she says as her commander unzips. “An unpleasant job to be gotten through as fast as possible. Kissing is forbidden. This makes it bearable. One detaches oneself. One describes. An act of copulation, fertilization, perhaps. No more to you than a bee is to a flower. You steel yourself. You pretend not to be present. Not in the flesh. You leave your body.” (“The Last Ceremony”)
However, despite this overarching reality, Atwood covered yet another perspective on rape. In chapter 13, Offred recounts the deliberate humiliation of Janine, whose experience of gang-rape was twisted by Aunt Helen, who told the others that Janine must have ‘led them on’…
‘ But whose fault was it?’ .. ‘Her fault… we chant in unison.’
“Her fault” echoes strangely of the arguments used by those fighting against sexual assault charges and #MeToo accusations.
In 2015, a doctor in Texas was found guilty of sexually assaulting a patient of his, who was immobilized at the time, however, his sentence involved no jail time, despite the fact that the crime was something that could include upwards of 20 years in prison.
The doctor alleged that the woman, a Latino woman more specifically according to statements made by his lawyer, made three separate advances one morning in 2013, and based on those advanced, he assumed that she wanted to have sex. The third time he entered her room, he had sex with his patient, despite the fact that his patient was drifting in and out of medicated unconsiousness. The victim tried calling for help, but the call-button had been unplugged from the wall.
Despite all of this evidence, the doctor was given probation, but no prison time. The case strangely echoed another not too far in the distant past.
Brock Turner is a name most in the United States know. In 2015, the 19-year-old Stanford University swimmer was accused of assault on an unconscious woman at a campus party. A little over a year later, Turner was slapped with six months of jail time and three years of probation, which incited public disgust and an outcry around sexual assaults on college campuses. The sentencing followed a closely watched trial in which the victim was peppered with questions by the defense team about what she was wearing the night of the attack and the dynamics of a sexual assault trial, which “were irrevocably marred by male and class privilege.”
The hashtag #MeToo began to show up on Twitter and Instagram in the fall of 2017 after Alissa Milano began using it to highlight the indiscretions of Harvey Weinstein and the cover-up culture in Hollywood.
In the wake of #MeToo, we also heard from the man who stands in the Oval Office that he “could do anything.” Despite the explosive nature of those comments, Americans once again shrugged off the feminist voice of outcry that inspired thousands of women (and men) to don pink “hats” at the Women’s March in 2017. Many continued to argue that these types of comments are simply “locker room talk” and not worth getting up in arms over.
Unfortunately, following the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in 2018, the hashtag #HimToo began to surface over Twitter and Instagram, imploring users to consider the implications of a sexual assault charge on a man. Once again, America’s focus on male privilege and a lack of focus on women’s autonomy took center stage.
Perhaps Gilead isn’t so farfetched after all…
More and more women are stepping into a unique space. One in which autonomy and bodily ownership are tantamount. No longer do women find themselves in a space, marked by the sign of feminism, and pushed out of the limelight, but rather, they are being welcomed into that space.
In this moment of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, America’s echoes of Gilead groan against the thrust of women who are fighting back.
For the women and men who walk hand in hand during the Women’s March year after year, and for the new class of Democratic freshmen in Congress that were elected in 2018, a new wave seems to be coming. Until America can shrug off those tendencies that are found in a dystopian Gilead instead of 2019 America, women and men will never be equal, women will never find autonomy, and women will always be at the mercy of someone holding the keys to their future.
Much like the next season of The Handmaid’s Tale, we find ourselves linking arms and saying, “Blessed be the fight.” And fight we will.