“There is more than one kind of freedom. In the days of anarchy, it was ‘freedom to.’ Now, you’re being given ‘freedom from.’ Don’t underrate it.”
—The Handmaid’s Tale
The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, it was just after it was published in the mid-1980s. Thinking back, I remember the book being a quick read, with an interesting take on a dystopian future scenario which depicted a fundamentalist Christian political resurgence born out of the decadent, free-wheeling sexual and economic liberation of the late 20th century. In the story, women are reduced to chattel and are forced into marriage, servitude or sexual slavery by the Commanders of the Republic of Gilead, formerly the United States of America. Education and reading are forbidden, heretics are executed and hung on a wall for all to see, women have no rights and can’t own property and the all-seeing eye of the government is based on fundamentalist, old testament “values” that preserve male superiority and control. I was in my early 20s and proud to have been an active participant in a decade of progress in women’s rights, the firm cementing of women’s choice in health care decisions, growing women’s employment and financial independence (even though it was the middle of the Reagan-era). I thought the allegory made for a good read, but seemed a bit far-fetched.
Hearing recently that two local women got 2000+ people to sign a petition to remove The Handmaid’s Tale (and others) from the suggested (not required) Summer reading list for Senior AP English students at my son’s high school, claiming that it “denigrates Christianity” and contains “pornography,” I was a bit surprised. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I don’t remember anything about that book being even remotely steamy.” I did remember the repressive, puritanical regime and at the time I first read the book, I thought it pushed the envelope of possibility. Thinking about it again, in light of the most recent attempts at reigniting the so-called “culture wars,” in particular this small skirmish here in my own neighborhood, I wondered how I would feel about it today. So, I did what too often isn’t done in these situations: I downloaded a copy from the library to my Kindle and gave it a re-read.
Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
The “pornography” the local moms objected to relates to a specific scene in which the narrator, The Handmaid Offred, is participating in a once-a-month ceremony in which she is forced to have missionary-position intercourse with her assigned Commander while lying between the legs of the fully-dressed Commander’s wife. A menage a trois, a three-way, two girls, one guy—it’s not even remotely any of those things. It is a humiliating experience for each participant and I’m pretty sure even a sheltered, 17-year-old AP high-school student would get that when read in context with the entire story.
It’s worth nothing that there was an attempt to amp up the sexual content in the movie, (which was rated “R”) partly by expanding a relationship between the main character and a household chauffeur. In the novel, Offred and Nick do have a sexual relationship, but their couplings are never overtly described, and though they do develop kind feelings toward each other, they meet only at the express direction of the Commander’s wife, who desperately wants a baby and believes her husband to be sterile.
The Commander does try to strike up a friendship with Offred and meets her surreptitiously—not for sex—but to talk, play Scrabble and read old magazines, all of which are forbidden. It is the Commander, not Offred, who breaks the rules. One night he entices Offred to dress up in a lewd and immoral costume and takes her to a secret nightclub, where women who can not (failed Handmaids) or will not (lesbians and other deviants) bend to the new rule of feminine absolutism are forced to prostitute themselves for the highest-level Commanders and visiting dignitaries from other countries.
Getting Closer to the Truth
My sense is that the local outrage over perceived pornographic content and portrayal of Christians in a negative light, genuine though it may be, is actually a misguided attempt to root out and shame what these parents see as a desire by liberal-leaning educators and school board members to push a feminist, pro-choice agenda on their unsuspecting children. After all, denying women’s rights, most recently through the battle over abortion rights, has become a uniting issue for many fundamentalist, right-wing Christians. My feeling is that “slut-shaming,” blaming the victim and generalized anti-feminist sentiment are all being made use of here under the guise of protecting the children.
Our local protestors probably aren’t very keen that Atwood is an avowed agnostic (though not an atheist, a position she sees as equivalent to religion itself). She herself has noted that the kernel for The Handmaid’s Tale came from the unexpected partnership of radical anti-pornography feminists and the religious right in the early 1980s. Each of these groups had its own convoluted reasons for wanting to ban pornographic material and Atwood found the idea of this unholy alliance an interesting jumping-off point for a society that gleams with holy patriarchal light on the surface but is actually more murderous, corrupt and noxious than the government it replaces. She deftly plays out this troublesome partnership through the Aunts, who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids using coercion, bribery, and, if necessary torture, to preserve their own tiny bit of autonomy and control in the new political economy.
Overall, it’s a small but noisy group that are un-ironically advocating censorship while affectionately calling it “educational reform.” In the big picture, it could be the beginning of a disturbing trend of renewed attempts to push any form of critical thinking out of an already diluted local education curriculum. While we do have a lot of homeschooling here, mostly in religious households wanting to protect children from a “secularist” agenda, our largely blue-leaning county school system is actually pretty diverse student-wise and we haven’t seen as much ideological conflict as one might expect in this corner of the South. Though our state hasn’t been caught up in some of the initiatives being debated across American society today, we are vulnerable to loud calls by a few to hew to values of the past that may have never been.
What’s the Real Danger Here?
Dreaming of her life before Gilead, Kate (Offred) often reminisces about her love for her husband and daughter and it is quite clear that she rejects the tenets of the current government, but she is powerless and unable to follow her own moral code. Much like the leaders of the Republic, it appears our petitioners are choosing to define Kate as a selfish, dirty harlot because she has an affair and marries a divorced man, then rebels when she is forced to submit to non-consensual sex to bear children for her rapist. That her honestly told journey to remove herself from this repressive rape culture, which, not surprisingly includes thoughts of suicide, is being deemed inappropriate for college-bound, academically advanced students is disturbing on many levels. Is advocating resistance to control by a male-dominated theocratic power structure anti-Christian? To me this is both a gross misreading of the novel and more broadly worrying as it applies to the educational experience of our children as a whole. There is a difference between “freedom to” and “freedom from” and at it’s heart, that is what this tempest in a teapot seems to really be about.
Artwork by Anna & Elena Balbusso. You can see more illustrations for The Handmaid’s Tale at their awesome site.