The Handmaid’s Tale and feminism: Examining characterisation in Atwood’s novel

Although a feminist story, The Handmaid’s Tale gives some surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of men while those of women can be critical. Men are the most mysterious characters; they are the ones we know least about and the ones that Offred can provide the least insight into beyond patriarchal society, dominant male figures, and sexual predators. Few male characters have more than functional roles of the patriarchal state. Most have no names, only group identities such as the Angels, the Eyes, and the Doctor, except for those who Offred has immediate relationships with such as Nick and the Commander. Atwood herself states that feminism is a broad term covering anything from ‘pushing men off cliffs to allowing women to read and write in Afghanistan’. Through the characters of Serena Joy and Moira she looks at how women’s own misunderstanding of men and feminism could result in a backlash and repression leading to a women’s way of survival that could be critical.

Nick is a romantic rather than a realistic figure, the mysterious stranger who is Offred’s rescuer through love. He is more relaxed than other members of Gilead society, wearing his hat at an angle and winking at her. She also describes details of his appearance which prevent him from seeming threatening, ‘creases around the mouth where he smiles’ p.28, whereas everyone else is described by the clothes that they wear, symbolising their status. At household prayers he presses his foot against hers causing a sensual warmth that she is unwilling to acknowledge. During the daytime he is a comic figure, at night her lover, which is made more particular as he is acting under orders either by the Commander or Serena Joy. Like Offred, he is subordinate and therefore has to remain passive until ordered to go to bed with Offred by Serena Joy. Of this first encounter Offred gives three different descriptions; his attitude is not directly described and he remains a figure that cannot be fully understood, realised or analysed. However, in defiance of danger she repeatedly returns to him and clearly falls in love with him, yet the lack of emotional response and understanding between them that is described and revealed to the reader makes it difficult to ascertain to what degree it is love or simply sexual desire. Nevertheless her description of their lovemaking is suggestive rather than simply erotic. At no point does the reader witness a direct conversation; therefore it is difficult to establish an analysis of him and his motives. Importantly she tells him her real name, something that is not even revealed to us, underlining the intimacy of their relationship. We want to believe that he is in love with Offred, yet he is the only member of the household not present when she departs. It can be taken from the Historical Notes that he did rescue her and was a member of the Mayday resistance. As a character he is very lightly described and his most significant role is as her lover, yet it is not a romantic story. Instead her relationship with him underlines the conflict she experiences of loyalty and sexual desires which eventually outweigh her loyalty to Luke and desire to escape.

The Commander is the most powerful authority figure in Offred’s life. He is a high-ranking government official and it is to him that she is assigned so as to take his name. This is similar to slavery before the abolition; once slaves were freed from their masters they would often take the same surname. Yet the Commander is an ambiguous figure, substantial and shadowy, whose motivations remain constantly unclear. An elderly man with ‘straight neatly brushed silver hair’ and a moustache and blue eyes, his manner is mild p.97, and Offred likens him to a Mid-Western bank manager. She sees him lurking by her room and trying to peer at her as she walks past, p.59. demonstrating that he presents himself as a typical male power, isolated and benignly indifferent to his domestic affairs. He performs ceremony in dress uniform and she describes his actions as ‘fucking’, with his eyes shut – making him into a comical figure. As Offred begins to know him his typical male power stereotype starts to fall away. He asks her to meet him in his study ‘after hours’ and it is revealed that he is a lonely man who requires friendship and intimacy. He does not ask her for kinky sex but instead to play scrabble, the most domestic and mundane of pastimes which appears an incredulous past normality to her. He offers her books and magazines consisting of a once normal life which are now forbidden to her, asking only for a kiss at the end of the night. This reveals a more complex characteristic to the Commander. He is an old-fashioned gentleman who treats her in a somewhat patronising way, ‘In fact he is positively daddyish’ p.193. Despite his obscure motives they manage to develop an amiable relationship. However it is still a matter of sexual power politics in which the Commander is dominant. He is traditional in his views and patriarchal assumptions, ‘Natures norms’ p.232 with which he describes Jezebels where they have a private sexual encounter. When Offred is taken away from the house of the Commander for the last time she sees him looking ‘old, worried and helpless’, expecting his own downfall shortly and in this way Offred had her revenge upon him for the balance of power between them, ‘Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking’.

As the Commanders wife, Serena Joy is the most powerful female presence in the daily life in Gilead. Offred can observe her in her social role as one of the Wives but also at close quarters in her own home and she appears as more than just a member of a class of hierarchy. Unlike the other Wives she is referred to by her own name, but she is elderly and childless and therefore has to agree to having a handmaid in her own home as she cannot produce children herself. She clearly resents Offred as a reminder of her inability to have children and as a violation of the sanctity of marriage. It is ironic that we learn she was previously an ultra-conservative voice on domestic policies and the place of women within the home. Offred observes this as she is trapped within the ideology which she created, ‘She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her’, p.56. Serena Joy’s only place of power is her living room, where she has nothing to do but knit scarves for the Angels, and her place for expression is her garden. Yet even there she has to be assisted by her husband’s chauffer. Despite her apparently submissive status as a Wife, there is a harsh toughness and masculinity about Serena Joy. She lacks femininity, which juxtaposes her husbands ‘daddyishness’ and perhaps susceptibility to manipulation or pliability by Offred for hand creams, magazines, and pieces of information. Serena Joy, unlike her husband, has no weakness of ‘nature’s norms’ and therefore no susceptibility. It is impossible for anyone to know what she is thinking. In Serena’s cigarette smoking and use of slang we see evidence for this toughness. It is at her suggestion that Offred sleep with Nick to become pregnant, ‘She is actually smiling, coquettishly’ p.216. Serena Joy represents two aspects of Gileadean society, the role of dutiful Wife as a privileged status, as well as a twisted plot in infidelity and the extremes that people are willing to adopt in able to conceive. This is arguably a method of survival for perhaps desperate women, pushed to this extreme by inability to conceive and the social structure, which she ironically contributed to herself. However Serena is still unforgivable for she has her own revenge too, deliberately with-holding from Offred the news of her lost daughter and a photograph of her which Offred has been longing for. Serena is beside the commander when Offred leaves the house, her farewell to Offred holds none of the pieties of Gilead, ‘“Bitch,” she says. “After all he did for you.”’ p.299. Serena Joy demonstrates the very ineffectiveness of falsity of Gilead society and the criticism of her from a feminist perspective is criticism of anti-feminists and also of the perfection, which is a symbol of a decaying and flawed society.

Moira is the only female character within the narrative that is portrayed positively and with admiration by the narrator as she constantly resurfaces in the narrative. She is the embodiment of resistance and rebellion, identified by her own first name because she never became a handmaid. From Offred’s point of view she embodies female heroism, although from the point of view of Gilead she is criminal. Although brought to the Red Centre, she manages to escape on her second attempt, disguised as an Aunt, which was not only comical but is symbolic of her refusal to conform to the Gilead class basis. She therefore becomes what all other Handmaids would like to be but don’t dare and Offred envies her courageous resistance, ‘Moira was our fantasy… We hugged her to us, she was us in secret, a giggle; she was the lava beneath the crust of daily life’ p.143. However when Offred last meets Moira at the Jezebels, she finds that she did not manage to escape to freedom but was instead caught at the border and sent to the brothel where she says she will have three or four good years before being sent out to the colonies. In this final meeting it appears that Moira’s spirit has been broken by Gilead, yet she still declares herself to be a lesbian and her values as a feminist and as a heroine lie in her speaking out and challenging tyranny and oppression.

In conclusion, although written from a feminist perspective The Handmaid’s Tale allows for closer analysis of characters to understand the complexities of an oppressed society. It does not simply deal with the oppression of women; Gilead outlaws choice, emotion and free will. Pornography, sexual violence and infidelity are all outlawed but so is love. It is not merely oppression of women, but oppression of human rights. Atwood is highlighting that we see gender roles too plainly, that this is both true of men and women.

 Sophie Peters


Gender is Just a Lazy Way of Avoiding Talking about what you Really Want

I am currently reading Helen Boyd’s book She’s Not The Man I Married. In this book, Boyd describes what it is like to be married to a transgender woman, and how that relationship has completely rewritten the ways she thinks about her own gender and sexuality, both of which are thrown into question by her husband coming out – if she plays the man’s role from time to time, does that make her less of a woman? If she is now married to a woman, does that make her gay, or at the very least queer? As a feminist, Boyd is keen to dismiss the labels and the gender roles now that they no longer fit her precisely, but is unable to do this if her husband is to transition… gender plays a very concrete role in their relationship, and so she has to explore it, and tackle it head on, rather than ignore it.

 When gender is such a large facet of your relationship, Boyd tells us, you find yourself thinking about it all the time, which means it throws up problems all the time. But the problem with using gender as the framework for issues in a relationship is that the language we use is so inexact. Boyd writes:

“As a writer, I’m often offended by how inaccurate our language is when it comes to gender. ‘Feminine’ is used to stand in for all kinds of other words – like gentle, permissive, empathetic, kind, nurturing. Those are also the traits people imply when they say ‘woman’. ‘Masculine’, likewise, is used to mean strong, athletic, protective, gruff, or authoritative. Sometimes I feel like a writing teacher walking through the world – and the trans community – because I want to stop all the time to explain, ‘Say what you mean, because ‘feminine’ doesn’t mean anything.’”

Even words that don’t describe gender, such as “nurturing”, are so gendered that you soon realise they mean a lot more than they’re saying. To “nurture” something is to provide it with what it needs in order to grow; in this sense, is the typical ‘breadwinner’ masculinity any less nurturing than the femininity that slices the bread and feeds it to the family?

It made me realise how often, when it comes to relationships, I find myself thinking about myself in highly-gendered terms and then don’t bother to unpick what that means. Social conditioning tells me that asking a guy out is no way to start a relationship, that it is ‘emasculating’… but just think about that word for a second. There’s no feminine equivalent. All the other words that I might use to describe a person who would ask another person out – ‘confident’, ‘flirty’, even ‘forward’ – are words I don’t mind being described as. But if you suggest I’m in any way less ‘feminine’ because of it, I back down and go back to sitting in the corner looking pretty and waiting to be asked to dance. I like being feminine, and it’s a huge part of how I construct my identity – in the films I watch, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the way I present myself. However at the same time I don’t like playing games or messing people around; I am a pretty straightforward person and I prize honesty above most other virtues and it turns out that applied to the world of dating, those qualities turn me into a “man”. What’s with that?

Gender is important for a lot of people, and I’m not going to go all Judith Butler and say we should stop thinking about it all together. I don’t want to take anything away from people who, unlike me, have a strong sense of their internal gender. I’m just saying that we should start being more precise about what we mean by it. In my last relationship, I often complained to friends that I wished my ex would be “a bit more manly sometimes”… by which I meant, I wished that he would stick up for me more if his friends were teasing me. When I thought I wanted to “feel more like a woman” in bed, I really meant I wanted him to be slightly more sexually aggressive. By using gendered terms when I was talking about our problems, I was ducking the real issues and ignoring the question of what I really wanted. Luckily, I learned this lesson early; though, judging from the way he complained about being ‘whipped’ without ever telling me what exactly I was doing wrong, he didn’t.

Gender roles are imprecise because they encompass so many things. ‘Dependency’ is clearly associated with femininity in relationships, but would we call the role of mother ‘dependent’? Surely it implies the opposite, because ‘mothering’ someone means they are entirely dependent on you. I have heard many times girls with clingy boyfriends voice the wish that they’d just “man up”, but what if the ‘man’ they are being is a son relying on his new maternal figure? Instead of bringing gender into it, call it what it is, and then you won’t be misunderstood.

When it comes to sexuality, gender becomes even more complicated because we define our sexuality by what gender we are attracted to. I’m heterosexual, but what does saying that even mean? I’m certainly not attracted to every man by virtue of them being a man. The problem with the labels of heterosexual and homosexual is that they are creating a gender binary that doesn’t exist in the real world; where do the thousands of gender non-conforming people fit into this narrow idea of sexuality? Again, isn’t it easier to be honest about what we are really attracted to – I like narrow hips and body hair and stubble; it’s rare to find a woman with these qualities but I won’t rule it out in the future – after all, body type and genitals don’t define our gender.

The problem with a binary is that you have to fit into one side of it, or the other; if I take the role of ‘man’ by asking people out, I should expect to be the one who “wears the pants” in the relationship; when in reality, we all have a huge range of personal qualities, some of which are masculine, some of which are feminine; some of which we’ll like in others, and some of which we won’t. Being masculine in some senses doesn’t stop me being feminine in others – gender is not a scale, like hot and cold. If we become more precise in describing these things, not only do we make our relationships stronger, but we stop excusing all kinds of unacceptable or even abusive behaviours because “that’s just what men/women do”. There are almost three quarters of a million words in the English language; let’s start using them.

Hattie Grunewald
UEAFS President

Review: The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession With Virginity Is Hurting Young Women

“There is a moral panic in America over young women’s sexuality – and it’s entirely misplaced. Girls ‘going wild’ aren’t damaging a generation of women, the myth of sexual purity is. The lie of virginity – the idea that such a thing even exists – is ensuring that young women’s perceptions of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they’re sexually active.’

Jessica Valenti is touted as one of the great feminists of our generation, being named among the Guardian’s Top 100 women for her efforts in bringing feminism to the mainstream media through her popular blog, Her book The Purity Myth was published in 2009 to much critical acclaim and has even been made into a film.

In The Purity Myth, Valenti explores the concept of virginity and how various conservative organisations have manipulated the idea of sexual purity to pin women’s morality to their sexuality.  It is arguably somewhat limited in its view; the concept of female purity is an issue the world over but Valenti focuses solely on its impact in the United States. Nonetheless, she provides a solid argument, supported by well-chosen statistics and quotations from both pro-abstinence movements, to highlight the flaws in their methods, and well-known feminists, including bell hooks.

The book is broken up into clearly defined sections that flow well from one to the next. Valenti dissects the concept of virginity itself, of which there is no conclusive medical definition, to the various facets through which the myth of sexual purity is fed to young women. Particular attention is devoted to discussion of abstinence-only sex education, which received over $178 million in federal funding at the time of The Purity Myth’s publication, despite providing young people with dangerous and incorrect information about contraception and sexual health.

Her writing style is fast-paced, interspersed with witty footnotes. It does make it a light, easy read, coming in at just under 200 pages. At times, however, it feels like Valenti is just skimming the surface of the issues discussed. There is still much more that could be said, particularly regarding the treatment of women of colour and women from low-income households by the purity movement. Valenti mentions these cases but in brief detail. Some may enjoy her snarky tone, finding it makes the book more accessible, but it can often feel too blasé and almost patronising, given the seriousness of the subject matter.

At times it may feel that Valenti is preaching to the choir. Her target audience, those already familiar with feminist rhetoric and the concept of female sexual purity and its treatment, may not find a great deal of brand new information in this book. However it is a well-structured argument and a good resource to refer to when looking for facts and figures on abstinence movements and purity in general. The Purity Myth is definitely worth a read although it may not prove to be the groundbreaking seminal text on the treatment of purity that it stakes claim as.

Rachel Knott

Is Éowyn a Feminist hero? The Fantasy genre and its “Medieval” sexism

I am a bit of a Fantasy nerd. I only do one third of the nerd trifecta (Warhammer, World of Warcraft and Magic cards) by having a fairly substantial Warhammer High Elves army. Anything set in a Fantasy realm will do – I quite often become so fully absorbed when playing Skyrim that the sight of Draugr genuinely terrifies me. I have seen Lord of the Rings (extended edition, obviously) enough that I can quote large chunks. And Game of Thrones this year became one of my favourite TV shows. I just really like dragons, I guess.

But I have a fairly major problem with the Fantasy genre. It always uses a kind of warped Medieval period as it’s backdrop, and seems to always use this as an excuse for sexism.

“Oh its fine!” People will say, “Women were treated like that in Medieval times!”

In my opinion, however, this is NOT an excuse.

One of the main offenders is Warhammer. These are miniature models that one collects, paints and fights other people’s armies with. (Known as ‘Plastic Crack’ by my boyfriend in testament to the hobby’s extremely addictive nature.) Now, I prefer to imagine that my High Elves are so ‘high’, such a higher being, that they have done away with the concept of gender altogether; but actually, when looking at the models as a whole, it becomes clear that the number of female models is tiny. (In Warhammer 40K, the sci-fi set version of the hobby, there is a whole army of women, called the Sisters of Battle. But the point I am about to make stands for them, too). When there are female models, 90% of the time they are not clad in armour, as in their male counterparts (and surely all that makes sense for a war) but scantily-clad, often with large breasts on show.

Take these Witch Elves from the Dark Elf army:

Surely that level of clothing cannot be practical?!

Or maybe these Wardancers, part of the Wood Elf army…

Nope, they’re not very practically dressed either…

How about this Tomb Banshee of the Vampire Counts army. Surely a Banshee can’t be sexy?!

That waist is quite something… Looks like the makers of this model really were trying to objectify a Banshee. A BANSHEE, FOR GODDNESS SAKES.

The problem isn’t only with Warhammer. The women of Skyrim, a role-playing video game, also suffer from extreme-inappropriate-clothing-syndrome. This is an example of a man and woman from the Forsworn race. Granted, these people do believe in the less-is-more philosophy of clothing. But how does that little clothing on the female Forsworn make sense?! This is supposed to be armour!

Surely the makers of Warhammer and Skyrim cannot expect us to believe that in medieval times women were quite so exposed? No. This is evidence of the objectification of women persisting in the modern world and seeping into the fantasy worlds that the modern world has created.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are many things that Skyrim gets right. In the handbook that comes with the game there is an N.B. at the beginning which states that whether you play as a male or female character doesn’t matter, as the way that you learn skills is not affected by gender. This is perhaps an obvious statement, (as it would be absurd, not to mention outrageous, if gender did make a difference) but one that I feel needs to be made in the context of the sexism of the Fantasy genre.

Game of Thrones has been a subject much discussed on our UEA Feminism Facebook group. There are immediate issues with Game of Thrones. In Season 1, Episode 1, we see a woman being sold by her brother to a man who, later in the episode, rapes her. It took a lot for me to overlook the treatment of women in Game of Thrones so that I could continue watching the story. Certainly, there are some strong female characters, such as Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, and Tyrion Lannister’s mistress, Shae. But still, I believe that the treatment of women in Game of Thrones is pretty shocking, and it, like all the other problems with the fantasy genre we have seen so far is excused and explained away by citing it as in keeping with the medieval treatment of women.

Daenerys Targaryen, the woman we see sold and raped in the first episode

Lord of the Rings is the final nerdy thing I will discuss, honestly. And it’s my favourite, as it includes Éowyn. Éowyn is a daughter of Rohan, niece of King Theoden, who, at the end of The Return of the King, does this:

She kills the Witch King, King of the Nagzûl, the servant of the dark Lord Sauron. Which is freaking BADASS.

Éowyn is surely the strongest female character Tolkien wrote. In a culture run by men, which values prowess with the sword, she recognised that she could never be considered equal to her male counterparts until she proved herself in battle. And my god, does she do that.  And she doesn’t do it half-naked, either.

There is a problem here, however. Éowyn must act as a man in order to become respected. All the everyday, more feminine aspects of her character (the way she cared for her uncle in The Two Towers, for example) are not enough for her to be respected by her people. Ideally, Éowyn would be respected for acting in her normal way, right?

Well of course. But the key word there is ‘ideally’. The Lord of the Rings is the product of a man who wrote it in the 1950s. The problematic aspect of Éowyn’s transformation into hero is surely symptomatic of these facts, rather than the fictional patriarchy of Rohan.

So, is Éowyn a Feminist hero? Decide for yourself. She is one of my personal heroes, at least.

The problematic aspects of the Fantasy genre cannot be explained away by using the middle-ages type era they are invariably set in as an excuse. The problem with there being few female characters in Warhammer armies, or that Forsworn women wear hardly any clothes, and that Éowyn’s nurturing side is not enough to gain her respect, are all indicative of a problem of today rather than medieval times. (Aside from anything else, fantasy worlds are clearly not set in the real medieval times. So why have real medieval views of women?!) The culture that invented these fantasy worlds is at fault, not the fantasy worlds themselves. It is testament to the fact that women still aren’t respected and treated equally to men. They are objectified daily, mistreated, raped, and these sad realities have permeated fantasy worlds.

Jocelyn Anderson-Wood

UEA Feminism Treasurer