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October 9, 2017 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood

Maybe my timing is off with this review. I know the television show just got showered with Emmys, but it’s been available to watch for a while now. It’s the kind of show that you either binge immediately, or aren’t even aware of. But I don’t fall into either category. I decided on purpose I couldn’t watch it, not yet anyway.

The show The Handmaid’s Tale brings to extraordinary visual life something that is starkly depicted in print — a woman, all women, controlled and put by a patriarchal society in a limited number of roles that are designed to diminish and disempower them. When I read the book, I would leave it feeling incredibly on edge. There’s something disturbing about being in this dystopian world where the line between their horrifying situation and our real world is blurry.

It isn’t so much that politically there is still gender discrimination or ignorance or apathy. It’s more that the phrases the male characters use, the attitudes they adopt, are eerily familiar. There’s a sense in which a man who says, yeah, I agree, women in movies are depicted really stupidly, and then says, that’s just how men think though, is just a lite version of the male characters depicted in the novel — for example Fred, when he presents himself as a pseudo-friend, a sympathetic companion to Offred, someone who is trying to be as kind as he can be, while at the same time he’s living off the benefits of his society and has no interest in relinquishing any power.

Which is why I couldn’t bring myself to watch this show. Watching sexism portrayed on a screen, when everyday life isn’t free of its presence, is a hard thing to do. It’s difficult to see male characters acting in abhorrent ways, when wisps of their behaviour hang around me in reality in my friends and my family and in men in positions of authority. It’s tiring.

But having said all this, I have to still say, I highly recommend this book. It’s remarkable. Smartly written, witty and well-crafted, and like a jackhammer into an uneducated mind.

Essentially, the plot centres around Offred, a woman who has become a surrogate for a married couple, lives in their home, and is treated as a kind of servant. She doesn’t get to choose when or with whom she has sex. She isn’t seen as fully human — she is reduced to a birthing vessel. The society in which she lives is religiously twisted, authoritarian, and dystopian, only recently formed, and in this culture, women have come to be seen as suited for only a few predictable roles. Women here lack autonomy, rights, equality… even thinking about this is making me want to riot. To illustrate: the name “Offred” comes from the amalgamation of “of” and “Fred”, the husband in charge of the household in which Offred lives. She doesn’t get her own name. They define her by the man who rules over her. And of course, the cherry on top, there’s a whole load of brainwashing to maintain this status quo. Isn’t literature fun?

Atwood’s novel is highly complex, weaving together themes of gender, class, race, and politics. She has a deftness to her writing that leaves room for analysis and ambiguity. Please read this book if you don’t understand how it feels to be weighed down by the burden that another person has decided your gender is; and to be completely furious about the whole bloody situation. Maybe it will be enlightening. It will definitely be worthwhile.


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