American radical feminist Catherine McKinnon described “difference” as the “velvet glove on the iron fist of domination.” Historically, the social classification of individuals was product of the human desire to separate what is “different.” This fear of non-conformity is what drives society to develop. It is also what constitutes a person’s need for power and control over others. The societal construction of the patriarchy originated from the classification of male from female. Today, conversations around gender inequality are flourishing in reaction to the rising pro-life movement and the several rape allegations that are emerging from the media. Determining why Margret Atwood’s literary classic the Handmaid’s Tale is more relevant now than ever. In the Handmaid’s Tale the narrator, Offred describes her life living under the Gilead regime. In the Gilead, gender classification is the political distinction between the free and the oppressed. Women are objectified, valued only for their reproductive abilities, and forced to completely subjugate to their commanders, the elitist men responsible for the regime of the society. Recognizing that the fabrication of the regime precipitates from the gender classification of modern society, what is the underlying explanation the elitist men have for the subjugation of women in Gilead?
To justify the regime’s profane actions towards women, Gilead emphasizes the necessity of progressing away from the negative conditions of society before. Throughout the novel, Offred remembers moments at the Re-Education Centre. The Centre exists with the purpose to indoctrinate Handmaid’s with the new belief systems of the Gilead. Aunts supervise the Handmaids in the Re-Education Centre while advocating for the systems values. One obvious justification apprised by many advocates of the Gilead regime was the decline in birthrates post World War Two. Offred describes in a memory:
“Aunt Lydia showing the birth rate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down. Of course, some women believed there would be no future, they thought the world would explode. That was the excuse they used, says aunt Lydia. They said there was no sense in breeding. Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: such wickedness. They were lazy women, she says. They were sluts” (107).
Aunt Lydia’s use of villainous words like “wicked” or “slut” make it clear that the behaviors of women in the modern era were not accepted by many traditional perspectives. Furthermore, she describes a woman’s defiance to propagate as “scorning god’s gifts!” (106). Through this, Aunt Lydia conveys the importance of fertility in the Gilead. Women are reduced to their reproductive capabilities and their bodies, objectified as a system of incubation. Offred expresses that she avoids looking down at her body as she does not “want to look at something that determines her so completely” (59). The role of a handmaid is to bear children for the elite. This ensures the continuity of the regime. Moreover, women are routinely indoctrinated with Gilead discourse, and have lost their rights to a job, an education, and voice. If the justification for the system is in reaction to the drastic decrease in birthrate, what motivates such dehumanization? Gilead rationalizes that for successful control over reproduction, domination over women is crucial. Chapter 13 of the Handmaids Tale, concludes with “Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used too, this may not seem ordinary now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.” It is possible that those in power recognize that abolishing individuality, in effect, abolishes potential resistance to the regime. With absolute conformity to the belief system, all individuality will dissipate. Constituting a social ignorance to maintain the Gilead’s systemic organization is a possible explanation for the subhuman treatment of women in the novel.
Another justification presented in the Handmaid’s Tale is that women must be protected against the degrading attitudes of men. Aunt Lydia advocates for the Gilead regime by arguing that “There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of the anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (34). In society before, women regularly lived with the fear of being assaulted or raped by men. Though, women are strictly oppressed in Gilead, Aunt Lydia believes that the satisfaction of being protected from misogynistic assault is a restrictive freedom in itself. Adversely, she then proceeds to explain that “men are sex machines … and not much more. They only want one thing.” Gilead routinely enforces the idea men are not responsible for their behavior, as their desires are purely instinctive and cannot be controlled. Men abused their dynamic freedom in the society before but evidently, it’s a women’s freedom that is eliminated. This suggests that the underlying motif for absolute domination over women is not to protect them, but to protect men from reprehension.
Perhaps the most substantial explanation for the subjugation of women is presented by the commander. The commander represents the epitome of male power and privilege. His involvement in the construction of Gilead allows one to see him as the mind behind the regime. Therefore, his perspective on the role of women in society can be deeply analyzed. In an intimate conversation with Offred the commander rationalizes that
“the main problem was with them men, there was nothing for them anymore…I mean there was nothing for them to do with women. I’m not talking about sex. That was part of it, the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. You know what they were complaining about? An inability to feel” (198).
The commander expresses that after the feminist revolution, women were progressively independent. Subsequently, the superior image of men began to fade. As women were no longer dependent on men, men were no longer needed. Moreover, to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy men most likely resorted to sexual violence as mentioned before. Once again, the regime is blaming women for the societal reconstruction. Though, the commanders claim suggests otherwise. His soliloquy conveys the impression that women are subjugated to reinstate a man’s purpose. As women in Gilead are valued only on their ability to conceive, men hold the power to authenticate this value, and women once again depend entirely on what a man can provide them.
The commander proceeds to say that a women’s quality of life has improved compared to before Gilead, “this way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace” (204).
It’s assumed that the commander’s morals are in order with those of the regime as he notions the purpose of women is to reproduce, in a supportive and protective environment. However, his actions near the conclusion of the Handmaid’s Tale propose his support for the regime is motivated by independent beliefs. The commander disobeys the fundamental values of Gilead when he takes Offred to jezebels. In the republic of Gilead, jezebels is a secret brothel where the elite are serviced by prostitutes. Gilead advocates the protection of women, and the sacredness of fertility. It is exaggerated by the regime that a women’s body is important for continuity and progress. These ideologies were crafted by dominating men in society, though they disregard them entirely by establishing this institution. The commander takes Offred to a room at jezebels, he then “pulls down one of her straps, slides his hand in amongst the feathers” (238). Offred believes she “can’t afford pride or aversion, there are all kinds of things that have to be discarded, under the circumstances” (238). The commander’s actions conject that the advocated values of the regime are a deception, and the true foundation of women’s oppression are to satisfy the insecurities of men. Offred believes that “perhaps he the commander has reached a state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything” (221). As society has always been dominated by men, those privileged enough have never experienced consequence, hence the commander’s reckless behavior. It is as though Margaret Atwood is suggesting that patriarchal privilege has led to a destructive ignorance. Men will exercise their privilege over women as they desire to feel superior. If this superiority is challenged, they will act out fear in order to protect their power. The commander’s actions introduce the notion that Gilead was legitimately constructed to allow men to maintain their authority over women, in reaction to women’s threatening capability.
Gender is a distinction which disregards race, culture, and belief. Gender classification systemizes a relationship of oppression and control. What motivates oppression can be a controversial though, fear is the human response to threat. Oppression in pursuit of power constitutes our patriarchy, and one can theorize that Atwood exaggerates this in the Handmaids Tale to convey a warning that masculine insecurity is prominent and dangerous in society today.