22 mar. 2008

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood
Kinds of Women in The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer, usually catalogued as "feminist". She published one of her best sellers in 1986, The Handmaid's Tale. This novel is considered an anti-utopian, or “dystopian” novel. This genre presents imagined worlds and societies that are not ideals, on the contrary, they are presented as restrictive. She wrote it shortly after the elections of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in GB, while the conservative revival in the West partly was fueled by a movement of religious conservatives who criticized what they perceived as the excesses of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s.
Atwood wrote her novel under these circumstances, so she created the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is shown as a society founded on a return to conservative and traditional values as well as and gender roles, consequently, the subjugation of women by men. Gilead is governed by a group of conservative religious extremists that had taken power and turned the sexual revolution on its main problem. Taking these elements in mind, Atwood organised in her novel a hierarchy into which different categories of women fit according to class status, reproductive capacity or level of fertility and their function.
Atwood's categories of women socially accepted in Gilead
White women seem to be the default in the Gilead society. The reproductive value of white women in America is privileged over that of others.
Blacks and Jews, however, are quickly shuttled away per the fundamentalist Gileadan interpretations of the Bible. Blacks are considered Children of Ham and Jews are called Sons of Jacob.

Wives (blue dresses) are at the top social level permitted to women. They are women married to the Commanders who are the ruling circle of the new military dictatorship. Generally, they are unfertile for unknown reasons although it is presumed that it may be related to an unexplored ecological disaster or effects of a bioweapon.
Widows (wives after their husband's death) must dress in black.

Daughters are the natural or adopted children of Wives.

Aunts (brown dresses) train and monitor the Handmaids. It is a central organisational element of Gilead that women be used in the social repression of women. The Aunt system produces Handmaids, by re-educating fertile women who have broken Gileadean gender and social laws. Owing to the demands of Wives for fertile Handmaids, Gilead gradually increased the number of gender-crimes. However, the Aunt system attempts to promote the role of the Handmaid as an honorable one and seeks to legitimise it by removing any association with gender-criminality.

Handmaids (red dresses) fertile women whose social function is to bear children. Handmaids are subjected to a monthly reproductive ritual derived from the biblical story of Rachel and Leah's reproductive competition.
Marthas (green dresses) are older infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic services in the houses of those with money (aristocrats and conservatives). Marthas are Black since they portrayed ancient times in which the American elite employed black slaves as domestic workers.
Econowives (multicoloured dresses: red, blue and green = multiple roles) women married to low-ranking men (those who do not belong to the ruling elite). They are expected to perform all the female functions: domestic duties, companionship, child-bearing.

Socially unacceptable categories of women in Gilead
Jezebels. (=Prostitutes). They are available only to Commanders. This category includes lesbians and attractive, educated women who were unable to adjust to handmaid status. These women are housed in the remains of a hotel. Jezebels dress in the remnants of sexualized costumes from "the time before": cheerleaders, school uniforms, and Playboy Bunny costumes.

Unwomen (grey dresses) are sterile women. Unwomen as a category embraces all women unable to fit within the Republic of Gilead's gender categories: widows, lesbians, nuns and politically dissident women and Handmaids who fail to produce a child within three chances are sent to the Colonies (areas of agricultural production and deadly pollution). Unwomen are simply regarded as categorically incapable of social integration as their society rejects them utterly. Homosexuals are declared Gender Traitors, and either executed, or sent to the Colonies to die a slow death.