Whether or not it is expressly acknowledged, gender and sexuality play a significant role in society and culture. Men and women are both part of the human race; almost biologically identical. So what marks the distinction between the two? Gender and gender roles provide arbitrary generalizations of conventional femininity and masculinity, with roles essentially assigned at birth. When detailing masculinity, men are expected to be burly and stoic, the protectors and providers who dominate the public sphere. When speaking of gender roles and rules in terms of feminity, women are generally found in the private or domestic sphere, where they are to cook, clean, and rear-children. Women are also expected to portray some type of frailty, modesty, and innocence; often seen as the inferior gender. These gender roles are ever-present in everyday life, as well as media and literature. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian piece The Handmaid’s Tale recounts the endeavors of a woman named Offred in the extreme totalitarian Republic of Gilead. In Gilead, men essentially utilize Handmaid’s like Offred to breed children in a production-line manner to repopulate after a steep drop in birth rates and fertility. If anything, the novel is one of the greatest displays of extreme gender role perpetuation, and how these gender roles can hinder and stifle society.
In a patriarchal system, men placed at the apex of the household and society overall. The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale portrays an extreme patriarchal society where men hold all political and social control over civilization and women are virtually their servants and subjects. If men in this society have absolute control over women in society, this also means they have control over women’s sexuality, including their reproductive rights. As aforementioned, fertility and birth rates were on the decline due to extreme environmental damage, and the blame for this was wholly placed on women. In chapter ten, Offred makes her routine visit to the doctor, where he utters the unlawful notion that most of the older men in Gilead are indeed sterile; “I almost gasp: he’s said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.” (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 823/4146) It takes a man and a woman to create life, however, in Gilead the law, created by men, states that it is one hundred percent a duty of a woman to conceive. The men in this society further ridicule and reduce women, brainwashing them to believe they are nothing more than inhuman breeding animals seeing menstruation as a failure, and their body as objects. “Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own,” Offred details her anxiety and sorrow behind menstruation every month in chapter thirteen. She goes on to describe the detachment and loss of ownership over her body; “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will…” “Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object…” (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 987/4146) It is no wonder Handmaid’s like Offred have a vast disconnect from their bodies, as they are victims of constant rape hidden under the guise of a religious ceremony. The Martha sits above the Handmaid on the bed, holding hands to be of “one flesh”, as important men such as the Commander engage in relations with the Handmaid’s body. I say body and not the Handmaid as a being itself, as the act is described in detail in chapter sixteen as emotionless; there is no romance, no frills, no passion, from all parties involved. The Handmaid is a mere vessel, or production line. (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 1243/4146) Rape is normalized and ritualized by Martha’s and men throughout the novel, but the disturbing recurring theme of rape culture is seen even among the Handmaid’s themselves. In chapter thirteen, a particular Handmaid who was once known as Janine recounts how she was gang raped to Aunt Helena and a group of fellow Handmaid’s. “But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.” (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 952/4146) The constant shame and humiliation women face in regards to their bodies and sexuality in The Handmaid’s Tale is brought upon the gender roles and assumptions that women are to be nothing but sexual objects, and this is done through enforcement of extreme patriarchy.
Another gender role that is prominently displayed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is women and their deep-rooted place in the private sphere. Before the rise of the Republic of Gilead, women had more agency to do what they pleased; they had more freedom of choice. However, in the ultra-traditional Gileadean values, women are confined to the private sphere and the private sphere only. Women are only allowed to partake in very domestic acts; cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Only the most important women, the Martha’s, are allowed to engage in any type of leisure activity like gardening and knitting, and even so, these women remain unfulfilled and bored, as they are essentially domestic prisoners. To pass time, Serena Joy and other Martha’s knit intricate scarves for soldiers on the front lines in Gilead. “Sometimes I think these scarves aren’t sent to the Angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted again in their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the Wives busy, to give them a sense of purpose.” (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 181/4146) There are small allowances of “fun” activities, but they are still stereotypically feminine attributed pass-times. We also see women’s strict confinement to the private sphere as they cannot read or write. Prohibiting women from furthering education or reading and writing has long been a tactic of patriarchy to keep women oppressed and out of the public sphere, as women are to not have strong opinions, and not have minds of their own. Their true place is in the household. In chapter twenty-six, Aunt Lydia speaks of her prospects for the future of Gilead when the population increases; “Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn’t reasonable or humane.” (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 2137/4146) Here Aunt Lydia acknowledges that tending to the home is hard work, but instead of men or fathers lending a hand, she notes that women should band together to maintain the perfect household for their men. The strict adhesion to the concept of women remaining confined to the private sphere in The Handmaid’s Tale was pushed not only by men, but women too who believed that this was their true place in life and society.
Though The Handmaid’s Tale overwhelmingly displays female gender roles and how they affect their society in Gilead, traditionally masculine stereotypes perpetuate this dystopian horror further. Men and women are often seen as fundamentally different beings. One of these gender roles is that men are to be physically stronger, and bigger. When Offred remembers her life before Gilead, she describes a trip to the grocery store with her family, Luke at the meat counter; “He liked to choose what kind of meat we were going to eat during the week. He said men needed more meat than women did, and that it wasn’t a superstition and he wasn’t being a jerk, studies had been done.” (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 861/4146) This opinion of the biological difference between men and women by Luke shows that misogynistic ideals existed in normal times pre-Gilead, though they obviously worsened with time. Another example of gender roles stereotypically attributed to men is that they are to be emotionless. We see this portrayed in the Commanders interactions with both Serena Joy and Offred during the ceremony, returning to chapter sixteen. Serena Joy is crying, as she usually does the night of the ceremony. The Commander really doesn’t care much, or even notice. During the ritual itself “he is preoccupied, like a man humming to himself in the shower without knowing he’s humming; like a man who has other things on his mind.” (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 1243/4146) The Commander is a very important man with many responsibilities and has bigger, far more pressing issues than his own emotions and the emotions of others, in the very emotionally-stunted, masculine nature. Earlier in the novel, in chapter four, Offred encounters two Guardians who seem to be sexually frustrated, but they mustn’t indulge their frustrations, because the consequences may mean they do not get handmaid’s themselves. (Atwood, Kindle Cloud Reader Location 309/4146) The idea that men should always be rewarded for good behavior and that women are objects of reward to quench sexual thirst is a concept of horrible sexism and patriarchy. The gender roles portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale strengthens the idea that men are superior to women, who must always present characteristics and attitudes of a conventionally masculine figure.
Margaret Atwood describes her novel The Handmaid’s Tale as speculative fiction, and not fiction alone, as a governing system such as the Republic of Gilead could very well happen in society today. Offred and other characters in the book saw passive hints of misogyny and gender roles before the totalitarian regime took over, though then these statements may have seemed innocent at the time. In a patriarchal society, men are the center of all aspects of life, and contribute to the oppression of women by controlling their sexuality and maintaining them in the private sphere, further enforcing gender roles. Misogyny, patriarchy, and gender roles are cyclically embedded into any culture, and Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale shows a possible peak into a future that lets such rhetoric run rampant.
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