Although published in the last century, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian and postcolonial novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has, almost prophetically, pointed out today’s real-life issues related to infertility and women’s right to control their bodies regarding childbearing, birth control and abortion. In this blog I will focus on the issues of gender inequality and misogyny reflected in the novel and examine how women are ‘othered’ and how female misogyny is formed, so as to develop ideas for future women’s empowerment.
The novel depicts a fictitious world where women’s rights are severely restricted following the establishment of the Republic of Gilead, a highly patriarchal, totalitarian theonomic state (Attwood, 1985). Women no longer have the right to read, write or own property since they are expected to be men’s accessories. Significantly, fertile and ‘fallen’ women (eg, lesbians, single or unmarried mothers, women who have been married more than once, ‘heathens’, political dissidents, and scholars) are classified as ‘handmaids’ and enslaved to breed for the infertile elite, with their bodies being deemed a national resource.
Underlying the plot is a concept called ‘Otherness’, which enables us to comprehend how women are governed. The concept of ‘Other’ is generated during social identity construction (Zevallos, 2011). Social identities represent how individuals perceive themselves in relation to their group membership(s), and they separate the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ through social categorisation (Tajfel, Turner, Austin & Worchel, 1979). Because no group can define itself as the One without simultaneously defining the Other as its opposite (Marcus, 2020), by establishing such binary opposite social categories (eg men versus women), a sense of belonging is generated (Hall, 1992), and the ‘them’ becomes the outsider that is distinct from the ‘us’.
Otherness and power
Social identities are not innate; they are developed within a social hierarchy in which some are deemed superior to others (Briedik, 2021). This is where power enters the picture, as the negotiation of these identities typically depends on the negotiation of power relationships (Zevallos, 2011), and the outcomes (eg, who is ‘them’) reflect power differentials between groups (Okolie, 2003).
According to Foucault (1979), power derives from knowledge, exploits knowledge, and reproduces knowledge to achieve its own goals. As Zevallos (2011) remarked, because of their command of discourse, social institutions (eg the law, the media, education and religion) are capable of wielding power through their portrayals of what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘Other’.
Hall (1992) describes discourse as generating a certain kind of knowledge about a topic through the use of a collection of statements (ie language). In the novel, Gilead subjugates and controls women through language, brainwashing and surveillance. Not only have words been obliterated from the women’s world, but they are also restricted by a coding language that reshapes their identities and confines their social relationships (‘Blessed be the fruit’; ‘May the Lord open’) (Howell, 2019). As a result, women’s self-identities are suppressed, and through constant verbal, psychological and physical abuse (Howell, 2019), what Foucault (1979) refers to as ‘docile bodies’ are produced.
Female misogyny behind the scenes
When first reading the novel, it appears that the term ‘double colonisation’, which refers to imperialism and male dominance over women (Ahmed, 2019), can accurately capture Gilead’s control over women. Nonetheless, with further examination, there appears to have been female-to-female competition under patriarchal and imperial control (Calvi, Rankin, Clauss & Byrd-Craven, 2020).
In addition to becoming appendages of men, women in Gilead are socially classed and must adhere to strict dress and behaviour standards, as illustrated in Figure 1. Such restrictive social norms can cause women of other classes to view handmaids as sinful (Williams, 2017) and develop an awareness of what Finigan (2011) refers to as misogyny, since they are educated to despise the handmaids.
Figure 1: Social classification of women in Gilead (Makenzie, n.d.)
Manne (2019) defines misogyny as contempt and sometimes hatred directed toward women. She argues that misogyny demonstrates how patriarchy and sexism manifest themselves in social relationships, with sexism serving as the ideology that sustains patriarchy and misogyny reinforcing its ideas. Einhorn’s article (2021) on how misogyny affects female-to-female relationships implies that women may internalise misogyny under patriarchy and maintain patriarchal power relationships and misogynistic ridicule through peer policing. Margaret Atwood’s famous quote is as follows: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” (Atwood, 1985). This quote demonstrates how fear of male violence fuels female misogyny in a patriarchal society rife with class divisions and racism. Women supervise one another to protect themselves from the risks of male violence and peer noncompliance (Einhorn, 2021); as a result, women may dread one another.
Towards women’s empowerment
Despite being designated as Goal five of the Sustainable Development Goals launched by the United Nations (n.d.), achieving gender equality and female empowerment remains problematic in many parts of the world. For example, women are often blamed for a couple’s failure to conceive (Ombelet et al., 2008), despite the fact that male infertility accounts for about half of global childlessness cases (ranging from 20% in Sub-Saharan Africa to 70% in the Middle East) (Agarwal et al., 2015).
Meanwhile, when it comes to birth control and abortion, the right of women to maintain control over their own bodies is still being questioned in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (Howell, 2019). Worse still, countries such as Poland, Iran and the majority of Latin America are enacting the world’s strictest abortion laws, forcing women to travel for abortions, use unsafe methods to terminate their own pregnancies or be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, even if their health is endangered (Fratti, 2018). El Salvador has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world, prohibiting women from having abortions under any circumstances, including to save their own lives, and those who have abortions or miscarry face prison sentences of up to 30 years (Januwalla, 2016).
Inspired by such reality, the ordeals endured by the Gilead women in the novel are as heinous as one might conceive. Women at all social levels are subject to control by their spouses, the Gilead government, and peer supervision. They are brainwashed into believing that such an oppressed society and their submissive positions and roles are normal. Women who are caught reading or writing will be punished by having a hand or finger removed “to find redemption”. Handmaids in particular are told by the government, men and even other women that a lifestyle of consistent ritualised rape, childbearing and physical and emotional abuse is all for “redeeming” themselves and working off their “sin”. If they refuse or attempt to evade their roles and “duty,” they face death, being forced to live and work in fields contaminated with poisonous chemicals until they die, or becoming a sex slave. If they have conducted abortions, whether before or after Gilead’s rise, they will be put to death.
As such, now that we are aware that both men and women make covert and overt attempts to control females in both the novel and reality, it is time to consider how to address otherness and misogyny towards women in order to help women take back their human rights.
One viable strategy offered by the novel is for men and women to share a common goal. The novel reflects Einhorn’s (2021) statements that when individuals are involved in a common struggle, friendship may develop and help people to overcome their otherness and unite.
However, a more critical question may be: ‘Are people aware or knowledgeable about the fact that something is problematic?’. As previously stated, individuals may have been indoctrinated with ideas that are ‘orthodox’ and thereby become unaware of the issues or take them for granted. For instance, Chinese people are commonly influenced by Confucianism, which instructs individuals to follow ‘traditional virtues’ and always submit to authority, which typically is the male figure and elders (Holroyd, 2003). Even in recent years, many ‘female virtue’ schools supporting male superiority and female inferiority and recruiting female students under the guise of ‘strengthening traditional Chinese virtue education’ still exist (BBC News, 2017). As such, it is difficult for people to change their mindset due to the early or even lifelong influence.
Nevertheless, perhaps only positive discourse is capable of defeating negative discourse. The #Metoo campaign exemplifies this, demonstrating how positive discourse can contribute to women’s empowerment and how common challenges and wishes can overcome differences. As being propagated via the media, the ‘MeToo’ slogan encouraged both female and male victims of sexual harassment to courageously speak out and fight for themselves, other victims and potential victims (France, 2017). As this quote by Vygotsky (1978) – “[a]ll the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals” – suggests, both human thought and purposeful behaviour are contextualised within and evolve from shared experiences and relationships. This means that sharing objectives with comparable others would help individuals develop a more optimistic outlook and raise the likelihood of people pursuing both individual and shared goals (Shteynberg and Galinsky, 2011).
Despite this, a real challenge in this could be that today’s technological developments on social media have also increased the amount of anti-feminist content available to people (Burgess et al., 2019). Popular YouTube videos and memes that dominate young people’s online habitats are now conveying concepts such as evil women controlling men’s lives and rape as a natural result of “depriving” men of sex (Murdoch, 2019). Given that the more misogynistic information individuals see, the less shocking it will be, with low-level sexism and sexual harassment still part of life for many women, radical misogyny is likely to become more acceptable to young people exposed to it online. The mainstream media’s speculation about whether #MeToo is a “witch hunt” and headlines about “henpecked spouses” snapping and murdering their lovers legitimise even more extreme beliefs (Bates, 2021; Mumford, 2018). Extremists celebrate this kind of “mainstream” content to make it a publicly acceptable discourse, thus making their misogyny ideas appear more reasonable (Bates, 2021).
The incel movement, which spreads an ideology of violent misogyny online, is an obvious case. The term “incel” is derived from the phrase “involuntary celibacy,” which was coined in the mid-1990s to refer to individuals who are not having sex but wish they were (Bates, 2021). The young woman who invented this term also founded a supportive mixed-sex online community for these lonely people yearning for love (Taylor, 2018). However, over time, this “friendly self-help community” evolved into a space for males who subscribe to an ideology defined by male supremacy and female subjugation to laud and encourage male violence (Louie, 2018; Bates, 2021). The advocates viewed themselves as permanent victims of a “female gynocracy,” claiming that sex is an intrinsic right of men and that rape and murder are only vengeances for a society that withholds sex from them (The Week, 2021). When feminists are described as a hate group bent on terrorising men, young males already anxious about societal expectations of tough, traditional masculinity can easily fall into the extremists’ clutches to portray men as the true oppressed victims within society and against feminist movements (Bates, 2021).
In addition to such spreading online hatred, the incel movement has also led to terrible real-world consequences. We know that numerous men, such as Jake Davison in the United Kingdom and Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian in North America, have been radicalised by incel ideology before perpetrating mass murders (The Guardian, 2021; Louie, 2018). However, we cannot quantify the number of people exposed to such rhetoric and ideology prior to murdering women or the amount of harassment, sexual assault and rape committed against women in society due to incel ideology and other types of sexist and misogynist extremism (Bates, 2021).
In light of this, it is clear that the division of people, accentuated by anti-feminist and misogynist discourse spread via social media platforms, has made it more difficult to rally people together in support of women’s empowerment. Meanwhile, just as every coin has two sides, so does discourse. On the one hand, discourses such as “incel” can positively unite people with similar experiences or aspirations and generate a sense of connection, acceptance and comprehension. Nevertheless, such “positive” discourse could function negatively, sparking a perfect storm of rage, hate and a desire to harm others, further polarising people (Louie, 2018).
The Handmaid’s Tale has prompted analysis of issues beyond fertility, such as gender inequality and misogyny, which, as depicted in the novel, are serious real-world problems that require attention and resolution. Control over women begins with the assignment of social identities, and women can further be constrained into ‘docile bodies’ by power. The theory that the domination over women is completely patriarchal – and sometimes, imperial – is inaccurate; the role of internalised female misogyny in this cannot be overlooked.
Fortunately, when common challenges or goals arise, people may put their differences aside and work cooperatively for the greater good. Social institutions should take their responsibilities and use their power appropriately to guide the public and inspire a greater public awareness of the issues and need for women’s empowerment. At the same time, the negative influences posed by social media should also be considered and their potentially harmful effects minimised.
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