Feminist Reading Journey: Margaret Atwood ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Image: The Kawaii Kollective

Let me start this by saying no I haven’t seen the Hulu TV series yet but I fully intend to! This post however isn’t about the tv series, or the film adaptation, it’s about the novel. I actually read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as part of my undergraduate university degree, but I had read the novel before then because, well, because I like reading!

I also want to quickly address for anyone following this series that I will be reading some new books soon, and the series will be continuing. It’s just on a little bit of a hiatus while I try to finish my dissertation and sort my life out. When it properly comes back I’ll make a blog post letting everyone know, and hopefully have my reading list on there in advance so people can read along with me if they want to. I also want to take more care with the authors I select so that I can actually start to read a variety of different experiences. I try and make my feminism intersectional, and I know at the moment I’m not doing my best to represent that in these blog posts. In terms of a time scale, posts will also be every 2 weeks so that they are not rushed. However, for everyone who hasn’t been reading the rest of my blog posts, sorry about that ramble, and don’t worry I’m going to get on to this blog post now.

First of all, there is a reason that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a classic, and for those of you who have burned before (like me) by the term ‘classic’ being bestowed upon a book because it is incredibly long and difficult to follow; don’t worry this isn’t the case here. The story (for those who don’t know) follows a woman called Offred (though this isn’t her ‘real’ name) and her life as a handmaid in the fictional dystopian future of Gilead (a military dictatorship). Her position as a handmaid in this dictatorship means that she is kept for reproductive purposes and her ‘job’ is to reproduce in an elaborate ceremony with The Commander (the male head of the household she lives at) with his wife attending (it’s as bad as it sounds).

Image: @aprilisthecruellestmonth/ Instagram 

I’m not going to say anything more about the plot than that as I don’t want to ruin anything, but think about the way reproductive rights are in the US (and continue to be in Northern Ireland, and other countries in which there are restrictions on abortion laws or abortion is illegal) and you get a sense of what is going on. Although, there was some positive news recently that women from Northern Ireland will be able to get an abortion in Britain for free. However, this verdict also came on the same day that: “Belfast’s Court of Appeal ruled abortion law in Northern Ireland should be left to the Stormont Assembly, not judges – effectively overturning an earlier ruling that the current abortion laws were incompatible with human rights laws” (Source: BBC News).

While a lot of people might argue that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is not necessarily about abortion (which, I agree with to a certain extent); because in the tale the women desire to have a baby. However, they are still being controlled and forced into that one position- their reproductive rights are being taken away from them. I’m also not the only one to have made this link as women have been seen sporting robes similar to the ones depicted in the Hulu TV series in a number of protests related to reproductive rights and the fight against misogyny.

It for this reason that the quotation I ended up choosing is: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. And this week the quotation is very apt not only in terms of equality, but in my own life. I’m coming up to the period where I’m at a bit of a transitional period in my life where I’m not quite sure where I will end up or where I will be. There is something also truly horrible in not knowing, which I hate more than just generally being in a horrible situation. However, I know I’ve just got to get on with it and things will turn around. And at a much faster rate than if I just let life take me where it may. But it’s hard, and I know my friends are finding hard, so basically in a round about way I just want to say if you’re finding everything hard that’s ok. Just try your best to let someone know that you’re finding it hard.

As always the quotation for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has been beautifully illustrated by  Caroline from The Kawaii Kollective:

The Handmaid's Tale Image

Image: The Kawaii Kollective

In regards, to the quotation it is also incredibly relevant recently, as the fight for equality has felt difficult, especially with the series of headlines hitting the media regarding gender parity. Perhaps, the most famous of which is the news of the gender wage gap within the BBC, as well as the controversy surrounding the price of the morning after pill in Boots. Especially, considering Boots’ response that if the pill was priced cheaper it might mean that Boots is “incentivising inappropriate use”. Now then more than ever we need to be banding together to fight for change, while not letting these hits grind us down. And there has already been action with a number of female stars from the BBC acting together to write a letter urging the director general to fix the pay gap.

And this links to the main thing I have seen written about ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and that is that the story is not just a tale: but a warning or a sign of what is happening in our world (particularly, in the Global North, and specifically in America right now). I’ve touched on this already by discussing some of the restrictions placed on women having an abortion, but there is much more that is happening against gender equality and equal rights for everyone whatever gender they identify as (I don’t mean this remark as a flippant ‘whatever’ but as a way to include the variety of different genders people identify as) in Trump’s America.

The author of the article I just linked under ‘gender equality’ also mentions how President Trump doesn’t believe in climate change. In fact he actually pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, which is horribly ironic considering that the reason why the majority of people in Gilead are infertile is due to radioactive pollution.

Many of the practices within the novel are also present within other countries in the world not just America, particularly regarding same sex love  (in the novel women are circumcised as a punishment for this, and this is something that is still carried out today though not necessarily as a punishment for homosexuality). This practice may be more familiar to you under the name FGM or Female Genital Mutilation, which can “lead to severe bleeding, pain, complete loss of sensitivity, complications during childbirth, infertility, severe pain during sex, recurring infections and urine retention. And in some cases it is lethal. Unlike male circumcision, female genital mutilation also inhibits sexual pleasure”.

I think then now is a good a time as ever to read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (perhaps the best time) and think about how the practices described are similar or the same to practices inflicted against either gender (as there is not a lot of mention in the novel of how these practices would affect people who exist outside the gender identities of male or female) within the world. Think about then how the world Atwood describes would be like for those who exist out of the 2 gender binaries just mentioned. Most of all, write, talk and protest about the injustices that too closely mirror our own.

After all, Margaret Atwood is being heralded as the ‘voice of 2017‘ so you might as well see for yourself what she has to say. As for me I’m finally going to watch the TV show, and not let anyone grind me down any longer.

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Feminist Reading Journey: Carrie Fisher ‘The Princess Diarist’

Image: Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope/ 20th Century Fox 

This year I set myself the challenge to start reading for pleasure again. After doing a degree in English Literature with Film, I kind of lost the time to simply read books for myself, rather than for a particular module. In fact, I’d lost a lot of the enjoyment that reading had previously brought me and since I am at my core a book worm this was unacceptable for me.

I decided to set myself the challenge of reading a book a week because I’m totally crazy and it seemed like a good idea at the time. The first few books I read had no particular theme to them, but then I started seeing more and more books I wanted to read that had a particular theme to them: equality and feminism. So I thought why not make that my theme? Especially since I already wanted to do some more reading around feminism because I consider myself a novice at best, and I feel like reading is the best education.

Also, I know I have a lot to learn, and there are still so many women that have remained hidden to me for me to discover. I don’t want to just rely on my own very limited experience of being a woman, as everyone’s experience is different depending on where you are from, and unfortunately in the world we live in, what colour your skin is, along with your sexual orientation and a lot of other factors.

I know, for example that I as a white woman have had privilege that I did not even realise I had until I started talking to other women in my Masters class about how they have been treated on holiday, or in the airport compared to the way in which I have been treated (of course the different ways I have/ will be treated is not just limited to this example!).

My sexuality is also important here, as I am heterosexual, so have never faced the prejudice that people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community have (I do consider myself an ally of the community, but it would be wrong to say I have had to deal with the same experiences that people who identify as a lesbian have for example), so I need to read about women from this community too. As well as read about the experiences of trans women as well. I want this community to be accepting, and for all of us to fight for equality together, and how can we do this if we aren’t inclusive?

Now, I know a lot of people are ready to attack me for not mentioning men yet, but of course I do not think they are exempt from the discussion. Men are affected by the patriarchy too, of course they are. It makes them think that have to be a real ‘man’ and confirm to the twisted system that is toxic masculinity, and not be able to express their emotions, their sexuality or truly be themselves. Feminism is about equality not women hating men (that is misandry), so men need to be a part of this dialogue as well.

So I want to learn, and for me reading is for me one of the ways I can learn. I started with Carrie Fisher’s novel ‘Princess Diarist’ not out of any preconceived sort of plan but because I realised when Carrie Fisher died that I never had read any of her books, and that was an injustice that she deserved better than.

Carrie Fisher The Princess DiaristImage: April Wilson 

For each book I read I am also excited to announce that I have teamed up with the lovely Caroline from The Kawaii Kollective who will be providing me with lovely illustrations of the authors I am reading along with my favourite quotation from the book (inspired by Kimothy Joy’s collaboration with The Huffington Post!).

Be sure to also check out Caroline’s Etsy shop if you like what you see and want to purchase her art work!

Kawaii Kollective Carrie FisherImage: The Kawaii Kollective

Since I am a bit behind in posting about this here is a list of the books I’ve read so far:

  • Carrie Fisher, ‘The Princess Diarist’
  • Sady Doyle, ‘Trainwreck’
  • Helena Kelly, ‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’

Also, I probably shouldn’t be announcing it yet but I’ll announce it a day early just this once, this week’s book I will be reading is Maya Angelou, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’. If you have any suggestions for what I should read next please comment below. At the moment I was thinking of reading ‘Milk and Honey’ by Rupi Kaur next week!

If you are interesting in collaborating with me on this project as well please let me know. My inbox is always open!