Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale certainly offers insight on issues relating to women’s subjugation, but a well versed reader can not help but notice the undertones which comment on Atwood’s feminist contemporaries. It seems to serve as a premonition for any type of radical movement, especially for ones that claim to serve the interests of women, be it on the left or on the right.
By illustrating the horrors of a society that has leaned so far that it has fallen into the radical religious right, Atwood also puts into question the morality of radical feminism. Catherine McKinnon’s crusade against sexualized violence led her into a much criticized alliance with the religious right. Tactics that McKinnon and other radical feminists proposed for helping women curbed freedom of speech and expression in order to limit pornography. That combined with Offred’s feminist mother burning books, are scarily similar to the totalitarian tactics used in the Republic of Gilead, which also supposedly protect women from violence. Instead, they do this by severely restricting women’s freedoms, as well as men’s accessibility to them.
In the context of the novel the feminist approach had failed to stop the eroticism of dominance and sexual violence. The failure made room for the conservative backlash, which protected women by removing sexuality from dominance. The mechanical act of the Ceremony demonstrates how it is possible for women to be oppressed through sexuality without dominance or submission or anything sexy (though dominance and submission do still certainly exist). Atwood’s critique of McKinnon and radical feminism is not scathing; it merely shows its possible dangers as well as its wholes.
Disability is also a pervasive motif throughout the novel. In the Republic of Gilead, environment factors have caused infertility in men and women, though only women bare the consequences. Disability theory shows how not being able to conform to physical gender expectation, i.e. by not giving birth, women considered defective non-women. Thus this “disability” (even if it is the man who is disabled/infertile) causes women to lose their status as women, and thus as persons and they are consequently sent to die in the colonies. Even when pregnancy results in live birth, deformed infants known as schredders are sent away and presumably euthanized. This shows how obsolete the notion of disability is, especially when environmental factors practically make it a norm.
Patricia C. Collins’ literature also has a place in analysis. The rulers of Gilead use a complex social system of race and gender to create a hierarchy of subordination and domination for the women of Gilead – with the privileged white Wives working alongside the stigmatized possibly black Marthas, who work together to control the bodies and sexuality of the Handmaids.
Twenty years after its publication, The Handmaid’s Tale still serves as a reminder to avoid any type of totalitarian action regardless of the philosophy it backs up. It is also concerning because of the ever-growing power of the religious right, who gear their activism towards denying women reproductive freedom, as evident by the symbolic illegalization of “partial birth” abortions. Today, perhaps the greatest message we can take away from the novel is “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”