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FEMINIST APPROACH TO GENDER ISSUE WITH THE PROJECT ITSELF USING THE HANDMAID’S TALE BY MARGRET ATWOOD AND THE POWER BY NAOMI ALDERMAN AS CASE STUDY
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story where women’s rights have been revoked, and thus women are back in gender roles taken to the extreme, with no rights, no opinions, and no cosmetics or beauty products of any kind. A once independent woman is turned into an object, a ‘vessel’ whose sole purpose is to bear children to save the population. It is a dystopian nightmare which subjugates and subdues women to the point of sexual slavery, language impacts and indoctrinates them in a psychologicallydamaging manner, and denies them the basic freedoms which most women in Western civilization take for granted (Porfert 1). The aim of this paper is to arguing the representation of feminist dystopia and the issues related to female predicament, their submissiveness to men in the novels. It will draw a final picture of women’s struggle for freedom. It has been asserted that woman’s identity is pushed aside and even erased in the patriarchal social structure of theocratic states.
1.1 BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY
Science fiction, a previously male-dominated genre of literature, has seen an increase in imaginative fiction focusing on the relation between genders and the relation between sexuality and power. This literature has become well-known as feminist dystopian fiction, a genre in which the complex relationship between the individual and societal power is discussed through a reevaluation of gender relations and institutionalized racism and sexism. Feminist dystopian novels often radicalize the inferior position of women in contemporary society and present a social reality in which captivity and severe oppression of women is the norm (Booker 340). The dystopian genre has long been popular among readers and critics of literature, with publications such as Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin’s We, and Huxley’s Brave New World dominating the genre. The feminist dystopian works, however, represent a development of more recent decades, and gained more attention when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Atwood’s novel tells the story of handmaids working for the totalitarian government of Gilead that upholds a discriminative system regarding female reproduction. In this social reality, the reproduction of women of color was exploited and inferior to the reproduction of white women, who had a more privileged status (Roberts 783). Women are furthermore restricted in their speech, forbidden to learn and write, and being stripped from their natural rights. What characterizes The Handmaid’s Tale is its address to issues of race via emphasizing differences as aforementioned and the novel’s confrontation with the institutionalization of sexual abuse through the relationship between Offred and the Commander. These aspects, among others, define the novel as a work of critical feminist dystopia. Furthermore, the novel criticizes reproductive technology by showing how it can radicalize and objectify women, turning reproduction into a job rather than a natural process. The Power, published in 2016, addresses women’s oppression in a similar fashion as The Handmaid’s Tale, but shows physical female domination rather than physical and mental female oppression under a totalitarian government. Naomi Alderman’s The Power shows a radical change in its society’s power balance by sketching a social reality in which women become the dominating gender. Alderman, known for her earlier publications Disobedience (2006), The Lessons (2010), and The Liar’s Gospel (2012), also entered in a mentor and protégé collaboration with Margaret Atwood in 2012. This collaboration eventually led to Alderman writing The Power and focusing on the gender narrative (Shilling). The novel addresses the play between superiority and inferiority and the influence of gender relations on other power relations. Through this focus on power relations, Alderman slightly moves away from the trend in reproduction narratives, which has become a popular topic for feminist dystopias. The 2017 publication of Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich and early 2018 publication of Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, for example, address the regulation of pregnancies by governments, and present social realities in which abortion, free choice, and women’s natural rights are no longer a private matter. Both types of narrative, however, present a more critical point of view towards recent developments in social movements related to gender equality as well as reproductive rights.
According to Booker (1994), the critical attitude in feminist fiction is a development of the last few decades, as feminist dystopian fiction before the second half of the twentieth century failed in envisioning social realities that presented true equality and successfully addressed gender-based inferiority (Booker 338). With the publication and instant popularity of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale after 1985, this critical attitude was renewed. The novel’s continuing popularity in contemporary society and the many new publications that either draw on the topics that Atwood successfully addressed or invent a new angle of social criticism, shows a renewed optimism in feminism as well as progressive
stances on gender equality. Alderman’s The Power continues this trend with narratives that confront the continuation of sexual abuse, the susceptibility of women, and discrimination based on race and gender. Additionally, both novels engage in the feminist discourse through appropriating female victimhood, its meaning in an oppressive state, and the problematization of the nature of victimhood. Analyzing how these novels in their contemporary contexts deal with victimhood and gender relations is useful as it allows for a social critical reading that reflects upon both the past as well as the present social reality. In comparing an older feminist dystopian novel with a recent publication in the same genre, the cultural impact such novels have as well as the development or regression of equal gender relations can be analyzed. In this thesis I therefore analyze the narrative structures of the two dystopian novels and compare their use of dystopian thematic aspects. Furthermore, I identify where the more contemporary sense of criticism starts. I continue by looking at the characterization of victimhood in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power, and how both novels in their dystopian social realities discuss the institutionalization of sexual abuse. In the third chapter, I connect the narratives of the two novels and their relevance in modern-day studies of the feminist dystopian genre. Through this process I argue that by analyzing the narrative structures, thematic aspects, and social relevance of two popular feminist dystopias, the role of critical literature in engaging with contemporary social issues can be further identified.
However, Margaret Atwood is one of the most brilliant writers in contemporary Canadian literature. She has actively participated in Canadian politics and its feminist movement. Her works are mostly related to social and political issues. She considers the relation between men and women and human basic rights. The issue of gender is the author’s major concern. She portrays the women in her novels that always search for their identity which is lost in the patriarchal societies. Oppression is another theme for her novels and it can be seen evidently in her writings. She challenges the inferior status of women in society. Atwood’s representations of gender, reveals the exploitation and oppression of women, particularly women’s body. She portrays the suffering of her female characters confined in their feminine roles in her novels. Moreover, gender is the main concern for examining The Handmaid’s Tale. In Gilead society, women are deprived of their individual freedom and ordered to serve the state in different ways and functions. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, women are totally under the control of male members of the patriarchal society; she describes a patriarchal society and reflects the political ideology in America of that time. Patriarchal rules and dominance of husbands or fathers in the family are shown clearly, women are considered as a means of production, and under the control men. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are transformed to the traditional passive roles in the society. Atwood is concerned about women’s situation in the society, and the discriminations they encounter because of their sex in their lives. In the mid-1980s in the United States, pollution and nuclear accidents caused many women become infertile. The republic of Gilead gained control over the government. In the new regime, women are divided into several categories. Women are categorized by their ages, and fertility and have separate roles in the society based on which they are different. Jews, old women, and nonwhite people are sent to radioactive territory, known as Colonies. White fertile women are sent to Commander’s house to become handmaids. The Handmaids have one duty, which is bearing child for the childless couples of higher-class families. In Gilead, there are severe confining rules for Handmaids in the society.The Handmaid’s Tale, shows inferior and oppressed position of women in the patriarchal society of Gilead. In this patriarchal society women are reduced to slavery status and being mere a means for reproduction and man’s use. Atwood portrays a patriarchal society where women are victimized and marginalized by the state. This study shows Flourishing Creativity & Literacy ALLS 8(1):66-71, 2017 67 women’s subordinate position and Otherness in a male dominated society and shows how, in this patriarchal society, women’s basic freedom is ignored by the society.
1.2 STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
Margaret Atwood’s novel is a dystopian fiction, set in what used to be North America, that center around a female character in a totalitarian society; a world of oppression and constant surveillance, completely consumed by government control and manipulation. The novel presents the world which wrong people acceded to power. Even though the story takes place in only one state of America, it nevertheless can be connected to the rest of the world. If a situation like that truly happened, it would spread very easily. The dystopian genre flourished in the nineteenth century primarily as an antithesis to utopian literature. The Handmaid’s Tale is considered a highly feminist vision of dystopia, a society in which women’s rights have been completely revoked and women are forced to contribute to their own oppression by conforming to very strict gender roles and restrictions, but at the same time enforced sexuality. According to Gregory Claeys, ‘dystopia’ is often used … to describe a fictional portrayal of a society in which evil, or negative social and political developments, have the upper hand, or as a satire of utopian aspirations which attempts to show up their fallacies …” (107). The novel explores a reality in which our society has developed in a negative direction, away from the ideal utopia, exploring problems that were relevant at the time they were written. Atwood imagines a dystopia where environmental issues are at the core of the changes in society, as climate change and pollution has rendered a large part of the population infertile. Lois Feuer writes in her critique of The Handmaid’s Tale that reviewers of the novel “invariably hailed it as a “feminist 1984” and, like many handy tags, this one conceals a partial truth”. Barbara Ehrenreich writes, Almost every thinkable insult to women has been tested and institutionalized at one time or another: foot-binding, witch-burning, slavery, organized rape, ritual mutilation, enforced childbearing, enforced chastity, and the mere denial of ordinary rights to own property, speak out in public, or walk down the street without fear. For misogynist nastiness, it is hard to improve on history (33). She mentions that women driven back to servitude and there is no individuality in The Handmaid’s Tale.
1.3 OBJECTIVE OF THE STUDY
1.4 RESEARCH QUESTION
1.5 SIGNIFICANCE OF STUDY
This research work shall serve as a reference document, providing a kind of guide for upcoming dramatists and drama practitioners who may wish to focus their arts on the constructive reformation of a society yarning for a total metanoya. It shall provide a step-by-step approach to a logical and critical evaluation of the social and political malfunctioning of the society while at the same time suggesting the way forward to solving the society’s problem. The research work shall serve to expose the ills of the society, especially those emanating from bad leadership and political insincerity; opening the worm cans of the oppressors and giving the oppressed the courage to stand up to the challenge of fighting oppression to a standstill in a class conscious society such as ours. It will also serve as a research material for student and other researchers who may wish to carry out research in similar areas.
1.6 SCOPE OF THE STUDY
This study is restricted to feminist approach to gender issue with the project itself using the handmaid’s tale by Margret Atwood and the power by Naomi Alderman as case study.
This research shall employ both the primary and secondary sources of data collection. The MLA parenthetical style is adopted to provide written acknowledgement for the sources of information.
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