Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale, Book Review, Political Critique, Trump, Women's Oppression

Participating in Our Own Oppression & the Age of Trump – The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

I am fascinated and infuriated by Presidential politics.  It’s difficult to be someone from a swing state living in California, a culture shock I never anticipated.  I struggled to find someone to spend election night with me this year and when I finally did it was someone else from my home state.

Presidential politics are so important in Ohio that the first election I voted in sparked the disintegration of my high school relationship.  He was for Bush and the war in Iraq; I wasn’t. Shortly after, I went to college to GREATLY expand my liberal horizons and he enlisted in the military.

This Presidential election, though.  Oh man, this is something else, isn’t it?  I’m disturbed.  We have accepted someone who is on his third marriage with multiple children, who has publicly flip flopped on even his party affiliation, who regularly says racist and sexist things to the point of actually describing sexual assault, who tries to dismiss this sexual assault discussion as “locker room talk” as if it being an aspect of culture should be something acceptable, who will not release his tax returns, who has so many when-has-this-ever-flown-before qualities about him as a candidate (and human) that this has become my worst run-on sentence ever, as a LEGITIMATE candidate. Someone we might hand nuclear codes to in just a few weeks.

Trump, Clinton, debate, election, political critique

Listen, friends.  If you are conservative, I get it.  If you’re third party, I get it.  Wanting this particular man to be President?  I don’t get it, and you are just going to HATE this post.

A friend of mine from college (two blog shout outs in a row, Ben!) and I talk about Trump often in the context of whether he is the voice of cultural beliefs or the one influencing them. In truth he’s probably a little bit of both, but I find him to be much more the latter. The louder someone in a position of power preaches hate speech, the more others believe it’s okay for them to say it, too.  And round and round we go.

Ben would argue these beliefs wouldn’t be so embraced if they didn’t already exist in culture.  True, but they might not take on the same life if not for Trump.  Thanks to him and the bigotry disguised as honesty that he’s inspired, the societal progress of hatred this election cycle could take years to be undone.

I skipped the final debate last week.  I felt momentarily exasperated most likely because I am still so sick.  My pain has remained steady long enough that I may need radiosurgery on my trigimenal nerve, and I’m having ablation re-done on 2 ribs in December.  Cram in everything before that out-of-pocket max runs out Jan. 1st!  But despite my good solid reasons for skipping the debate, the Ohioan inside me felt guilty and somewhere around 9 p.m. I was tucked in bed with the transcript.  Reading it was so much worse than watching it would have been.  I suddenly found myself with the opportunity to read the same disgusting lines over and over again.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, Book Review, Political Critique, Women's Oppression, TrumpAs I was thinking about the impact of Trump, as both a candidate and a societal force, this quote from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood came to mind: “Is that how we lived, then?  But we lived as usual.  Everyone does, most of the time.  Whatever is going on is as usual.  Even this is as usual, now…Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

My fiancรฉ bought me this book about a year ago.  I started it before I had vertigo and finished months later just as the shingles pain was beginning.  Reading it in the midst of this election year could not be more timely, and if you have time to get it in within the next couple of weeks I highly recommend it.  I feel I’ve read a fair amount of Atwood (five books, three of which comprised the MaddAddam series) and this was by far my favorite.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a futuristic dystopia where women are valued based upon either their ability to conceive children or their rank as a wife.   The protagonist is a handmaid named Offred whose sole societal role is to become pregnant and provide her offspring to a high-ranking couple.  The book is as much a commentary on current society as it is an excellent and fascinating story in its own right.

Those within Atwood’s fictional culture argue that its rules value women and their ability to provide life to the highest degree.  Yet said value is entirely defined and controlled by men, upon whom there are nearly no restrictions.  This contradiction is the norm.  As Offred said, nearly anything can be considered the norm when you are in it.

Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale, Book Review

Margaret Atwood

But perhaps most relevant to our current situation are those whom Atwood names “the true believers.”  Offred walks on eggshells regarding her own beliefs and desires when speaking to other women in the community, worried that any one of them might be a true believer in the system and report her.  Men in this world didn’t have to patrol women at all times; the women proved they would also regulate one another.  And this willingness of “true believer” women to participate in their own oppression isn’t something that is unique to the fictional futuristic creation of Margaret Atwood. It happens now.

And we pretend it isn’t real.

There are so many recent examples, but let’s consider the infamous tape released just shy of the second debate.   Feel free to watch yourself if you haven’t already seen it or read a transcript.  Warning: it can and has been triggering for victims of sexual assault.  In it, Trump describes how easy it is to kiss or grab a woman without consent when you’re famous.  Trump didn’t directly apologize for the comments.  Instead, he dismissed it as acceptable locker room talk.

We easily forget that women grow up hearing the same societal beliefs that men do.  On a regular (sometimes daily) basis we are reminded that we’re too promiscuous, that we aren’t sexy enough to be desirable, that we’re such sexual objects our clothing is distracting to boys, that we should make an effort to be excellent mothers, and that we should simultaneously desire careers.  There’s more, but you get the point.   If you condition someone enough, the odds gradually increase that she will buy into it.

Just as women were willing to report other women in Atwood’s dystopia, women are willing to regulate one another in our own reality.  We rush to the defense of our male friends accused of rape and call the woman a liar ourselves, no matter how statistically unlikely.  We call other women both sluts and prudes.  And once we’re older?  We judge the women who choose to stay home and raise their children just as much as those who never want to have children.  We judge a woman’s worth as a woman based on subjective “success” as a mother.
women for Trump, female trump supporters, female oppression, women's oppression, Trump, election, trump supporters, book review, HandMaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, political critiqueWe females do all of this because our culture taught us that such oppression is “normal,” and so we embrace it without even realizing it.  Forget Trump saying sexist things about women – we will do it for him!  Once we take into account how freely we regulate one another without a second thought, how can we possibly find it surprising that there are still women voting Trump after listening to a tape in which he essentially described sexual assault?  How can we be shocked that they also define it as locker room talk?    There are so many women still supporting him!  Just as easily as we judge one another, so we blindly support a man who may run the country despite the fact that he has demonstrated a complete lack of respect for women in just one leaked tape.  (Which is to say nothing of his long history of sexist comments.)

Let’s not pretend that women who support Trump are stupid.  I’m so tired of hearing that.  They’re not.  They are simply the products of the culture that we created.  We are responsible for them.  We are all responsible for women’s participation in their own oppression.

The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t offer us life lessons that I can provide to you here, though I wish it did.  In fact, the entire time I was reading it I kept thinking, “How can she end this?  How are we this close to an end without an end it in sight?” And then it didn’t really end. There was no clear notion of how to escape the society, or how the society could eventually escape its own culture.  Probably because such a simple answer doesn’t exist.

But here’s what I know – what I can offer.  After so much feminist theory in college that I was near a postmodernist meltdown.  You can work everyday to be mindful of your own thoughts and change them little by little.  Then try to get others, in as non-confrontational a way as possible, to be aware of their own culture-imposed thought patterns.  And try to be as sane as you can in the fucked up mess we are constantly within; in the era of a Presidential candidate who’s talked about grabbing pussies.  Then hopefully all of those baby steps eventually add up and change occurs, so slowly we barely notice it.

The reality is women have only been able to vote in the U.S. for less than 100 years.  Culturally speaking, that’s not a very long time at all.  We’ve come a long way, baby, and we’ve still got at least that far to go.  To bookend us with The Handmaid’s Tale: “Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money.”  Hoard your sanity.


5 thoughts on “Participating in Our Own Oppression & the Age of Trump – The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

  1. Kelly says:

    As a woman I truly don’t understand how other women could possibly vote for this man. Okay, to be fair, I don’t know how so many people in this country are racist, homophobic bigots in the year 2016, but whatever. This election has been so painful as I see my friends lose their rights which they should never have taken away from them, and I honestly wonder what is going to await my daughters in their future. They are going to grow up in a world that I certainly would never want for anyone, and it’s sad. I also live in an area in Pennsylvania where it is rare to even encounter another person who didn’t vote for Trump, which makes it even more difficult to express concerns and fears without being attacked.

    I truly enjoyed reading your post, especially how you incorporated one of Margaret Atwood’s powerful novels into real life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Free (Read and) Write says:

      Coming from Ohio, this was very difficult for me as well. Some of my closest LGBT friends went into genuine clinical depression mode on election night, and I feel I have personally been experiencing the stages of grief.

      It is hard for me to reflect on my fellow Ohioans and think about the fact that
      1. They likely wouldn’t have thought many things Trump said were genuinely racist because of their socialization as to what racist means, and
      2. That they were able to compartmentalize racism and sexism from “economy & roles of a president”

      But it is true that Margaret Atwood already showed us how easily society breaks down.

      It has been an intense experience for me to re-read my own post post-election. I am glad you enjoyed it and I hope you come back!


  2. jkimexploring says:

    I couldn’t have put this better myself. I read this book five years ago and now I keep going back to thinking about it and items terrifying. I remember having discussions about how horrible that world would be and how could people not do anything about what was going on.
    It terrifies me that our society has created people that would vote for Trump and even more so that after he became president-elect the amount of hate crimes grew. I would be talking to my mom and she would tell me about the things that have happened in her school districts and she never mentioned anyone being punished for them. It terrifies me that this may be our reality for the next four years. And the effects of his presidency will last even longer. The hate and sexism may grow in a new generation.

    Liked by 1 person

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