There are many examples in today’s society of what happens to the societal placings of women in either collapsing or totalitarian governments. The novel, Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood displays this perfectly seeing men being placed in higher positions, leaving women at the forefront of the lower class. Atwood details a dystopian setting where a once normal society quickly descends into a totalitarian state, with the rights and freedom of those in it stripped from them, and those of the female gender feeling the hardest hit of it; centring around Offred the main character. It is important for novels like Handmaid’s Tale to be distributed, especially in today’s society where we are no stranger to themes such as these which can be seen throughout history.
Reflections of history are positioned within the Handmaid’s Tale. For example, the society of Gilead all-too-closely mirrors Nazi Germany at the height of Hitler’s reign. Women within Nazi Germany were often viewed as nothing more than procreating vessels until something was needed of them, such as laborious tasks, as well as promiscuity being outlawed and the use of cosmetics and flashy clothing being ostracized. Gilead carries many of these values as well; as seen in the book, Offred must use stored butter in secret as a facial moisturiser, as any products used for beauty have become black-marketed in Gilead. As well as this, the women who are still fertile (handmaids) are used for the sole purpose of breeding and repopulating. Those who are infertile or homosexual are either un-women or considered of lesser beings within the society. Within Germany at the time, women were stripped of their jobs and replaced with men, in an attempt to send the women back into a more traditional family setting in order to procreate perfect Aryan children, as in Gilead. The men and women of America had previously a normal functioning society until the jobs of women were taken away, causing a major shift in the societal view of the place of women. Within the handmaid’s tale, the nature of their society is a representation of how quickly a course of events that raise concern can be made into a harsh reality for those who live it and serves as a reminder that ignorance does not often end blissfully.
The Handmaid’s Tale does not only reflect events of the past but of the present as well. In America alone, there have been 84 reports of attacks on abortion clinics and abortion providers, as well as the Republican-dominated government (predominantly made up of white males) making it increasingly harder for women to access contraceptives and abortions. Abortionists within the novel are put to death and displayed to the rest of the surrounding people of ‘the wall’ where their limp bodies hang as a warning. “Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human foetus.” Any medical institutions which may debate the reality of God, such as Harvard which was suggested in the novel, have been shut down as well; as these places of learning are prone to blasphemy. The persecution of those in the LGBTQA+ community is also made very known in the novel. Those who are gay are labelled as ‘gender traitors’ and if discovered, a death sentence is possible as well as torture and abuse. Moira, Offred’s best friend who identifies as a lesbian, must keep her sexuality a secret in order to survive in this new world. Over the past years, there have been all too many examples of this in our modern society. Some of the most extreme cases being the imprisonment of homosexual men and women in the Russian Federation state of Chechnya. Cases of abuse, torture, social outcasting and even the murder of those who identify as a part of the LGBTQA+ community are not uncommon and seem to be growing in numbers. When a story like the Handmaids Tale is read, it allows people to remember that these events are not normal, and also gives insight as to how women are often the first targets of these regimes as they control the population, and quite often the way the population thinks and acts. Maternal roles in totalitarian societies are needed to be strictly controlled, as their influence is so powerful among the many.
The use of prostitutes in the novel also displays a sad truth seen throughout history. As most of the officials of Gilead are heterosexual males, women to their sexual disposal are in demand, creating a supply of prostitutes who would be and possibly are shamed for their profession. As it is against the law of God, these sexual acts must be done in secrecy, although there is no doubt that those higher up in the society allow these acts to happen. In societies with harsh restrictions on sexuality and sexual acts (often for religious reasons) the taboo of it, as well as the temptation, often gets the best of those within the society resulting in the exploitation of the female body, in the forms of prostitution, rape, and sexual assault. Women in the places of totalitarian dictatorships are all too often punished for their sexuality, or for dressing provocatively, as it distracts the male fragility within their society. In examples of Saudi Arabia, where the Mutawa (religious police) can fine or imprison women for not wearing their hijab. In societies with harsh restrictions, it is often the women who provide life, that are the most controlled, possibly as they could pose the biggest threat.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood displays to the reader the consequences of ignorance, and how the women of totalitarian societies are so quickly thrown into a position of abuse and submission. The dystopian setting may seem far away, but once a closer look at the events and rules of Gilead, the novel is a mere reflection of our modern day society and history, with examples seen in Nazi Germany, America, Chechnya, and Saudi Arabia. The gender and sexual imbalance within these societies is a clear warning signal for something more sinister, and the readers of the Handmaid’s Tale must take this in stride. “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” -Margaret Atwood.