The Handmaid's Tale: title text

Feminism and gender politics in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a bugle call against fascism or in favour of feminism? Here are four ways of reading the text.

Interested in books by and about women? You may also like The Driver’s Seat.

1. Nineteen Eighty-Four: the all-girl reboot

Of George Orwell’s nightmarish dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Atwood writes, “I read it in paperback … when I was in high school. Then I read it again, and again.” She goes on to say:

“Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life – in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Unsurprisingly, then, there are many similarities between the worlds of these two novels, with Atwood both playing homage to and re-imagining the earlier text.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, faceless Party members police the thoughts, words and even facial expressions of Oceania’s citizens. The middle classes are given uniforms and sashes, and stripped of meaningful identity (Winston, for example, is “6079 Smith W”). They are excluded from each other by class, gender and loyalty to the Party; only the working classes – considered unpeople – are left to their own devices. Everyone else is under scrutiny from telescreens and neighbours – even a poster on the wall proclaims: “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”.

Sex, in this world, is a joyless prescription controlled by the Party. Free of love and intimacy, it’s purely a procreative act. Sex is therefore also the weapon Winston and Julia choose (futilely, because this act of subversion – of privacy – can only ever be transient). Ultimately, the Party tramples their resistance; it reaches inside them, and changes them. Winston’s fate, like the Proles or Rutherford and Aaronson, is to be an unperson: immaterial, forgotten … vaporized. He only achieves peace when he resigns himself to torture administered in the name of love because, in this upside-down world, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength”.

In the Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s heroine also writes (or speaks) for an unknown future. A rogue government now controls the attitudes, aspects and behaviour of the citizens of Gilead. Status is conferred along religious lines, with non-conformists promptly reassigned or disappeared. Most notably, fertile women are indentured to Party officials as breeding machines.

These so-called handmaids are unpeople: our narrator is only referenced by her belonging – Offred (‘Of Fred’) – and must forget her real name. Each is stripped of power, position and, though generic clothing, of form and individuality. Those who resist are threatened with a more literal destruction – of being branded ‘unwomen’ and sent to the colonies, or hanged. Reproductive sex has been stripped of consent and privacy and so, for Offred, intimacy (of self, thoughts and clandestine sex) is a weapon. All the while, brutality is excused by the language and rituals of love – specifically, of Christian love and scripture.

Worth noting

  • The Handmaid’s Tale gives a physicality to the ‘two-minute hate’. While Winston and the others shout and scream against unreal enemies on a big screen, the handmaids must be complicit in the execution of an alleged rapist.
  • The secret police set Winston up for transgression, then watch him through hidden telescreens. For Offred, it’s never clear who may be an ‘Eye’, or who may betray her to them. Meanwhile, stock handmaid responses such as “Under His Eye” are a reminder that God (like Big Brother) sees all, knows everything, and approves their lot in life.
  • Winston’s destruction (or salvation) is in the place where there is no darkness. For Offred, there’s an equally ambiguous ending: “And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light.”

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, female characters are secondary to Winston’s narration. Julia is a fiesty but ultimately dull-headed sex toy; his wife Katherine is reduced to a human shackle, frigid and controlling. The Handmaid’s Tale, in contrast, is about women like Julia and Katherine; women who only exist to serve men through sex and sexual response. Surprisingly, however, that doesn’t mean Atwood’s novel is a ringing endorsement of female society.

2. Female solidarity: not all it’s cracked up to be

One way of controlling contentious thought is by re-writing its principles; for instance, in saying feminism is about the subjugation or destruction of men, rather than equality regardless of gender. Such fears come to the fore in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Atwood subverts then examines what they mean.

In the novel’s dystopian future, sisterhood is a risk. In fact, this new society puts torture and degradation in the hands of women first and foremost. It’s the Aunts who school the handmaids: they use terror and torture to teach, and encourage them to despise each other.

“It’s Janine, telling how she was gang-raped at fourteen …

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.” (p82)

Most damning of all, of course, is the theft of the handmaids’ children and babies by the commander’s wives, and their complicity in how the handmaids are treated. These are women happy to usurp pregnancy and erase the handmaids from their own bodies. More than that – as if that weren’t enough – some are even able to use these disappeared and disappearing children as tokens. “Maybe I could get something for you,” Serena wheedles:

“A picture,” she says, as if offering me some juvenile treat, an ice cream, a trip to the zoo. I look up at her again, puzzled.

“Of her,” she says. Your little girl. But only maybe.” (p216)

Elsewhere in the novel, Offred’s mother flits in and out of recollection. Their lives are shown in stark contrast: the mother a feminist activist, her daughter taking freedoms such as sex and employment for granted, while choosing the traditionalism of marriage and motherhood. The feminist collectives are cliquey and rowdy; the mother, meanwhile, fights for women’s rights while refusing to coddle (or cuddle) her own child. This is a world which rejects Offred in the same way that Gilead does: both will accept her only on their own terms. Later, Offred muses:

“Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.” (p137)

This kind of sisterhood isn’t about gaining political, professional or domestic equality, however; it’s about birth. With women reduced to the sum of their biological parts, there’s only one way in which they may be useful – for producing and rearing children. Likewise, it’s the only support they can safely give each other.

Is this a criticism, or a chilling prediction? That for all their marching and slogans and shouting, feminism proves no match for fascism in Gilead.

3. The love that binds: religious extremism

Life in Gilead is the fruit of religion – and “Blessed be the fruit”, after all. In this new era of puritanical extremism, the Bible (literally or re-worded) makes inhumanity excusable. Torture, rape, execution: all are allowable under the artifice of care, and in order to maintain the status quo.

There are those who see this a warning about the rise of right wing thinking, and the hypocrisy and failings of Christianity in the West, particularly when tied to government. There are others who call it an allegory for Islam (in shorthand, that kind of otherness in which backwards foreigners only know how to restrict and punish women).

Writing in the Guardian, Atwood states:

“As Orwell taught, it isn’t the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names.”

In their extremes, all religions morph into one. Dig away at the plurality of texts and teachings and robes, and they all say the same thing, want the same ends, hold the same shiny objects up for veneration. In Gilead, ritual (the Ceremony) makes rape acceptable – necessary, even, for the continuation of the species. It’s easy to see how cloaking such practice in religion could make it more palatable.

Whatever the label, one thing is clear: the rules can be broken, but only for those who make it to the top.

4. Gender rules don’t just punish women

Superficially, The Handmaid’s Tale may seem to be about the destruction of female agency. More specifically, it shows the terrorization of women, and the ways in the which resistance continues underground and inside the body. For Atwood’s characters, though, gender is a restrictive costume – whatever sex chromosomes they happen to have.

The commanders who lead Gilead have likely “come in contact with a sterility-causing virus … which was intended for insertion into the supply of caviar used by top officials in Moscow” (p319). By their own actions they are and will always be childless – yet rather than risk being thought of as lesser men, they engineer the wholesale lessening of all women.

Having done this, the commanders promptly recreate the past. Jezebel’s, a gentleman’s club and brothel is a hollow pastiche of sexual desire as we ‘used to know it’. Commander Waterford implies that his infidelity is, essentially, because his wife doesn’t understand him. He asks Offred to kiss him – as if she has a choice in the matter – then tugs at her compliance:

‘“Not like that,” he says. “As if you meant it.”

He was so sad.’ (p150)

This cliché of sexual manipulation and the relieving of guilt is nothing new under the sun. It is also true, however, that all men and women in Gilead are under the thumb. Each has a defined role in the hierarchy, and must stay true to its course. For Nick, this means being at the Commander’s beck-and-call or, if Serena wills it, to be his sexual stand-in. Even Offred achieves a watery revenge against the Guardians, taunting them with her hips “like thumbing your nose from behind a fence” (p32) because they are denied handmaids of their own.

In the old world, however – now, that is – sexual liberation is only a mask for freedom. Subjugation isn’t just in extremes like ritualised rape, but in countless glossy magazines which bind women by giving them countless problems to solve – of relationships and finding the right shade of lipstick. Society dictates what it means to be a man, or a woman … and resistance is futile.


Words & picture: my own (except where quoted).

The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood, M. Vintage Books, 1996

Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell, G. Penguin, 1989.

My hero: George Orwell by Margaret Atwood. The Guardian, 2013