Every movement needs its iconography, and for feminism in the age of women’s marches, few could be more striking than the Handmaid. Shrouded in a red dress, blinkered by a white bonnet, Margaret Atwood’s gloriously chilling symbol of sexual oppression makes for the protest costume to end all protest costumes.
Handmaids have taken to the streets to support abortion rights in Northern Ireland, they have marched against Donald Trump in London, they have campaigned in Buenos Aires. Such is the impact of The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 novel catapulted into today’s pop culture stratosphere by the twin forces of Hulu and resurgent misogyny, that you can even buy a Handmaid Halloween costume for your dog. Yes, here in the second decade of the 21st century, we’ve entered a curious dystopia where people dress their pets as victims of ritualised rape.
Little wonder, then, that last week’s release of Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, made the last Harry Potter launch look like a wet November afternoon in Hay-on-Wye. With its acid green Waterstones window display practically visible from space, The Testaments revisits the creepy theocracy of Gilead 15 years after the close of the original Handmaid’s Tale. Shortlisted for the Booker prize, it’s a truly dazzling literary feat that – blessed be the fruit – entirely lives up to the hope and the hype.
It’s also something else: a subtle and ambiguous book that underscores why Atwood has had a difficult time as a de facto feminist fairy godmother for our woke times. The costumes of her fictional world may be models of bombastic simplicity; her gender politics are anything but.
The Canadian author famously prompted a backlash from some within the #MeToo movement when she signed an open letter criticising the University of British Columbia for its treatment of Steven Galloway, the former head of the creative writing department accused of sexual assault.
The letter, published in 2016, wanted to hold the university to account for going public with the accusations before investigating them. A subsequent inquiry concluded there had been no assault. A letter supporting legal due process might in other times have seemed pretty dull, but not so amid #MeToo, the deep and justified groundswell of anger against a culture that has for so long enabled sexual harassment and assault.
Atwood’s response to her critics was a model of the humane humour and intelligence that make her Gilead novels – which would have been wooden morality tales in lesser hands – thrum with life. In a 2018 op-ed entitled “Am I a Bad Feminist?” she made her stance clear:
“My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn’t need a legal system.”
She explained the #MeToo movement as a “symptom of a broken legal system” and drew a connection between the role of political moderates and novelists:
“Fiction writers are particularly suspect because they write about human beings, and people are morally ambiguous. The aim of ideology is to eliminate ambiguity.”
The Testaments is the perfect vessel for exploring these ideas. As Atwood delves into both the beginnings and the endings of Gilead, men per se are not painted as the enemy. Rather, the enemy is an extremist ideology that gives men the power and women a series of terrible choices.
I felt a Taser-like frisson to see that one of the three narrators in The Testaments is Aunt Lydia, the most fearsome of the female tyrants responsible for “re-educating” thinking women into supine Handmaids in the original novel. If Aunt Lydia is the closest The Handmaid’s Tale has to an old-fashioned villain, in The Testaments – without me giving too much away – she has a different arc. The novel reveals her back story: the daughter of a trailer park family who escapes her abusive father to gain a college education and become a judge. After the Gilead coup, she chooses survival and becomes the most powerful woman in the regime. As Atwood writes from her perspective:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my corpse is not among them.”
Clever, cutting and compromised, Aunt Lydia is a disturbingly charming narrator. This moral ambiguity is consistent with the original novel. If ever a character was ripe for demonisation, it was Offred’s Commander, the powerful patriarch who had it all: career, wife, young female servant he must attempt to impregnate. But when he summoned a terrified Offred to his study, it was for Scrabble, not sadism.
With the exception of the paedophilic Commander Judd in The Testaments, Atwood generally saves a sense of horror and moral outrage for the system of thought that underpins the Gilead regime – and that is an echo of our own world. The author has said that she feels the United States is moving in the direction of Gilead, not away from it.
The Testaments is especially powerful as it explores the insidious ways a society polices women’s bodies and pollutes how girls understand their own sexuality: schoolgirls taught that they are “precious flowers” who need protection, white dresses for purity, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, teenagers forced into marriage with old men, women denied the choice of when or whether to have a baby, women marginalised for their failure to produce a baby. None of this is fiction. Globally, 12 million girls marry under the age of 18 every year; millions more lack access to birth control or abortion. Atwood’s particular genius is pushing and pushing at sexist tropes until they reach their grotesque but ultimately logical conclusion.
At a time when women’s rights are being rolled back in some places and remain stubbornly non-existent in others, it’s unsurprising that the Handmaid has gone viral as a kind of protest meme. And if the electrifying voice behind the red and white icon shows that feminism isn’t always black and white, so much the better.
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