Do we owe our bodies to anyone else?
"The greatest power that someone can have is autonomy or the right to freely choice for oneself, especially in regards to one’s sexuality" — Dystopia of Childbearing, “Abuses of Female Sexuality in “The Handmaid’s Tale”
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood places the reader in a dystopian society that is in part focused on the subjugation of women and their bodies. Offred is a handmaiden, someone who is forced into sexual subjugation to a powerful male in order to bear children. She has no power over her body — she cannot smoke, eat junk food, have sex with someone of her choice, talk to people she wants to talk to, enjoy sex, or even sit where she wants to sit. In “Disciplining the Body: Power and Language in Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Novel The Handmaid’s Tale,” Maryam Kouhestani states:
"the human bodies are those accustomed to being disciplined and regarded as docile ones, and human bodies become docile so as to reach the controlling power’s goal of order and regulation. That is, the energy of the body is controlled, disciplined and developed and later is reversed to be a restraint, a power of subjection." (610)
Kouhestani uses Foucault’s ideas to look at how Atwood confronts the question of what happens when our bodies are no longer a source of freedom, but a source of subjugation. Do we owe our bodies, our last source of personal freedom, to our country or our government? Atwood shows how separate Offred becomes from her body, how her body is simply an outside shell and the mind is the single place of freedom left for Offred, best summed up when Offred states:
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along. Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden (Kindle Edition 38–39).
How long will Offred’s mind keep it’s independence? In “Discourse and Oppression in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,” Fredrik Pettersson goes so far as to suggest, “ it is reasonable to say that it is actually the values of Gilead, or patriarchal discourse, which has intruded on Offred’s way of thinking” (8). While struggling with the fact that she no longer has independence, Offred has started to absorb the values of the society around her. When meeting women from another society, Offred stands in shock and describes the event:
"It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before . . . They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this. Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom” (Kindle Edition 28-29).
Offred, despite her dislike of the government and lack of freedom for women, sees the tourists as indecent. Against her will Offred has adapted the government’s thinking about women and how they should dress. Slowly, Offred is losing the freedom she cherishes in her mind. By taking control of society and forcing women to conform to their place in society, they have normalized the rules for everyone within the society.
Not only can Offred or any handmaiden write, they are not allowed any objects that could be used to kill themselves. One of the most personal choices a human being can make is over what to do with her own life and that includes the option of how, when, and where to die. The next most personal choice a human being can make is arguably who to share her body with. Dystopia of Childbearing suggests that “The relationship between sex and power shows how the sexual abuse of the female body, whether it be through childbirth or rape, creates a dystopia for women.” Atwood demonstrates the loss of bodily control and its sexual implications through Offred’s narration:
"My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing" (Kindle Edition 94–95).
The word “fucking” is considered vulgar, but so is the act that is being done to Offred. The government has decided that her place as a woman able to bear children is literally under an influential man. Of course, Offred has a choice. She could choose to die in a multitude of different ways, but if she wants to live to ever see her husband or her daughter again than her position is with her skirt up to her waist while a powerful man attempts to impregnate her. Many handmaiden’s, even the Offred handmaiden before the narrator takes on the Offred role, chooses to commit suicide (creative re-purposing of necessary materials such as bed sheets) instead of continue the forced impregnation process.
Atwood paints a grim picture of a world where human beings lack freedom. There is no more masturbation, pursuing your preferred sex or sexual partner, there is no more anything that the government does not decide for you. Never, no matter who is in charge, does any human being owe anyone their life or their entire life’s choices.
**This is from a Medium post I wrote back in 2016. Reposting where it may now be seen in better connection with me and my work.
I'm in Thailand! Going on to Vietnam shortly, so my whole posting schedule is up in the air for the month. I'll be back to regularly scheduled broadcasting by mid-August, when I've settled into Hong Kong.
Have a good time!