2015 Reading Challenge: The Handmaid’s Tale

A book you can finish in a day:

Began my 2015 Reading Challenge with a book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time, written by an author whose prose and poetry both move me profoundly: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Illustrations from Anna and Elena Balbusso

Published in 1985, this novel was later dubbed by critics to be just like ‘Orwell’s 1984, but for women.’ It’s telling that women have their own special kind of dystopian hell, because it simultaneously signifies a kind of oppression that men simply do not face in reality, as well as the ghettoisation of women’s literature that so often discounts the universality of female authorship and experiences.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an America where ecological disasters and modern lifestyles have created a vast decrease in birth rates and widespread sterility. In order to ensure our survival as a population, a new order is born where non-elite women who are found to be fertile will serve as Handmaids, essentially a birthing machine for the upper class families. In this society, men of a certain rank are entitled to a wife, who takes care of the household, a Handmaid, who serves as a vessel for birth in cases where the wives are sterile (cos in this society it’s never the man who’s sterile yeah), and a Martha, who is an older, non-fertile woman who does the cooking and cleaning. It’s the trifecta of oppression for womanhood – of our wifely duties, domestic labour, and reproductive responsibilities. For these men and their Handmaids, sex is never romantic or lustful; it’s simply a means to an end, taken place in a Ceremony where the Handmaid lies as a conduit between the wife and the husband.

After finishing the book, I saw that someone online had called it ‘the dumbest dystopian story ever written,’ and I immediately thought: he must be a dude. Because as a woman, the book is terrifying because of how possible it is. Because institutions such as nations and public spaces staking a claim on female bodies is something that every woman goes through, to some extent. As a Singaporean woman, we are always called upon by the nation to do our duty by creating more babies. Such a duty is simply not placed on the shoulders of Singaporean men, despite their part being equally essential.

Yet, at the end of the day, dystopia is dystopia. Just as it is terrifying that society organises women via their fertility (the Unwomen are ferried off to the Colonies to do cleanup work), it is frightening in equal measure that men are expected to behave without love, lust, morality, affection, greed, freedom, envy… So many dystopian novels are similar because all extreme ways of organising society can never snuff out humanity, in all its shortcomings and all its beauty. Atwood succeeds at this: revealing the true nature of mankind, and how many parallels our current society shares with this dystopian imagining.

My favourite part of the book is Atwood’s decision to explore this new society at its very beginning. The protagonist Offred (literally ‘Of Fred,’ her Commander) is the very first generation of Handmaids, and she still remembers a past life of normalcy, freedom, a husband, and a child. She remembers how it was like before, and she still holds on to fragments of her family. As I read the book, I kept waiting for the next moment she would find her husband or her child, but thinking back on this, I should have known that it was damn near impossible, and even Offred was resigned to leaving them behind in her memories, even in the very same moment she relished them. I love the consistent shifts between the dystopian present and the nostalgic past, and the talking about them in the same breath, precisely because were they really so different?

When the very first moves against women were made in the novel’s universe by freezing their bank accounts, Offred is terrified, but her husband Luke doesn’t get what the big deal is. He can just support them, he says. That crippling feeling of having no power is female-specific in this book, while the men can never truly understand, because they benefit from the system, or appear to. As Offred says,

“I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.” (also see: Gaslighting)

One of the most interesting things to me was how Offred was brought up as very much a second-generation feminist. A part of the book shows us Offred’s mother in flashback, who reminded Offred that many women’s lives and women’s bodies had to be sacrificed in marches, protests and rallies in order to even get to a stage where her husband would do some cooking. This is something Offred doesn’t recognise or bother to recognise, even just as she benefits from the gains of feminism, of all the things women of the previous generation have achieved for her. And this reminds me so much of a quote from Amy Poehler:

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And of course, it also reminds me of how many women of my generation are so complacent of our place in the world today, saying things like ‘I’m not a feminist; it’s too strong a word’ even as the privilege to speak their minds, to have that very opinion, to be heard, to debate, to insist on their stand, even as this very privilege was something that feminism fought for them.

In Offred’s case, she quickly learns that what feminism gained can quickly be dismantled and transformed into a nightmare that simply won’t go away. For some of us in real life, this nightmare continues to stay. For others, we are lucky enough.

The Handmaid’s Tale is gorgeous in its prose – rich in detail and bursting to the seams in emotion. While Atwood’s intricate writing is hardly naturalistic, and can be overwhelming at times, I promise you following it to the very end will be worth it.

Follow this list for my progress on the 2015 Reading Challenge:

  1. A book you can finish in a day: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A PSA for the people in my life re: feminism

If you know me in real life, it’s safe to say that you know I have a lot of feelings about the big ugly F word that somehow still stirs up some controversy: Feminism. And as Ellen Page says, “You know you’re working in a patriarchal society when the word feminist has a weird connotation.” I have some things to say and sometimes I feel quite strange, uncomfortable, or a bit of a downer to interrupt a social gathering to really voice my opinion because I see sexism everywhere, so I guess, I’ll do it here. (This post is more trying to combat misconceptions I experience in my daily life in Singapore than really give a full account of feminism).

First up, I am only 23, and still have a lot to learn, so please feel free to contradict me if you have an informed opinion/perspective on this issue, and I would love to discuss it further. But if you are going to hate without cause, haha sure? Just know that it probably won’t warrant a response.

Second prelude: let’s define some terms. Now feminism has a very particular history in the civil rights movement, and I think it’s more accurate to characterise it as feminisms, because a category of people is not necessarily monolithic, and different groups of people face oppression on several levels, so obviously feminism is not a perfect movement in terms of how it has manifested over history. But I would like to clarify that feminism basically is the campaign for a state of equal social, political, economic, cultural and social rights for women. And essentially is about the dismantling of patriarchy, which is a social system where males are the primary authority figures, implying male rule and privilege, and therefore female subordination. (These are from Wiki). Ok, so, let’s begin.

1) Feminism isn’t man-hating or about getting rid of men or about destroying men. It is also not championing the superiority of women. Hahaha I mean sometimes there are funny jokes on the Internet about that, and also because this is such an issue close to so many people’s hearts and oppressive for so long that it can generate a lot of anger, but honestly, when it comes down to it, feminism isn’t about one gender over the other. It’s about getting rid of oppression. So, chill out, my male and female friends.

2) Feminism helps men too. Patriarchy is a system that assumes male dominance, which means it inscribes gender roles where women are supposed to be docile, subordinate, emotional, nurturing, and all other stereotypes you can think of. Similarly, men are supposed to be rational, in control, aggressive, etc. The idea that men shouldn’t cry because it’s not manly? Feminism fights that. The idea that men should earn more and put in more hours at work and pay for dinners for women? Feminism fights that. The idea of men taking care of their physical appearance being somehow gay or metro? Feminism fights that. I’m sure that men and women alike face a lot of societal pressure to be somebody they are not. I like feminism a lot for the fact that it tells us: you can be whoever you want to be.

3) There’s a lot of anger from men about how women benefit from the system in terms of how women want to have equal pay and equal rights and all that, but still expect men to pay for meals and dates and be extra caring during Valentine’s Day, etc. I admit it can be quite confusing, because it does happen – that old-fashioned notions of chivalry are still championed. However, I believe that these notions where men are supposed to pay for everything is a result of patriarchy: that men are the sole breadwinners and seen as instrumentalist in earning income for his family, which implies that women are not capable enough to be earning enough money to pay for meals equally and that women’s main role is decorative: to look nice during a date for her man. The expectation that men pay for things is a symptom of patriarchy, that women should be taken care of. What I say to this is: give women equal salaries, and maybe as a whole, we’ll start paying for more meals, cos we’ll have more money? Also: women already spend money on dates because of the societal expectation to look good. As I said, men are supposed to be instrumentalist, and women decorative in a patriarchal era. Do you know how much make-up costs????? So, it is not women you should hate for this double expectations, it’s patriarchy.

4) Speaking of double standards, in a Singaporean setting, a lot of people are very angry about women not having to do National Service. This has led to some controversy recently about the rape song sung in army, etc. Firstly, I cannot say to fully understand the NS issue because I have not been through it, and I have not had 2 good years of my life stripped from me. However, just because some groups of people benefit from a system (in this case women because they do not need to serve), does not mean you should hate on them. We should try to change the system, and the cultural values behind that system. Do not hate on the people who privilege from an unfair system. After all, that is exactly what feminism is: trying to change the system, and not hating on the people (men) who privilege from it. Also, the idea that only men are physically, mentally and emotionally strong enough to defend the country is once again, tada, something patriarchy says. I believe that women should serve NS too, and it’s something that needs to be worked out in a Singapore where gender roles are still so fixed. After all, Singapore believes that women also have a duty to the nation, just in terms of childbirth. So, don’t hate on women, or feminism, hate gender roles imposed by patriarchy.

5) Some people say they love women because they admire women a lot for being able to do it all: both work and contribute to the economy productively, and at the same time taking care of a family. Women are cool, but we are also socialised by Singaporean society to take on the double burden of modernity. Women get many weeks of maternity leave while men only get one. ONE. So while women are now getting employed, they are still expected to take care of the domestic household (daughters are also more likely to take care of their elderly parents in Singapore than sons). This also means we have fewer opportunities of promotion and pay raise because employers are afraid we go off to have babies. I have a lot of faith in men, and believe that they can do it all too! Contrary to popular opinion, I do not believe that men are useless. The system should therefore change and improve paternity leave and other such policies, so that men who want to contribute to childrearing and family building would be able to do so. Therefore, if men and women are both implicated in the process of NS, they should both be implicated in the process of childbirth. After all, you do need both in the privacy of your coupling, and the public sphere of nationhood.

6) Feminism is about equal rights, but that does not mean that women should be celebrated uniformly for wanting to go out to work, for eg, and does not mean that women who wish to perform more traditional roles and characteristics of their gender should be demonised or treated as the enemy. True feminism does not hate on femininity: we say yes to floral prints, make-up, chick flicks and high heels. Any person who tries to tell you that your femininity is inferior is anti-feminist. Similarly, we also say yes to the countless of awesome women who want to stay at home to take care of their kids! Childrearing is a super difficult thing, and women who wish to be there for their children are super great. The issue here is CHOICE. Women should be given the choice to decide what they want for themselves, and what they want to do with their bodies. The same goes for men. Men should be given a choice too, and not be held to patriarchal expectations.

7) Therefore, if you find yourself in a relationship where the man provides for more, pays for more, and seeks a love language that takes care of the woman in terms of driving her around, etc., and the woman is perfectly ok with that, and loves that, then yes GO FOR IT. Nobody is questioning the legitimacy of your relationship. In fact, you shouldn’t hate feminism for propagating a picture of gender relations that might not be similar to your relationship. Feminism allows for you to choose for yourself the type of relationship and the type of man/woman you want to be. If you want to pay for everything in your marriage, and your wife wants you to do that, and it’s mutual, then feminism tells you yes you can do that. Just do not impose your version of relations on anyone else. In the privacy of your relationship, feminism is what exists to let you negotiate these things. It’s patriarchy that imposes expectations. The point is, I am fighting for the right to choose. That’s what feminism is.

8) We have not reached a stage of gender equality, and feminism is therefore needed.
Rape: (https://rainn.org/statistics?gclid=CjkKEQjw_ZmdBRD1qNKXhomX_sEBEiQAc9XNUHu9koakHfOqZgR2P4BkkLpxL6NufnygdBA48ofwmxrw_wcB)
Domestic violence in the US: (http://www.ncadv.org/files/DomesticViolenceFactSheet(National).pdf)
Gender inequality in film: (http://www.nyfa.edu/film-school-blog/gender-inequality-in-film/)

9) Rape is a problem in Singapore. Please do not think otherwise. Marital rape is still legal. That means that if a wife does not wish to have sex, and the husband does not listen and forces himself on her, there are no grounds for persecuting the husband for rape. (http://www.aware.org.sg/rape/). The rate of rape in Singapore is actually double that of India. (http://kentridgecommon.com/?p=17815). Rape is also a problem because legally in Singapore, men cannot be raped. Feminism fights that. Women who force themselves on men should also be persecuted for rape.

10) It is never the victim’s fault during rape. “Men should be offended when someone claims that women should prevent rape by not wearing certain things or not going certain places or not acting in a certain way. That line of thinking presumes that you are incapable of control. That you are so base and uncivilized that it takes extraordinary effort for you to walk down the street without raping someone. That you require certain dress code be maintained, that certain behaviors be employed so that maybe today, just maybe, you won’t rape someone. It presumes that your natural state is rapist.” (I can’t find the original source for this quote, apologies.) Once again, feminism has faith in men! That they are not so bestial that they cannot control themselves.

So, yes, I hope I was able to better clarify what feminism is and why I am so passionate about it. Ultimately, I think feminism is a great movement that benefits both men and women, and therefore should be celebrated. But, why am I so angry sometimes, or why do I seem like I fight for women more than I fight for men? Because misandry irritates, but misogyny kills. In this paraphrased version of a quote from Margaret Atwood, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” At the end of the day, this is why I need feminism.

Do you ever feel emotionally exhausted or distressed because the world is so full of injustice and discrimination and all-round grossness? Do you ever feel angry to the point of tears, and then subsequently exhausted because you’ve been fighting the same battle on multiple fronts for a long time?

I do. I frequently feel bouts of distress, anxiety and disgust at the state of world affairs, and sometimes it just takes reading an article on the Internet to rile me up. I can get upset and teary-eyed from reading the day’s newspapers, which is why I avoid them (but this is never a good excuse, and should never be.) The issues I feel most strongly and personally about are women-related issues – gross misrepresentation/caricature of female characters in popular culture, continual and continued institutionalised discrimination, rape culture… the list goes on.

Researching for something at work prompted me today to watch and read a bunch of stuff such as Feminist Frequency and articles about rape culture. I left the office feeling sick, and when I walked my way home, I noticed two guys leering at me. Then, I remembered how I catch at least one man leering at me from the public bus stop every day (because I live right behind a bus stop.) I have come to a point where I have to physically restrain myself from going up to them to tell them off, and I frequently wonder if I should walk around the neighbourhood a little bit more so they won’t know where I live. And then I realise this: how much the fear and sense of danger I feel from male objectification has become a normal part of my daily life that I don’t even think about it or recognise it anymore.

Every battle is personal.

It’s difficult because my friends and family don’t know how to deal with this part of me. Their responses trivialise my feelings of injustice. I do not know how to explain to my parents why these issues can make me feel like crying at the dinner table. I don’t wanna be self-aggrandising or self-congratulatory about this (although I guess posting about this is partly so,) and I don’t wanna be “poor little first-world girl with a Cause”, but I do have these feelings, and I will try my best to act on these feelings.

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I think one of the most consistent problems I have with talking to the people around me about gender-related issues is how people think we have achieved gender equality. I have no idea why this seems to be such a prevalent assumption, but it is one I have come to realise exists. This is the reason why feminism is so largely demonised in our culture, why some girls say “I support gender equality, but I’m not a feminist” which is essentially oxymoronic. Frequently when I talk to my guy friends about this, their response will be: “men face discrimination too” or “what about men?” or “you’re only talking about a small section of the male population – the disgusting and the depraved.” But a male sense of entitlement has been ingrained in them since their childhoods, and continues to be entrenched by the perpetuation of the male gaze in our advertising and popular culture. This is not just a problem that exists for a small section of society; this is a problem of culture and mindset, which takes years and years to alter.

Even when they recognise the gravity of these issues, which is a difficult step in itself, their next comment will be: “I can’t do anything about it.” This attitude only makes things worse. You don’t have to take it out onto the streets, you don’t have to start a petition (although those things dealing with real issues will be great, thank you,) but there are very every-day simple ways you can help.

We can all start by being aware, by arming ourselves with an arsenal of knowledge, opinions and statistics, that help us to win verbal battles and change attitudes. Secondly, we can act on our beliefs, we can embody our attitudes, and we can strive to be rid of gender stereotypes/assumptions in our daily lives and activities. Thirdly, we can politely call our friends out on certain attitudes/comments that perpetuate unhealthy behaviours.

It is always the little things that matter.