Two books, one TV programme and the reality of gender relations in 2017.
What do two dystopian novels, written 31 years apart, tell us about gender relationships in 2017? Actually quite a lot.
The first book is Margaret Atwood’s 1985 masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale, currently enjoying a lavish screen adaptation on Channel 4 starring Elisabeth Moss as modern woman June, turned sex slave handmaid Offred.
As infertility threatens to destabilise the world, America is overthrown by a fundamentalist Christian movement called the Sons of Jacob. They take control of the country, renaming it the Republic of Gilead and setting up a hierarchy of commanders and their wives, served by handmaids. Plagued by infertility, the ruling class of Gilead rely on the fertile handmaids to bear their children.
Brutally separated from her husband and daughter, June is renamed Offred to take the name of her master (Of-Fred), shackled to Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy in a repressive regime where rape occurs on an industrial scale.
It is interesting to watch the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, while at the same time reading The Power by Naomi Alderman, who was mentored for a year by Atwood herself. Released in 2016, the story flips the concept of female oppression on its head, depicting a world in which women discover they have the power to send jolts of electricity from their fingertips.
The story opens with male novelist Neil asking female novelist Naomi for her thoughts on his manuscript, The Power. The narrative depicts a world in flux, where women have the capacity to destroy men with a click of their fingers, a power that threatens the fragile fabric of masculinity itself. The novel explores how women adapt to their newfound power, from their initial feelings of emancipation to ultimate corruption.
Life imitating art
While the dystopian visions of Atwood and Alderman may be fictional, the sinister similarities between their prose and everyday life cannot be ignored.
One emotion coursing through The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, is disgust at the lack of solidarity between women. The wives in Atwood’s narrative are, for the most part, happy to participate in a prescribed programme of rape. Serena Joy, nemesis of heroine Offred, not only believes in this ideology, she actually wrote the book legitimising the enslavement of women as part of her dystopian domestic vision.
A lack of respect for a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body is a issue as much alive in 2017 as it is in the Republic of Gilead.
When just a month before the US presidential election a video was leaked showing Donald Trump boasting about “grabbing women’s pussies”, the global public outcry was vehement. Liberals breathed a sigh of relief, resting assured there was no way a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women could become the 45th President of the United States.
And yet he did. He was voted for not only by men, but by huge swathes of educated women who when interviewed by journalists dismissed his boasts of sexual assault as simply “locker room talk”. If women are not willing to stand up for women, what hope is there?
We have seen something of a backlash. The protest of a small group of women to Trump’s arrival in Poland was made all the more striking by the fact they dressed as handmaiden.
Fascistic regimes are a recurring feature of both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power.
In Gilead handmaids are the property of their commander and therefore are treated as a possession with limited movement beyond the grounds of their house.
The repression suffered by Offred and her fellow handmaidens is evoked by Alderman in The Power, who re-imagines the Arab Spring of 2010 as an uprising of Saudi Arabian women, using their power to bring down the oppressive regime. They start by melting down the cars they were never allowed to drive with their own bare hands.
Alderman is, however, careful to make the point that women are not immune from giving into fascistic tendencies. When Tatiana Moskalev establishes her female kingdom Bessapara in the shattered remains of the once united Moldova, her new society is built on the anger of disenfranchised women, many of whom were victims of human trafficking.
As tensions rise the republic descends into chaos, culminating in an increasingly paranoid and dictatorial rhetoric. A notable moment is the press conference given by Bessapara’s Minister for Justice, which could be straight out of Trump’s America.
The minister introduces a new law requiring every man in the country to have his passport stamped by a female guardian. Men are prevented from driving cars, cannot own a business, are not allowed to vote or gather in groups larger than three.
The highhanded tone of the press conference is reminiscent of the way Trump tried to impose his Muslim travel ban. In its latest incarnation the ban forces new US visa applicants from six Muslim majority countries – Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Iran and Yemen – to prove a “bona fide relationship” with a person in the US or they will be refused entry.
Suddenly the outrageous restrictions imposed on Offred or the men of Bessapara do not sound too far removed from real life.
Institutionalised rape is central to the way society operates in Atwood’s Republic of Gilead. The authorised form of procreation involves placing the handmaid between the legs of the wife as the husband penetrates her, as joyless as it is clinical.
For women enjoyment is no longer an option, a fact further underlined by the punishment given to handmaid and “gender-traitor” Ofglen. After she is caught in a relationship with another woman Ofglen is subjected to female genital mutilation, a truly shocking moment chosen to close episode three of the Channel 4 adaptation.
In The Power Alderman flips this idea by introducing “curbing”, a form of male genital mutilation that burns nerve endings in the penis meaning men cannot achieve an erection without a woman.
The willingness to grapple with so sensitive a subject forces both the viewer and reader to think long and hard about why anyone feels they have the right to determine who deserves sexual pleasure, particularly as in the real world FGM affects over 130 million girls and women worldwide.
Grappling with the most harrowing of topics also means addressing rape culture. Perhaps one of the most shocking scenes in The Power depicts the rape of a man in a refugee camp by a gang of women. They delight in humiliating the defenceless man, filming the attack on their phones before killing him when they are finished.
Hiding in a tree, one of the main characters Roxy acutely observes that it is both his vulnerability as a man and a refugee that makes this victim such an easy target.
“They know that no one cares what happens here. No one is here to protect these people, and no one is concerned for them. The bodies might lie in this wood for a dozen years and no one would come this way. They do it because they can.”
This rationale of oppressors “doing things because they can” again brings to the surface the very real world pain being experienced today, from the trafficking of people in Syrian refugee camps to the capture by ISIS of Yazidi women in Northern Iraq, who kept the women as sex salves in order to “purify” the country of anti-Islamic influences.
Episodes of sexual violence recur throughout The Power, with women using a sex shaming lexicon against men. When Roxy confronts the gang of girls who sexually assaulted her brother they immediately appropriate the language male rapists have been using against women for centuries.
“He was asking for it. He begged us for it….couldn’t get enough of it.”
The girl laughs callously, proving that given the opportunity women can be just as cruel as men.
While men are fascinated and disturbed by the handmaidens’ fertility in Atwood’s novel, in Alderman’s dystopia men are frankly enraged by the very idea that women can be the inherently stronger sex.
The hatred, jealousy and fear they feel towards female power comes to its culmination with the removal of Roxy’s skein, the muscle sitting across the collarbone that provides her electrical energy. Roxy is tied down so surgeons can slice her skein from her body and implant it into her brother Darrell, like some form of brutal reverse castration.
“They have lifted up the string of striated muscle across her collarbone and they are sawing at it, separating it strand by strand from her…It’s jumping and squirming because it wants to get back inside her. She wants it there too. Her own self.”
So threatened are her brother and father by Roxy’s power that they physically try to “reset” the natural order using the most invasive and aggressive technique possible.
Alderman explores this idea of threatened masculinity still further by drawing on the real life rise of the “manosphere”, a catch-all term for a collection of blogs, forums and websites promoting the cause of men.
In the novel the manosphere is personified by middle-aged racist, sexist and antisemitic keyboard warrior-cum-terrorist UrbanDox. He could be a figure from the American “alt-right”, a movement emboldened by Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, former editor of far-right news site Breitbart, as White House chief strategist.
Meeting Tunde in a shady lock up, UrbanDox shares his theories on the impending male genocide, showing that – as in The Handmaid’s Tale – fertility, terrorism and paranoia often go hand-in-hand.
“However bad any man treated a women, he needs her in a fit condition to carry a child. But now…one genetically perfect man can sire a thousand – five thousand – children. And what do they need the rest of us for? They’re going to kill us all.”
At first the reader dismisses these ramblings as the delusions of a paranoid man. But then just a few hundred pages later the female activists of Bessapara are debating how many men they really need.
“Men are dangerous. Men commit the great majority of crimes. Men are less intelligent, less diligent, less hard-working.
“Of course we need them to have babies, but how many do we need for that? Not as many as women. Good, clean, obedient men, of course there will always be a place for those. But how many is that? Maybe one in ten.”
Facing the reality
The Power closes with an exchange between Naomi and Neil.
Having read the story Naomi questions some of the central tenets of the book. She finds the idea of men working in the army or police, or even trafficking women for sex, titillating, but genuinely hard to comprehend. The idea is so at odds with her instinct that a world run by men “would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing.”
She dismisses Neil’s suggestion that there is historical proof for a world existing before women developed the power as simply a “fun idea”. Neil bristles at the patronising tone, but Naomi counters, reminding him of his difficulty “to form relationships with women”. While Naomi never has to worry about being defined by her gender, Neil is being crushed by the weight of it.
“You’ve explained to me how anything you do is framed by your gender, that the frame is as inescapable as it is nonsensical. Every book you write is assessed as part of ‘men’s literature’”.
Naomi’s solution is to ask: Have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name?
And there you have it. The solution for a man to be accepted is to be more like a woman.
The reader feels indignant for Neil at the very suggestion. And yet, how many times has a woman been told the same? If you want to get ahead in business you need to act like a man. Don’t be shrill or overly emotional. Be confident, but not too confident because that looks like arrogance. And no one likes a bossy woman.
Throughout the book Alderman repeatedly asks you to compare reality with fiction, forcing the reader to confront some uncomfortable truths. It feels inherently strange to read that a man is scared to walk down a particular street in case a woman attacks him or that he would need a female guardian to travel in his own country.
But then the reader stops and thinks. The cold, hard fact is, this has been the reality for women for centuries and never more so than in 2017.