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  • Tara Ariano 5:00 pm on 2019/07/17 Permalink
    Tags: cafe meetups, , hulu, , Ofmargaret, , the handmaid's tale, ,   

    What Hints Does Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale Give Us About Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments? 


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    Last month, Barnes & Noble stores across the country hosted the first in a series of Cafe Meetups where fans of Hulu’s  The Handmaid’s Tale met to discuss the show and the Margaret Atwood novel upon which it is based. Many of the discussions focused on the differences and similarities between the show and the book—which got us thinking about what that might mean for Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming sequel, The Testaments, which will be published on September 10 in a Barnes & Noble Exclusive Edition. (Our next Cafe Meetup is scheduled for July 25. Find a participating store near you.)

    Speculative fiction was a new genre for Margaret Atwood when she published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, but over the past three-and-a-half decades, the novel has become one of her most gripping and indelible. In recent years, it has also taken on new relevance, thanks both to the politics of our era and a television adaptation that has brought it to the forefront of pop culture.

    Though the novel was earlier adapted as a film in 1990 (with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and a cast including Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, and the late Natasha Richardson), a standard movie runtime wasn’t sufficient to dramatize all the events and ideas it contains. In 2017, the TV series adaptation arrived on Hulu, with multiple Emmy-nominee Elisabeth Moss as its protagonist. Critical acclaim soon followed. But since, in our day, the content engines must be constantly stoked with new material lest the networks and platforms and streaming services stall out on the tracks, just covering the events of The Handmaid’s Tale wouldn’t do; the book didn’t supply enough events and ideas to fill multiple seasons of the show.

    For the first season, the plot of the series follows the novel’s with a great deal of fidelity: the U.S. government has been toppled in a theocratic coup, and while war continues between the Americans and Gilead, it’s happening far away from June (Moss). A fertile woman in a time when those are in short supply, she has been forced into the Gilead caste of Handmaid. She lives in the home of a Commander named Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski); once a month, she submits to The Ceremony, as procreative rape is euphemistically known. Since female literacy has been outlawed, she has little to do with the rest of her time but shop for food, take short walks around her neighborhood (both in the company of her walking partner, a fellow Handmaid), and worry about her loved ones, whose fates she doesn’t know: her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake) and her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle).

    After a time, Commander Waterford invites her for clandestine hangouts in his study, where they scandalously play Scrabble and leaf through antique fashion magazines. Once Waterford is fairly sure June won’t snitch, he brings her with him to Jezebel’s, a brothel, where she has a chance reunion with her college friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who washed out as a Handmaid and ended up as a sex worker, a life she finds far more palatable.

    Back home, Serena is pretty sure June isn’t getting pregnant—because the Commander is sterile—and arranges for June to copulate with the household’s driver, Nick (Max Minghella); the two end up enjoying each other’s company (to say they fall in love would be kind of a reach), and June does get pregnant. She is shocked to find out that her pious walking partner, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is involved with a resistance movement known as Mayday, which recruits her to run ops.

    One thing leads to another, and both the book and the show’s first season end with Nick—not only a driver, but also an Eye (an officer of Gilead’s secret intelligence service)—telling June to trust him while two other Eyes remove her from the Waterfords’ house. For a novel, it’s an ambiguous ending; for a TV series, it’s a cliffhanger.

    June/Offred (her Handmaid name, based on that of her head of household) is the book’s narrator, so while she can report to the reader some of the stories she hears from other characters, the novel formally echoes the claustrophobic restrictions of her new life. Where the first season of the TV series diverges from the book is largely through showing us perspectives of other characters that June doesn’t know about.

    Emily/Ofglen, for instance, was married to a woman; the rise of Gilead meant their marriage was invalidated, but her Canadian wife was permitted to flee with their son. In the meantime, Emily started a relationship with a Martha (a domestic worker in her Commander’s household). When they were discovered, her partner was executed on the spot, and Emily was forced to watch. Emily’s fertility makes her, in the official Gilead estimation, more valuable, so her punishment is a cliterodectomy.

    Serena was a conservative pundit whose theories provided some of the basis for the founding fathers of Gilead. She was passionately in love with her husband and now must live each day knowing she helped define the laws currently oppressing all Gilead women, herself included, and wonder if it was worth it to assist a husband who now has no interest in sex with her if it’s non-procreative.

    Nick was a disaffected young man who saw blue-collar jobs leaving his community and was too angry to get hired for one of the few that remained, making him a prime target for recruitment by a radical anti-government militia that actually ended up achieving its treasonous mission. And Luke and Moira? They both make it out, crossing the border into Canada to start their lives over as refugees. They eventually find each other, and start working together to try to get June out.

    The second and third seasons have continued what the first started, building out the world of Gilead, proceeding from the glimpses afforded the Junes of both the novel and the series.

    There are the Colonies—territories ravaged by environmental and nuclear disasters, where “Unwomen” (those who can’t or or aren’t permitted to occupy any of the few castes available to them) work without protection to clean up the sites, subsisting on contaminated water and food until radiation sickness kills them.

    There’s an episode set in an Econo-household (disappointingly, we see the show’s Econowives’ uniforms are just gray, like the Marthas’, and not striped as in the book) in which June does end up being spirited away from the Waterfords’ household and goes on the run.

    In a particularly shocking episode, June and the Waterfords travel to D.C., where the Washington Monument has been turned into an enormous crucifix, the Lincoln Memorial has been destroyed, and, under tight collars that cover their mouths and necks, Handmaids’ lips are closed with metal rings.

    We also learn more about the world around Gilead: the other sovereign nations whose diplomats are now working out whether and how to recognize a government brutally abrogating the civil rights of half its residents; and see what life is like in Canada for the former Americans who’ve escaped but are still processing their traumas.

    Some scenes created for the show echo current events of our day: June holes up in the former offices of the Boston Globe, where evidence remains of staffers’ brutal executions; the episode aired just two months before the shooting at Annapolis’s Capital Gazette last year. In another episode, Emily and her wife Sylvia (Clea DuVall), try to escape and are detained at the airport by a power-tripping ICE agent who tells them their legal immigration protections have disappeared, as occurred when President Trump’s “Muslim ban” executive order was first signed in 2017.

    Though June’s story in the novel ends with her being marched out of the Waterfords’ house, there does follow a section of “Historical Notes,” transcribed from an academic symposium on Gileadean Studies held in 2195, that hint at the future that awaits her. A Prof. James Darcy Pieixoto, an archivist at Cambridge, speaks about reassembling a text—which he and a colleague have dubbed “The Handmaid’s Tale”—from voice recordings made on ’80s-era audio cassettes; he speaks about the details Offred may have changed or elided for safety’s sake, and what she couldn’t know about Gilead due to her limited vantage point.

    This 13-page epilogue condenses a huge amount of data the show has mined for plot and worldbuilding: this season, we’ve seen June record her voice to send to Luke, perhaps creating the account the archivists will pore over in more than a hundred years’ time (the idea that this story is being told via whatever audio storage media is available would explain some of the more egregious needle drops this season. “Que Sera Sera”?).

    In the book, Prof. Pieixoto refers to Gilead’s “racist policies”; the show has been criticized for ignoring race, and given our current political moment, it’s impossible to imagine that the theocratic movement that created Gilead wouldn’t also be white supremacist—though we did get a moment in a recent episode in which Lydia (Ann Dowd) and two fellow Aunts are considering Handmaid assignments and indicate that one won’t be acceptable to a couple who’ve refused to take a “Handmaid of color.”

    Prof. Pieixoto singles the Aunts out for special note, calling them a “crack female control agency” and citing an architect of Gilead who believed “that the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves”—a notion that just played out on the show in an episode flashing back to Lydia’s origin story as a kindly elementary school teacher who, after a romantic rejection, turned her rage against a student’s single mother by exploiting newly restrictive laws to get the child sent to foster care for spurious reasons.

    The Handmaid’s Tale is about to end its third season, with the finale dropping on Hulu July 24. The imminent publication of Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments, will bring a whole new vein of material to be mined in potential future seasons. As a critic of the show, I have sometimes been frustrated by moments when characters seemed to be making decisions for the sake of the plot; the idea that June would, in the Season 2 finale, be on the verge of escaping Gilead with her baby and decide to give up her chance on the groundless hope that she might also someday free Hannah from her new family is preposterous. But even in moments like these, characters’ essential natures have remained true to their portrayal in Atwood’s novel. That, paired with the fact that Atwood has been a consulting producer throughout the run of the show thus far, would lead one to believe that, while The Testaments will vault us 15 years past the end of June’s story in The Handmaid’s Tale, she and her fellow Gileadean narrators will still be recognizable to those of us who’ve been watching her on Hulu for the past three seasons. It also seems likely that we shouldn’t be too optimistic about where Atwood will leave June this time.

    Do you have opinions to share about the similarities and differences between Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Margaret Atwood’s novel? Do you want to speculate about what readers might discover in The Testaments? On July 25, many Barnes & Noble stores are hosting Handmaid’s Tale Cafe Meetups where fans can come together to discuss the show, book, and more. Find a participating store near you.

    The post What Hints Does Hulu’s <i>The Handmaid’s Tale</i> Give Us About Margaret Atwood’s <i>The Testaments</i>? appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2019/01/28 Permalink
    Tags: cat's eye, , , , , oryx and crake, , the handmaid's tale, the testament   

    A Definitive Ranking of the Novels of Margaret Atwood 


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    With the continuing success of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation and the unexpected announcement of a sequel novel (The Testaments, coming in September 2019), interest in Margaret Atwood’s work is at a fever pitch. And while that dystopian tale will undoubtedly be the book that defines Margaret Atwood’s life, she has written many more works of note—all of them worth exploring. If you’re a new reader looking to jump into her extensive backlist, here is how we’d rank them, from the merely very good to the absolutely essential.

    Bodily Harm (1981)
    Atwood beautifully writes this story of a journalist who travels on assignment to a Caribbean island on the brink of revolution. With lush and elegant prose, it’s a pleasure to read. So why do we place it at the bottom of Atwood’s oeuvre? Rennie, the protagonist, isn’t so much a character with agency as a vessel into which Atwood pours cruelty, making for an occasionally frustrating reading experience. This is likely purposeful, given the prevalent themes of power and emotional addiction, but if the novel is a successful experiment, Rennie’s apparent powerlessness to avoid her own worst possible fates mutes the impact.

    Life Before Man (1979)
    Once again, Atwood delivers a book that is gorgeous and affecting in its language, but peopled with characters who seem to do things only because the author’s purpose requires it. Elizabeth is the director of a museum in Toronto, her husband Nate makes useless wooden toys; they’re living by outdated and outmoded concepts of relationships and emotion, and the stress starts to show when Nate commences a new affair with Lesje, Elizabeth’s colleague. Elizabeth retaliates by seducing Lesje’s own significant other. The story of their corrosive, destructive affairs is claustrophobic, dry to the point of desiccation, and, like Bodily Harm, probably exactly what Atwood wished to achieve. It’s also depressing as heck.

    Surfacing (1972)
    Atwood’s second novel never names its narrator, a fact that underscores her bleak, featureless depression. The prose is as sharp as ever, and the other characters we encounter as the narrator searches for her missing father—the arrogant and self-impressed David; his wife Anna, who bends over backwards to support his delusions despite her unhappiness; Joe, the silent, insecure potter—form a fascinating, dysfunctional group. The mystery of what’s happened to the narrator’s father is also interesting, for all its inevitable tragedy. The blankness of the narrator makes her a bit of a closed book, even as she descends into madness and desperation while searching for her father.

    The Edible Woman (1969)
    Atwood’s debut earns points for an intriguing and affecting premise. It’s the story of Marian, who is so immersed in an orderly, consumerist life as a market researcher. Marian is involved with dull-as-paint Peter, and, scandalized by the sexual and emotional behavior of her friends, begins to disassociate, viewing her physical body as a separate entity from herself. She then begins to imbue the food she encounters with human qualities, and finds herself unable to eat—until a final act of symbolic self-cannibalism. It’s all a bit messy and overcooked, but Atwood’s deft work portraying a personality in the act of dissolving is first-rate.

    Lady Oracle (1976)
    Atwood’s third novel finally sees her having a bit of fun, while retaining the incisive prose that has always defined her work. She explores themes similar to those of her first two novels, but sans the heaviness or the seriousness. Joan Foster had a miserable childhood that continues to afflict her adulthood, until she finds her calling as a writer, and uses trendy automatic writing techniques to craft a cultish bestseller. There’s a lot here: body shaming, blackmail, a sexless marriage, and an identity crises that culminates in the main character faking their death. We’re still in the early days of her impressive career, but there’s a lot to love in this book, as Atwood finally cuts loose a little.

    The Robber Bride (1993)
    This is a divisive book among Atwood acolytes. On the one hand, it’s a deft examination of female friendships and gender relationships, and it features the absolutely brilliant character Zenia, who is either a sociopathic man-eater and world-class frenemy, or a self-actualized heroine, or something else entirely. But the brilliance of the novel is also its weakest point for some: while Zenia is a breathtaking inversion of the unreliable narrator (this is a woman who fakes her own death, then shows up years later without a care and straight-facedly offers several ridiculous explanations about where she’s been), she’s also slippery and inscrutable as a result. In other words, you either buy into this one wholesale, or you bounce right off of it. (Incidentally, we bought in.)

    Hag-Seed (2016)
    The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a fascinating experiment in bringing the Bard’s work into a new era. Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest leans so hard into the meta there’s no room for anything else. Felix Phillips—her Prospero—is the Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, until he is pushed out by a scheming, extremely clever underling. Philips lands in a job at the local correctional facility, where he concocts a byzantine revenge plot while literally putting on a production of The Tempest. It’s the sort of literary gesture only someone of Atwood’s stature could pull off. The artificiality of it all gives the affair the flavor of an intellectual experiment, but the clever bits make it well worth reading anyway.

    Cat’s Eye (1988)
    We move into the Atwood top 10 with this diamond-sharp exploration of childhood friendship, bullying, and feminism—a dark sort of proto-Mean Girls. Successful artist Elaine returns home for a retrospective of her paintings, and sinks into a reverie of her childhood and adolescence, a time when she was mercilessly bullied by a trio of girls she’d thought were her friends. As young Elaine descends into and then claws her way out of victimhood, she gains the upper hand over her chief tormentor and enjoys being just as mean, while in adulthood, she begins to see things a bit more clearly than she might like. It’s a story just about everyone can relate to in some way, balancing thematic resonance with narrative drive.

    The Heart Goes Last (2015)
    This is a quietly over-the-top novel, and as a result, it isn’t universally loved. In a dystopian future where society has lost control of law and order, a young couple grows tired of scraping by on tips and low-wage jobs, living in their car, and under threat by the gangs of criminals that rule the streets. They see an advertisement for a community where they would be guaranteed a job and a home, in exchange for spending every other month in prison while someone else occupies their house. All goes well until they begin to obsess over the “alternates” who live in the house when they’re behind bars. This is a caustic look at modern life through a dark funhouse mirror, very funny, and very smart.

    MaddAddam (2013)
    Ranking books in a series is a bit odd, especially in this case, where we’re approaching the tale out of order, so you may want to skip ahead if you aren’t caught up on Atwood’s dystopian sci-fi trilogy that begins with Oryx and Crake and continues in The Year of the Flood. MaddAddam ties those books’ parallel storylines together, as Ren, Toby, and Jimmy unite with other survivors and launch a project to rebuild civilization with the help of the Crakers, while being menaced by a criminal gang of Painball veterans. While it’s a great story that concludes the series in strong fashion, this trilogy-ender understandably lacks a bit of the surprise of the first two.

    Oryx and Crake (2003)
    See above (and four entries below). The dystopian vision Atwood crafts here is arguably darker and more horrifying than the one in The Handmaid’s Tale; the state of pre-apocalypse society is grim, dominated by violent and pornographic entertainment, where gated compounds protect the elite from the outside world. It’s a society ruled by immensely powerful biotech corporations that values technical capability above all else and casually create life in order to experiment on it. That the end of the world is triggered through pharmaceuticals isn’t an accident, and neither is the surprisingly emotional and elegiac tone of the post-apocalypse sections tat follow a man named Snowball—formerly Jimmy—who watches over the genetically engineered, near-human Crakers as he seeks to fulfill a promise to the man who destroyed the world.

    The Penelopiad (2005)
    Atwood’s other literary reimagining is more successful than Hag-Seed. Giving Odysseus’ wife Penelope—and her 12 maids—a voice in their ultimately tragic fate is a genius move, and the book fits perfectly within Atwood’s thematic body of work. It’s narrated by Penelope, speaking from Hades in the modern day. She tells her side of the story of her relationship with Odysseus, and her chapters alternate with chapters from the maids’ points of view; the maids haunt Odysseus and Penelope in Hades, and why wouldn’t they—they’re the ones who executed by Odysseus for doing exactly as they were told, and attempted to help Penelope avoid being forced into marriage after her husband was presumed dead. Lively, sharp, and still blisteringly current, this  twist on an ancient story redefines it utterly.

    Alias Grace (1996)
    In this historical mystery (based on a true story of a 19th century woman accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and mistress), Atwood plays with reader expectations and point-of-view so masterfully. the book can be enjoyed on many levels: as mystery, as romance, as history viewed through a feminist lens. In the end, Atwood plays that trick of giving you all the information but denying you a concrete conclusion—you simply don’t know, by the end, what truths lie at the heart of Grace, nor what really happened to her, nor what she did. But it doesn’t matter, because the what and when was never the point. This is a story about the shifting of identity—those thrust upon us, those we choose for ourselves—depending on who ‛s telling the tale, and who’s listening.

    The Blind Assassin (2000)
    This Booker Prize-winner is Atwood’s most structurally complex work. It’s a book about a book, which in turn contains a third book. That’s an oversimplification, of course; it’s one of those slow-building tales that allows you to think you know what’s going on until it becomes obvious you don’t, as the reveals begin landing and you realize you’ve been woefully, terribly wrong about everything. As it begins, it is 1945, and a woman named Laura is dead, possibly by her own hand.Decades later, her sister Iris recalls the childhood they shared, and of the dark events that have befallen their family. Woven into this history is the text of a lurid sci-fi novel (ostensibly penned by Laura) about a killer on a far-distant planet. At the heart of these nesting narratives is the relationship between Laura and Iris, and how it is shaped by both the men who abuse and ruin them, and the lies they tell in order to keep their heads above water. The end result is one of Atwood’s most challenging, spectacular successes.

    The Year of the Flood (2009)
    Oryx and Crake ends on an organic note that feels final, which made the appearance of a sequel seem surprising—at first. But then, so much of Atwood’s most explicitly speculative universe was left unexplored at the end of one book that the second feels, in retrospect, inevitable. Atwood’s return trip into the apocalypse focuses on the poor of the rapidly-declining future, exploring religion, friendship, and catastrophe with a sure-handedness and comfort the belies the fact that this world was already familiar to Atwood when she started. The Year of the Flood crystallizes the themes she shaped in the first book, taking the kinds of chances only possible in a sequel. As a result, it also packs more of an emotional punch than the concluding volume, and shoots to near the very top of her impressive bibliography.

    The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
    Deservedly, Atwood’s greatest work is also her most famous. Its feminist themes and exploration of a truly misogynistic society are horrifyingly relevant some three decades after it was first published. The secret is that Atwood doesn’t paint a simplistic picture of a society in which women have been reclassified as more or less breeding property; she explores how both sexes support and contribute to a horrifying vision of oppression. Yes, it is clearly the men who have reshaped the world in order to strip women of all political, economic, and legal power, but the women of the Republic of Gilead are often willing, cruel participants in the subjugation of the Handmaids who are forced to bear their children. In crafting this bleak future, Atwood doesn’t forget the fundamentals, either; it’s a story peopled with characters you care about, and stakes that devastate.

    Our hopes for The Testaments are high. Where do you think it’ll land on this ranking?

    The post A Definitive Ranking of the Novels of Margaret Atwood appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Monique Alice 5:00 pm on 2016/01/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , the handmaid's tale   

    Feminist Book Club: The Handmaid’s Tale 


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    Welcome to Feminist Book Club! FBC is a monthly column in which we explore written works through a feminist lens. Each post features one book and announces the pick for the following month’s post. We’ll cover everything from essay collections to novels from memoirs to plays. This column is meant to be inclusive of all gender identities and will feature works from many different perspectives. FBC also aims to present an intersectional view of feminism, meaning race, ability status, sexual orientation, and many other factors will be considered alongside gender issues. We hope you’ll read along and join in on the discussion in the comments!

    This month’s selection is The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. The novel tells the story of Offred, a woman whose sole value is her ability to breed. The story begins after an abundance of pollution triggers a plunge in the birth rate, and civilization as we know it has been decimated in a calculated overthrow by a fanatical religious sect. What’s left is an oppressive dystopia in which women have been stripped of all personal freedoms, beginning with the right to hold jobs and maintain their own finances, and culminating in the loss of the right even to read. Offred has already lost everything when we meet her: her job, child, husband, friends, and family have all been taken, one by one, by the regime. Even her name is gone, replaced by the shorthand Of-Fred; that is, belonging to Fred, a Commander and the master of her household. Offred’s sole duty is to enter the bedroom of the Commander and his Wife (yes, Wife with a capital W—it’s a title), and to submit to sex with the Commander for the purpose of becoming pregnant. The encounters are ritualistic and perfunctory, leaving the reader both transfixed and horrified. In addition to her ovulatory bedroom visits, Offred also gets to go to the market once a day. Other than that, her schedule involves a whole lot of staring at the ceiling and remembering “the time before,” when she had her own family, her own desires, and the ability to be free outside of her thoughts.

    Offred’s thoughts are, in fact, nearly the whole of the novel. She’s a human whose presence in the outside world has been corralled, bound, tamed, and (no pun intended) sterilized. She’s not allowed an opinion, nor is she able to speak without constant deference to some patriarchal figure—whether it be her Commander or the decidedly male incarnation of God favored by the regime. As such, she lives almost entirely in her internal experience, regularly dissociating into memory or fantasy to escape intolerable circumstances. Given the injustice of those circumstances, the reader is often struck by the incongruence of Offred’s reaction to them. At rare moments in the novel, her anger flares briefly, as when she covets a pair of garden shears or marvels irately at the Commander’s entitlement. However, for much of the novel, her internal monologue is shockingly ambivalent and even complacent. Atwood shines here—she refuses to tell the reader what to feel. She simply sets a horrific scene, shrugs, and walks away. We’re left to wring our hands in Offred’s general direction and beg her to resist, to fight, to care. Of course, anyone familiar with trauma dynamics knows the dissociation, submission, and numbness Offred often demonstrates are not exactly out of the ordinary for trauma survivors. In fact, these responses are not only perfectly normal, but often are survivors’ only available tools for fighting to live another day. When Offred finally does dare to resist, we become the ambivalent ones—parts of us cheer while other parts are frozen in fear, certain she’ll be caught and wondering if it wouldn’t have been better for her to simply accept her fate.

    If we take Offred’s personal dilemma and stretch it to fit a whole society, we arrive at the crux of the novel: do we choose to preserve personal freedoms and bear all the risks a free society demands? Or do we give up our individual freedoms for the promise of order and security? Feminists know a version of this as the “Patriarchal Bargain,” or the notion that women can and often must agree to abide by the rules of a system that perpetually disadvantages them in exchange for whatever power that system doles out, or sometimes simply just to survive. The women of The Handmaid’s Tale know this bargain well. Their very lives hinge on their ability to continuously prove their value to men.

    It would be remiss not to mention the notable absence of people of color, the disabled, and other oppressed groups in this book. The story is entirely comprised of able-bodied, heterosexual white people and focuses almost completely on the plight of white women in their childbearing years. At first, this might appear to be an oversight endemic to late 20th-century feminist discourse—as though it simply didn’t occur to the author to include the plight of anyone other than white folks. And maybe that was the case. However, another angle is that Atwood says more with her choice to exclude other oppressed groups than she could have otherwise. The subtext of this choice is that they are all simply gone, having been summarily exterminated by an iron-fisted dictatorship, one imagines as a first order of business.

    Published in the U.S. in 1986, the book is nearing its 30th anniversary. It might seem counterintuitive, for that reason, to emphasize how modern it feels. Whether or not it’s a sign of our times, the book reads as though it was written yesterday. There are so very many reasons to read and love this book—from the richly poetic sensory descriptions of Offred’s world, to the author’s artful narrative neutrality toward the story’s villains. Perhaps most captivating of all, though, is the timeless quality of the novel’s central themes. After all, we still live in a world where the environment is treated an afterthought, where oppressed groups have to fight for basic human rights, and where speaking truth to power is often a risky proposition. I suspect Atwood would be pleased if, some day soon, her flagship novel began to read less like an apropos cautionary tale and more like a far-fetched dystopian fantasy.

    Next month’s selection: Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, by Carrie Brownstein

     
  • Monique Alice 6:00 pm on 2015/12/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , the handmaid's tale,   

    Feminist Book Club: Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist 


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    Welcome to Feminist Book Club! FBC is a monthly column in which we explore written works through a feminist lens. Each post features one book and announces the pick for the following month’s post. We will cover everything from essay collections to novels, from memoirs to plays. This column is meant to be inclusive of all gender identities and will feature works from many different perspectives. FBC also aims to present an intersectional view of feminism, meaning that race, ability status, sexual orientation, and many other factors will be considered alongside gender issues. We hope you’ll read along and join in on the discussion in the comments!

    Selection #1: Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

    When novelist and scholar Roxane Gay released Bad Feminist in 2014, no one knew quite what to expect. Her previously published works, Ayiti and An Untamed State, were well received, and her work is a regular feature on internet culture hubs like McSweeney’s and Tin House. The title of this new book, though, seemed to herald something different. Something brazen and unapologetic, yet reverent and hyper-conscious of its cultural responsibility. That’s exactly what this book is: a contradiction in terms that is serious as a heart attack, yet hilarious as all get out. Without pomp or bravado, Gay manages to lay out what could, without exaggeration, be the most important feminist manifesto of the decade. She does this, in part, by immediately setting the reader at ease—as if to say, don’t worry, I’m a bad feminist, too.

    Gay’s point is that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to be a “perfect feminist” (whatever that means) in our current social climate. Although the push for equality continues to gain momentum, we remain immersed in a culture that tells us we have more value if we’re white, hetero, and male, preferably with a body mass index under 25. On the first page of Bad Feminist, Gay talks about how she sometimes catches herself singing along to songs with lyrics that degrade women. This is a microcosm of the effects of a toxic culture—the ubiquitous toxin gets into your bloodstream and before you know it, you’re showing symptoms. So, with all this doom and gloom, what’s the cure? Well, of course, there’s no simple solution, and Gay does not purport to provide one. What she does seem to prescribe is more critical thinking, less acceptance of our pre-defined social value, and more looking inward to ask ourselves how we participate in harmful cultural systems.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book is stellar in its treatment of toxic masculinity. Essays such as “How We All Lose,” “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence,” and “The Trouble With Prince Charming, or He Who Trespassed Against Us” provide keen-edged commentary on the ways in which our culture teaches men to disrespect women’s boundaries, and teaches women to accept that. Gay is unsparing in her critique of this cultural default setting, and equally honest about the ways in which toxic masculinity is as dangerous for men and boys as it is for women and girls. No less striking is Gay’s unflinching exploration of the Black experience in America today in “The Racism We All Carry,” “Surviving Django,” and “The Morality of Tyler Perry.” The pinnacle of this is perhaps the heartrending “The Last Day of a Young Black Man,” in which Gay delves full-throttle into the 2009 police shooting death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant and the subsequent movie about the tragedy, Fruitvale Station.

    Bad Feminist shines a bright light on many aspects of our present national experience, but some of the book’s most poignant essays are those told in the context of Gay’s personal reality. These chapters are often the funniest, too. (I guarantee this book will open your eyes to the merits of both competitive Scrabble and Sweet Valley High.) But on the deeper end, Gay shines in her willingness to be vulnerable while illustrating, say, the complex relationship between the lack of safety for women’s bodies and women’s relationships with food. Gay is beyond skilled in her writing prowess, and it’s clear she could have chosen to make her point without exposing what are clearly her most closely guarded wounds. But her compelling, brutally honest narrative gives the book a pulse and a voice. The reader does not simply grasp Gay’s ideas in a cognitive and abstract way but instead experiences them, viscerally. The result is often a galvanizing flood of empathy and solidarity that sparks a new fire in the belly—a hunger for change.

    Next month’s selection: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

     
  • Shaun Byron Fitzpatrick 5:00 pm on 2014/09/22 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , heroines, the awakening, the golden compass, , the handmaid's tale, ,   

    Our Favorite Heroines of Banned Books 


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    Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also RisesBeing a character in a banned book is no joke—you’re dealing with enough sex, drugs, and violence to find yourself kicked off of library shelves around the world. We hear about the male rebels, the Holden Caulfields and the Jay Gatsbys of the literary world. But what about their equally badass female counterparts? We’re tired of seeing our favorite banned heroines left out of the spotlight. So, to celebrate Banned Book Week, we’re showcasing nine of the most badass ladies in all of banned literature. These women have the spunk, courage, and strength to keep up with any male character, patriarchy be damned. 

    Jordan Baker, The Great Gatsby
    The ladies of The Great Gatsby get a bad reputation, mostly because both Daisy and Myrtle are a little bit crazy. In fact, their antics tend to make readers forget about the most badass woman in the entire novel. In the 2013 film adaptation of the novel, Nick describes Jordan as “the most terrifying woman I had ever seen,” and her literary counterpart is no less terrifying and fantastic. A golfer with a scandalous background and no time for Nick’s nonsense, it’s a shame to see her thrown over at the end of the novel. She could have whipped our incredibly neurotic narrator into shape. Can we have more Jordan and less Daisy, please?

    Sethe, Beloved
    Sethe’s unbelievable strength in the face of evil makes her deserving of some major recognition. Her actions against the young Beloved don’t stem from a place of violence, but rather one of desperation and, ultimately, love. How many would have the courage to do what she did to keep her daughter from a life of slavery?

    Lady Brett Ashley, The Sun Also Rises
    Has anyone who had to read The Sun Also Rises in high school not felt the need to bow down to queen bitch Lady Brett Ashley? With her short hair and free-spirited sexuality, it’s no wonder Jake can’t help loving and losing this thoroughly modern woman. Plus, she says one of the most badass lines in all of Hemingway: “You know, it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.” Doesn’t it though, Brett?

    Dewey Dell, As I Lay Dying
    It’s not easy being seventeen and pregnant, especially when you’re a main character in a Faulkner novel. But Dewey Dell doesn’t just sit around and accept her bad luck, instead attempting to take ownership of her body and her destiny. The fact that she’s beaten down by male interference only shows how tough she is to be fighting against a patriarchy much stronger than she is.

    Edna Pontellier, The Awakening
    Edna has always been a pretty polarizing character, but whether you love or hate her, you can’t deny her a place on a list of female badasses. Edna not only embraces her sexuality, but spurns the female stereotypes held by her community, moving into her own home and abandoning a maternal role that never fit her. She shows readers that there is no “normal” woman, no mold one has to fit in to claim that title.

    Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale
    We all agree that The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrifying book, right? So any lady that manages to live through that dystopia has to be one tough cookie. Offred is forced to face the probable murder of her husband and the loss of her daughter, and still finds the strength to fight against an oppressive regime that attempts to take away the rights of all women. Offred, you go, girl.

    Sam, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
    Sam, the girl with the past. What might be most refreshing about her is her honesty and her strength. She doesn’t deny the things she’s done, but tries to grow from them. Her acceptance of her flaws make her an incredibly vulnerable, and therefore entirely relatable, character. Plus, how relatable was this quote, when she called Charlie out on his crap? “It’s just that I don’t want to be somebody’s crush. If somebody likes me, I want them to like the real me, not what they think I am. And I don’t want them to carry it around inside. I want them to show me, so I can feel it too.” Preach, girl.

    Lyra, The Golden Compass
    She may be the youngest on this list, but she probably has more spunk than the rest of these ladies combined. She has a blatant disregard for authority, she risks her life to save her friends, and she becomes partners with a bloodthirsty polar bear. EVEN AN ARMOURED BEAR LISTENS TO HER. What could be more badass than all that?

    Did your favorite badass make the cut?

     
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