I went through a phase last year where I suddenly felt like I should start reading books that are grounded in reality, books that will actually teach me something rather than books that merely perpetuate the myth that a woman needs a man to feel complete (ahem, romance novels). It then got me thinking about feminism, how far we’ve come in terms of achieving equality between the sexes. At the same time, there’s a sense that there’s still so much more we’ve yet to learn.
The Romance Novel: One step forward, two steps back?
Take romance novels, for example. To be fair, they’re no longer the bodice-ripping rompers that they once were. There are less plot lines of women being captured by barbarians-masquerading-as-heroes who are then imprisoned in some castle in the middle of nowhere and virtually raped. Johanna Lindsey is an author that gets a lot of flack for her love scenes, and to be honest when I was younger I never even thought about what her books meant or what message it sends to young girls like me. On average, girls of my generation probably started reading Ms. Lindsey’s books at around 13-14. That is a very impressionable age, and its around that time period that we form a mental image of what kind of woman we would someday like to become. Its at that age where we need strong positive influences more than ever.
I loved Johanna Lindsey’s books when I was younger and to be honest, I don’t think I’m the kind of girl who would internalise whatever it is that I read from these books. I was fully aware that these books are fantasies. I also had strong role models growing up. My aunt is unmarried, but she’s achieved so much in her life that no one would ever say her life is somehow less just because she’s not a wife or a mother. She’s worked for 30-something years, on her own I might add, in the United States to provide a roof over her brother’s heads (including my dad) when their parents died. When our family business was failing about 15 years ago now, she came out of retirement, went back to the States and resumed her career as a teacher even though she was nearly 50 and dammit, deserved to be relaxing in a beach somewhere after all her efforts. But she unselfishly took on the problems of the family on her undeniably strong shoulders, and I am where I am now because of her courage and selflessness.
The point is, not all girls would have role models like that. For some girls, these heroines that they read about in books form the backbone of their mental image of what it means to be a woman. So I get the backlash now, with the maturity that comes with age. Books like Prisoner of My Desire are not appropriate for young girls to read, and thankfully, young girls these days are so conscious about feminism that those kind of books would probably have less of an appeal anyway. We’ve come that far at least.
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
This brings me to Margaret Atwood. I would recommend her books not just for women but for readers of every gender because they deal with subjects that are so relevant in society today. The best book to start with, and undoubtedly her most famous published work, is The Handmaid’s Tale. There is so much discussion surrounding this right now because it was recently adapted for television on Channel 4 (in the UK anyway). I’ve never seen the series but I read the book late last year and it gave me the creeps. That was my first impression of this book: it gave me the creeps.
This story was described by Margaret Atwood as not so much science fiction as it is “speculative fiction”. By doing that, she’s basically saying that it doesn’t take much of a stretch for this book to become our new reality. In some developing countries, it probably already is. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives in a time where birth rates are falling and where women are basically useful only for their ability to give birth to a child. They are sent to some kind of school that teaches them to handmaids. It teaches them to be submissive, to be obedient and subservient; it basically stamps out any sense of individuality they might possess and turns them into nothing more than vessels of procreation. When they ‘graduate’ they join an official’s household and takes on the name of that official. So Offred is literally of Fred. In that household, she might as well be just a uterus. She exists only for the monthly ‘ceremony’, where she engages in sexual activity with the ‘husband’ while his wife holds her hand.
The alternative to this demeaning existence is exile and death. A woman has no choice but to submit basically. In addition, there is a finite number of years for her to achieve the goal of childbirth because these women are not taken into schools in the first blush of youth as I initially thought. Through flashbacks, it turns out Offred was previously married and had a child of her own. Then some kind of war or revolution happened and the whole world changed. Anyway, they’ve got about 5 to 6 years before menopause happens and they outlive their usefulness in society.
There are so many themes to explore that I don’t even know where to begin. I guess the overarching theme is that of the woman’s place in society. Its like the novel is saying, who are you if you’re not a wife or a mother? In this world that Margaret Atwood has created you can only be either one or the other. This really resonates with me because I’m nearing 30 and I am in no hurry to settle down and procreate. Never mind the fact that I’ve not met anyone I can imagine spending the rest of my life with, I just feel like there are so many things I still want to do. I haven’t even found my life’s passion yet. I don’t think nursing or even teaching is my passion, although I am quite passionate about the latter. All I really know is, I would like to have the opportunity to explore what it is that gives meaning to my life.
It would be easy to vilify the wives in this story. After all, they seem like they have a cushy position. They don’t live in fear and they don’t have to submit themselves to a demeaning ‘ceremony’ every month. However, they are just the other side of the same coin. All the women in this book are victims. The handmaids because of the role that’s been set for them, but also the wives because of the sheer nothingness of their existence. They are barren and therefore useless. They can’t even be partners to their husband because they don’t get to have a say, or to make decisions. They’ve given up their right to expect fidelity from their husband because of their inability to bear children. So, what are they really? I don’t think there’s anything more painful than a life lived in perpetual inconsequence.
A slow and painful death
There’s this one scene in the book where Offred is just staring at the walls. I think she was carving something on the bedposts for lack of something better to do, I can’t remember what exactly it was she was doing. The only thing I remember was the overwhelming feeling of boredom that I felt when I read about how she spends her days. I think about the days when I don’t feel like going out, I just want to stay in bed and be alone for once. But then, I have the option of watching television, or reading or writing a blog. Because I am allowed to cultivate my mind and to enhance my knowledge. The women in this book are barred from anything that might stimulate them to think. God forbid they should have one original thought, or any thought. They can’t even read magazines, for crying out loud, not even Cosmo? You would think Cosmo would be encouraged. Isn’t it all about pleasing men? Buy this product, wear these clothes, learn this sex position and the man will be your slave. I could be totally wrong here, I haven’t read Cosmo in a while, they could be all about empowering women now for all I know. I just make it a point NOT to read fashion magazines anymore because it just does nothing for my self-esteem.
God, I can’t imagine a world where I am not allowed to read. But then, wasn’t it only in the last century that there was a big to-do about women being allowed to enter into universities? In the 1950s, weren’t there separate colleges for women in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge? Even now, I sometimes get comments about hiding my intelligence when I meet a prospective date because apparently an intelligent woman intimidates and drives away men. That’s absurd. Any man that I would even consider dating would have to be strong enough to handle the fact that I have a brain and am not afraid to use it. I don’t suffer fools.
What’s in a name?
The women in this book are not allowed to use their given names. They are instead identifies by the name of the head of the household that they enter. So there’s Offred (Of Fred), OfWarren etc. I would like to say with conviction that I find this demeaning. But then I remember a conversation I had with one of my Italian friends about taking on your husband’s surname when you get married. I was raised in a culture where I just assumed that this was an automatic thing for you to do. You get married, you take your husband’s name and so do your future children.
Apparently, in Italy (and other major European countries) this isn’t a given. You have a choice to keep your surname (or hyphenate). At the time, this was a major revelation for me. It made me think about how I would probably rush to change my name and how proud I would be to wear my husband’s name. Is this a step back from feminism? Am I somehow less of a feminist because I see nothing wrong with changing my name when I marry? Is it somehow seen as a mark of ownership, that I am a property of my husband or something?
I don’t see it that way. Maybe I do still have an idealised view of marriage and being a woman. Those Johanna Lindsey novels may have influenced me more than I thought. I just think of marriage as having a sense of belonging, like you entrust your life to this person who you know will support you, keep you safe, cheer you on, celebrate your achievements and will always have your back no matter what. Taking the name of your husband is a symbol of that trust and that joining. I don’t know, I could be totally wrong here, but that’s how I feel. If my feminist card gets revoked because of it, then so be it. I can’t pretend to change my opinions to please anybody.
Feminism and fighting for women’s right to make their own choices
The Telegraph published this great article about why The Handmaid’s Tale has made such an impact. The truth is, this book hits closer to home than we would like to think. An Anti-abortion bill is now either being passed or has been passed by the Trump administration in the US. In the Philippines, the church is still adamantly against any form of birth control other than the calendar method. The use of a condom is akin to murdering an unborn child, never mind the fact that its just safer these days to use one. I suppose because the church is still under the impression that people don’t have sex outside of marriage (let us all laugh). Women have been fighting for control of their bodies for ages and its a fight that doesn’t seem to have an end. For as long as women can bear children, men seem to think they have a say in what we do with our bodies.
Okay so women are educated now; they can even have careers. But when they marry, they’re still expected to prioritise taking care of the child. I get that, but shouldn’t the husband have equal responsibility? Here in London, I know couples who work on alternate days so that one of them will always be around to care for their children. I suppose that’s because no one can afford to raise a family in London if only one parent is earning money. I find that practice admirable. However, in the Philippines, I know a few women who, back when I knew them in school, were one of the smartest women in our class. They graduated with honours in university and had several prestigious job offers. They gave all that up because their husband was earning enough money and expected them to stay at home to take care of the children. Meanwhile, my other friend postponed her wedding to her rich boyfriend because she insisted on going to Canada and getting her residency there. She refuses to waste 4 years wherein she studied Nursing, just to become a housewife.
It all comes down to choice
All these women that I know had one thing that the women in The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t: the right to have a choice. I think for me, that’s the kind of feminism that I’d fight for: the right for women to make their own choices. Do you have what it takes to make it as a lawyer? Great, apply to university and get a degree. Its your choice. Don’t want to marry? Don’t. Its your choice. Don’t want to take your husband’s name? Don’t do it, its your choice. Don’t want any more kids? Have a tubal ligation, its your choice. Accidentally pregnant and don’t want a baby? Have an abortion. Its your choice. I may not necessarily agree or see the reason behind why women do the things they do or make the decision they make, but I absolutely agree that it should be the woman’s choice. No one should get to coerce or make these decisions for them.
Make the choice to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. Enjoy, bookworms!