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Revisiting the Handmaid’s Tale: Dogmatic feminism

The kid is reading The Handmaid’s Tale for English.  Yeah, wrap your head around that.  When I was a child, the raciest stuff we ever got to read was Tess of the D’Urbervilles where “weeping in the Chase”  and Hester Prynne letting down her glossy black hair in the woods was about as close as we were ever going to get to any insinuation of unchaste behavior.

I thought this would be a good time to revisit The Handmaid’s Tale with an eye to understanding whether feminism has devolved into dogmatic feminism.  I also like to refer to this as “red tent” feminism.  I consider myself a feminist but one who basis her feminism on a very Mary Wollstonecraft sensibility.  Feminism is a philosophy that asserts that all humans are equal and that women are no less endowed by nature to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than men and that there should be only one criteria for denying women anything they aspire to- individual ability.  Since science is beginning to show that women have equal mental capacity in the sciences and math and other intellectual pursuits, the only limitations on females to achieve what they want is physical.  And the only area where they lack in physical strength is in the upper body.  That pretty much leaves them out of professional football leagues, certain weight classes in boxing, wrestling and weight lifting and not a whole lot else.  If a woman is still interested in firefighting or combat or something else, let her train and develop those physical traits that will let her compete. There may be other subtle physical differences but nothing that can’t be overcome.  We’ve already seen that women are quite capable astronauts and pilots, political leaders and business people.  Let’s just cut the crap with the artificial barriers already, ok?

I don’t believe in a society that treats women as some kind of special physical being is good and I don’t want to live in that world.  In other words, I don’t think men envy us for our baby making ability.  That’s just wishful bullshit.  Are you kidding me?  If men could gestate fetuses in a box, a la Monty Python, they would.  Your ability to bear children is a curiosity and a necessity but not something they would ever wish on themselves.  So, if you are a woman hoping to retreat into some “red tent” community of women where you can all celebrate your menstruation and hope that the rest of the world will recognize and honor your superiority because you are able to give life, dream on.  Ain’t never going to happen.  If anything, The Handmaid’s Tale reinforces the notion that childbearing is not a noble endeavor and separate is not equal. (Note that I said childbearing, not parenthood.  And in the modern world, BOTH sexes can and should be good parents) The women who are conscripted into the Handmaid class may be re-educated to believe that they are in an honorable profession but the rest of the world still sees them as concubines.  So, think it over ladies.  If you want to focus all of the world’s attention on what is between your legs and not your ears, separate yourselves and worship your childbearing above all else.  What can be seen as a gift can be coerced when the need arises.  Then it’s not a gift anymore and you as a person cease to exist.

Margaret Atwood has said that her idea of The Handmaid’s Tale was in part generated by the feminist anti-pornography movement that sprang up in the wake of the initial waves of feminism.  In this scenario, it is the anti-pornography feminists who collaborate with the religious right. The feminists have become dogmatic, fail to discriminate degrees of infraction, and react to pornography with public burnings of the material.  Like the Aghanis who gave control of their country to the Taliban, these dogmatic feminists may have sanctioned the religious backlash in order to restore order and control over violent behavior.  As one of the “Aunts” says in the movie, “There is more than one kind of freedom.  In the days of anarchy, it was ‘freedom to’.  Now, you’re being given ‘freedom from’. Don’t underrate it”.  In the Aunts, we see the merging of the dogmatic feminist with the religious right and an inability to think outside a rigid box in a way that respects individual agency and personal maturity. It’s easier and safer if everyone just follows the rules and stays within the rigid box society constructs for them. What is particularly disturbing is that we can see some real world examples of this kind of mindset recently that should scare the living sh&* out of us.

For example, remember the Anthony Weiner affair?  Do you remember the commenters here (you might even have been one yourself) who indignantly insisted that the recipient of the pictures was a victim whose eyes were violated and who was the target of an online rape?  Let’s just put aside the idea that you can be raped online, is this even reasonable?  But what does it say about the power of our American culture when a whole blogosphere of women can be prompted to turn on themselves, to assert that the recipient of the text “didn’t ask for it” that she was a victim of a sexual pervert, as if looking at an erect penis was something our innocent eyes shouldn’t see?  WE have “self-control”.  Men have lustful desires.  It’s very Handmaid.  We reinforce the idea of slut shaming when we circle the wagons around the alleged victim of an online rape, protecting her from accusations of participation instead of laughing it off.  It was a digital picture for god’s sakes.  It can not hurt you.  And besides, what if what she had written to him *had* seemed like an invitation?  What’s wrong with that?  Are women not allowed to be provocative?  Do you see where I’m going with this?

Ok, how about Julian Assange.  The stories the alleged rape victims reported in Sweden have come into question.  I’ve always considered the charges to be a very, very broad definition of the word “rape”.  If that was rape, just about everyone has experienced it.  And then I start to wonder, what about the women who claim to be on the pill who deliberately get pregnant against the wishes of their male counterparts.  Please, do not tell me it doesn’t happen.  We all know that it does.  Isn’t that also a form of rape?  It’s not violent but it sure isn’t consensual, is it?  But whatever.  I was very surprised to see the number of women who immediately and without question took the side of the accusers.  I have no idea what the Swedish court system would do, it’s really in their bailiwick.  But I was disturbed at how women once again assumed that the accusers were victims, as if they were completely without any sexual agency whatsoever.  The did not *own* their sexuality.   It is part of a pattern that looks at women as asexual passive beings upon which men impose their aggressive sexual lusts.  Is that the way women want themselves to be seen?  Or is it merely convenient because lust is not a desirable female trait in our culture?

Feminists on the left need to be careful that they aren’t used as political tools through accusations of rape and other sexual taboos.  If you are conditioned to have a knee jerk response to any accusation of sexual misconduct by men towards women no matter how innocuous or tangential it is to their official duties, you can be used as a tool of mob justice to take out your potential allies.  Condemnation is one of the only political powers women have and to do this against men based on unproven or trivial accusations is the equivalent of a digital particicution.

I was relieved to see the feminist community rally briefly around Sandra Fluke.  But even more enraged that anyone could stick a slut label on any woman these days.  I really thought we had banished that word forever but here it was again, raising its ugly head.  And then I saw a youtube lecture on Tolkien from a speaker from Baylor University who in the middle of his lecture made a comment about a co-ed in a tight sweater with a caption that said “goats they do nibble”.  “Did she know she was going to be a slut when she put on that shirt?”, he said to an auditorium of college students.  So, the word is back in business.

And that’s the way the women in The Handmaid’s Tale saw the Handmaids.  They were sluts whose sole purpose in life was sex.  It didn’t matter if they didn’t enjoy it.  Young, fertile women are tramps, whores and sluts. The were literally the scarlet women. That seems to be the way we are going as well.

A new area for the anti-sex “feminists” is in the area of New Atheism.  Most of us are familiar now with Elevatorgate, the controversy that sprang up when Rebecca Watson took an invitation from an unknown guy in an elevator as a prelude to rape and exploitation.  To say she overreacted is an understatement.  In my college days, we would have assessed the safety of the situation and determined whether we were interested or not.  If not, we would have politely declined, arranged to meet for coffee the next morning and gotten off at our floor.  But not so with Rebecca.  Apparently, all the guy was interested in was her vagina.  It sounds a bit like what our 50’s era parents would have been told. “He’s only interested in getting what he wants and then dumping you”. But maybe he would have been just interested in talking.  Or talking and a little light snogging.  If there was anything else intended, you could always say no and leave.  Most people will let you leave.  There really aren’t that many rapists around.  Truly.  But so what if Rebecca had gone all “paradise by the dashboard light”?  So what??  That’s her right.  It’s not seduction if its mutual.

In the Handmaid’s Tale, pleasurable sex is a crime against the state.  It is an act of willful defiance.  And to be defiant is to be free.  So, is Rebecca Watson a free person?  Or is her relatively recent feminist conditioning taking away her freedom to be a sexual being?

Or, is she using her public chastity as a bludgeon against men because we have focussed so much of our attention on our nether regions that women have lost ground in the intellectual sphere?  Is the only way for women to assert power in this society to use sex as a weapon?  It *is* the only place where women have made some progress.  Sexual harassment is almost universally forbidden in this country.  Men can get hammered with a sexual harassment suit like nobody’s business so they are extraordinarily cautious in the public sphere about avoiding it.  That means that real discrimination has gone underground and takes more subtle and insidious ways to exert itself.  We’re all familiar with the performance evaluation by behavioral criterion that has taken down women great and small.  The cultural stereotypes of passive, compliant, pleasant and obedient women as being the most desirable to work with has also crippled them and made it very difficult for them to break the glass ceiling.

Anyway, that’s my little stream of thought ponderings that have been running through my head this morning.  I won’t even go through how much the Duggar family lives the life of The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s almost like they used the book as a supplementary bible. They’re into an extreme form of patriarchalism, worship childbearing, are fanatical about forbidding any enticement to lustful thoughts, and they don’t educate their daughters very well.  Just like the handmaids in the movies, the children travel in pairs with each one accountable for the behavior of the other, always ready and willing to betray a trust and intimacy. All that’s missing are the color coordinated clothing.  They may look a happy in front of the camera and maybe some of them have the constitution for it.  But for the ones who don’t, it must be a living hell.  Religious women who worship the Duggars should read Atwood’s book (or reread it).  We do NOT want to live in a world like this because no one would have a minute’s peace.  There would always be rebellions, terrorism, violations, executions.  It would be like the Taliban mixed with the Department of Homeland Security against all of the lefties who have become sudden fans of the 2nd amendment.  Not my cup of tea.

So, comments anyone?  Fire away!

If you haven’t read the book, you can find it here at amazon.

Here’s the movie version on YouTube.  It’s got German subtitles but is in English otherwise.

And here’s an interesting discussion about The Problem with Dogmatic Feminism and supplementary discussions part 1 and part 2 from Ask An Atheist.  I like the way the hosts go through the issue step by step in a thoughtful manner.  I wouldn’t have been so diplomatic.  The bottom line, as I see it, is that the dogmatic feminists are undermining their own cause.  Instead of reinforcing their equality and insisting on things that would really change the dynamics at a New Atheist convention by demanding at least 1/3 female representation of speakers and a progressive stack during discussions, they are alienating even the more sympathetic men in the movement by considering all interactions between males and females as invitations to seduction and abuse.

The New Atheist movement is having to confront this issue early and I hope they take some time to get to the bottom of it and define what feminism in a post religious world should be. (And by post religious, I mean in the present context where state and church are intertwined. The goal should be a secular culture where the religious can do what they want in private.  That is what I mean by post-religious) They also need to be careful because this is an issue that the religious could use against them to split the New Atheist movement.  In other words, they need to find a way to get through to the Rebecca Watsons to carefully examine what they are doing so they don’t cause unnecessary tension at their gatherings and inadvertently reinforce cultural and religiously based cultural stereotypes.  I know that’s not what Rebecca thinks she is doing but by reducing every woman at a meeting as a potential victim and every man as a potential rapist, that’s what she is doing. I wouldn’t want to be a new female convert to New Atheism, go to a convention and have all the men avoid me and instantly think I was a neurotic pain in the ass just because the Rebecca Watsons got there first and took all the spontaneity out of the event.  She’s not doing women any favors.

And here’s some insight on rapid social change brought on by stressful environments, her is Atwood herself speaking to Bill Moyers:

22 Responses

  1. Thanks for you points about Assange and Wiener. It bothered me too that women let themselves be used to go after those guys.

    I’ve always liked taking feminism to the point of theory, of imagining the changes we want to see. I still have copies of titles by MacKinnon and Dworkin on my bookshelf, and they will be staying on that bookshelf.

    That said, I always found that my feminist theories did not always work IRL. So I generally chose to forget the theory and go with what worked.

    I’m always going to like feminist ideology because I want to have a framework, and feminists have done so much stunningly good analysis for so long. But still, when application of the theory du jour will lead to dysfunctional results, then do what makes sense and take that theory back to the drawing board.

    It would be nice if there were some map we could get handed as teens that would lay it all out and save us the trouble of figuring it out ourselves, but I’ve come to decide that it is foolish and even a bit lazy to go that route. We will always have to keep making choices and figuring things out as we go and that’s what being human is. Lazy shortcuts are tempting, but so is fried food, and overindulgence in either vice will probably produce outcomes I don’t like.

    • Agreed. However, there are some countries that have made more progress than others. It could be that the religious aspect of our American culture is going to be THE primary obstacle to returning to the progress that other countries have made in the past 40 years.

  2. Many’s the time I’ve been minded of Atwood’s Handmaid Tale as I’ve watched the goings-on of American political thinking, so obsessed, often, with the female person’s body.

    • Spooky, isn’t it. If you watch that Moyers’ clip, you’ll see that Atwood says that nothing in her book was original. All of the incidences have happened in different places and different times.

  3. It’s a bit difficult to own your sexuality when someone is penetrating you when you’re asleep or pinning you down, as per the allegations Julian Assange. If he did what he has been charged with, he did commit rape.

    • The key word there is “if”. We don’t actually know all of the facts if the case, do we? BTW, he was never charged with anything. Nope, the Swedish police only wanted to talk to him.
      However, given what we do know, I would find it extremely hard to believe that anyone could sleep through sex. Not saying its not possible. I’m just saying that given my own experience, *I* do not believe it.
      We’ve been over this territory before. Here’s my bottom line: if you no longer want to have sex with someone, regardless of whether you are male or female, you need to get out of the bed, get your clothes on and either offer to take your partner home or go home yourself, depending on who owns the apartment.
      If you stay in the bed and you are naked and you gave the impression that you had fun the first time around, you’re getting pretty close to consenting a second time. If that’s not what you want, then you need to get up, get dressed and get out.
      That’s how you take control. Staying where you are is confusing to even the most gentle of partners.
      Don’t be a fucking victim.

      • That’s why I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of seduction. What exactly is it about?

        • I’ve always thought that seduction was what happens when a perpetrator uses verbal or mild physical coercion to persuade the target to have sex until the target consents. I think that’s what differentiates seduction from rape. In seduction, the target eventually agrees willingly. In rape, the target does not agree willingly.
          Now, I could see that if the definition has changed and all parties are not aware of that change or don’t agree with the change in definition there may be some people who are accused of rape when they didn’t know it was rape and there may be targets who abuse the definition for their own motives.
          It’s very hairy. So, in order for both parties to cover their asses, they should leave the premises the minute they no longer wish to engage in sex or want to be talked back into it.
          Women aren’t the only possible victims here.

      • Yeah. Something like that. Just what RD said. Some poeple would love to forget there was an era of one night stands pre-Aids. There was. What RD said.

        • ps: RD & Co. What I hadn’t realized is that kajillions of women have not had the levels of exp. that others had. Maybe they married their high school sweethearts? Really. But on the West and East coasts? It may have been very different. After the sexual revolution of the 60’s in the post-Roe era? It was basically a free-for-all. I have also been considering just what Roe did for men of late? It absolved them. The backlash may be about just that very thing, although, being a mother would be just as difficult with the guys of then or the guys of now. I do not know one non-divorced mother. I don’t. I do not know one guy who wanted to be a father that was in my high school class, or college class.

        • Those were the days.
          {{sigh}}

  4. Perhaps what you’ve outlined here is why I always cringe at the idea of lysistrata. I was reading what should have been a woman friendly blog and the topic was why women vote republican. One commenter tried to explain it by saying that women didnt desire in the same way as men and weren’t as capable of experiencing ecstasy. So apparently women can be with any old body and vote for them too? How many people think this??? Women definitely need better pr that expresses all the ways we are equal. I was watching an episode of taboo that featured women body builders. Someone should hire these women to do women’s rights rallies. They could show up and crush coconuts between their thighs or something. Apparently there is a segment of the population that would really respond to their displays of physical prowess. And todd akins head looks like a coconut. So there’s that.

    • WTF?? Women aren’t capable of experiencing ecstasy?? Is that how they explain the Obots? Interesting.
      Total nonsense but interesting.
      If there was a politician who actually wanted to court the votes of women and was sufficiently motivated to use unethical market research and psychological manipulation to get them onboard, women would be having orgasms at the ATM line over that person.

  5. Is Atwood suggesting that “freedom to” and “freedom from” are in opposition to each other, or even mutually exclusive? So, feminists need to choose one or the other?

    • No, Atwood is saying that this is a common argument that totalitarian regimes make to justify their existence. After a period of chaos and violence, a security state will make a bargain with you: you give up your freedom to conduct your life as you see fit in exchange for freedom from threats to your mortality. Atwood is using the subjugation of women in The Handmaid’s Tale. It isn’t restricted to feminism. But feminism needs to take a good hard look at what it is willing to give up in order to have the degree of safety it feels it needs. That is the tradeoff for a separate but equal feminism that sees the country as a “rape culture”. Feminists need to be very careful throwing that term around because the conservative politician types will pick up on that and say, “Ok, you want to be safe? You don’t want men objectifying you and drooling on you all the time because it makes you feel angry and threatened? Then give up some of your freedom, go back home, let your husbands take care of you, give the guys the tough jobs in the world and you can stay safe in your walled gardens and society of females”

      Is that really what feminists want? Because I find that unacceptable and yet, that’s where we are heading.

      • Why does Atwood interpret fighting against rape culture as giving up on “freedom to” for the sake of “freedom from”? The only reason for her to do so would be if she saw the two as mutually exclusive. In reality, “freedom to” and “freedom from” tend to go together.

        • “freedom to” implies agency. “freedom from” implies protection. The Duggar girls have freedom from violence, unwanted sexual attention, poverty, supporting themselves and decision making.
          I doubt that you would say they have freedom to do much of anything.
          I don’t know about you but as for me, I don’t care how dangerous the world is, I’d rather have freedom to.

          • “I’d rather have” suggests an either/or choice. I think we can and should have both. There is a complex structure of laws and regulations providing protection to all citizens. Most people don’t want to get rid of those laws and regulations in the belief that it will make them like the Duggar girls. So, I don’t think the problem is with “protection” in itself. It is in how democratically, or not, that protection is structured in its design and implementation. The problem with the “protection” provided to the Duggar girls is that they don’t have any say in it. That is how that “protection” is abused to control their “freedom to”.

          • I think we all would rather have both. But that is not the choice that is presented in the novel, nor is it the choice that many totalitarian governments give you. There are many people in this country who would like to impost a Duggar style freedom on you. It may not have to do with gender but as Atwood says in her handmaid commentary, that’s one of the first things totalitarian governments go after- the freedom of women. But there are economic, educational, political, medical, etc, etc, choices that a certain segment of the population would like to impose on the rest of us. If we are following Atwood’s guidelines, it is the group who would first impose restrictions on women’s rights and reproductive abilities that we should be most on our guard against because gender is only the first thing they have an interest in controlling.

  6. Agrees on Assange. Amazed Brooke is reading this! But? Remembers reading Erica Jong at her age, so, RD, our era? You are so right on the “elevator” and our freedoms to do whatever. That has been our world. The world of our gen. I see this whole thing as incredible “backlash” for what we called “feminism.” By this I mean heterofeminism. We expected equality, both sexual and on the job. I’m pretty sure most of us had that? I think though, that, growing up as we did and where? What we might have assumed was a given for all the women of our gen? Was not. It’s just weird. Right now. I’m actually really glad to hear that Brooke is reading that, because it is a “thinking girl’s book.” And yeah, all we had was Tess.

    • No, your memory is correct. We had challenges for sure but I think our generation had the expectation of freedom that this generation does not. This generation is scared to death of freedom. They want the whole world to be safe before they step outside and that’s just not how the world works. If you want to be an equal player in the world, you can’t hide from it.
      I never read Erica Jong. Not my cup of tea for some reason.
      BTW, it didn’t matter what coast you were on, the experience was the same. I think the backlash is driven by economics. Men are just taking it out on women for their decreased earning power.

      • Yep. They want that control. I was a curious readerly little girl. Always in books even at 13. In the 70’s out here we all had “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in the teens — even if we hadn’t done anything. I’m serious. But that was CA in those days. I first learned that word “feminism” at her age? Maybe the backlash is *because* of the freedoms our gen (now the parents of teens, and older) lived? That “safety” concept scares me. Also? Some of the things you have described for B’s gen? Scare me. I do think the experience was the same — but women do not want to admit that. Isn’t that funny? Oh well hugs. ps: Uppity has something really important up, as the lede story tonight. Two things I have admired her blog for are the feminism, and her take on the GMO — but tonight she has a learning vid up. Anyway. It’s all been downhill since 2008 and Hillary. Unforch. I’m glad we lived our era. Have my fingers crossed for B. So glad she is a smart kid with you for a mom.

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