“Context is All”: The Handmaid’s Tale in the Era of #MeToo
I don’t want to be telling this story. I don’t have to tell it… Why fight?”
“That will never do.”
— Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale
In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), the heroine Offred often thinks to herself, “Context is all.” She constantly reminds the reader—directly acknowledged as “you”—that we exist in a wide social and political reality that shapes and contains our world (Atwood 40). Through Offred, Atwood asserts her own claim that, though the novel may be fictional, it was penned with the context of “4,000 years because that’s how much of women’s history I was drawing on, and that’s how many generations of storytellers stood behind me,” says Atwood. She labels it a speculative fiction, making it the hypothesis that if we continue to silence and mistreat women, the dystopian Republic of Gilead could be our future reality. Offred’s words evoke the second-wave feminist phrase, “The personal is political.” Offred seeks to understand and critique the system of misogyny she inhabits, though often confined to her small sphere of living. The novel shines a light on both the persisting issues in feminism and its parallels to women in today’s world.
Although Atwood wrote the novel in the eighties at the end of second-wave feminism, reading it in late 2018 as I did for the first time, is particularly jarring during the rise of female voices in the media. We are currently in the midst of fourth-wave feminism, a period marked by social media, justice against sexual assault, and the push for gender equality. The tale mainly follows Offred, yet many female voices shine through her first-person narrative. The structure of stitched-together narratives resembles that of early slave narratives as well as contemporary online movements, particularly the #MeToo movement, a hashtag created by Tarana Burke that started a vital conversation to “de-stigmatize the act of surviving by highlighting the breadth and impact of a sexual violence worldwide.” Many voices come together to form the movement, creating a “women’s culture” like the one Offred’s mother wanted — “It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies” (Atwood 127).
We see this in today’s culture as well with women sharing their own stories across platforms and inspiring others to share their own, forming a bond of resistance through their narratives: a connecting culture that we need but never asked for, allowing us to find a sort of sisterhood in the midst of pain, strength within systems that restrict. A patchwork of accusations against powerful men stretching across the globe. Out of the many collective voices comes the individual’s. The novel begins with a “We” but is followed by Offred’s “I” and the exchange of separate names, something that is taken from the handmaids in Gilead.
Although each character has a deeply personal story to tell, the cultural connection of womanhood is formed throughout the text. In dystopian Gilead, there is still a focus on the woman’s body—they are rooted in primitivity and nature, shown through the collectiveness of women (both a thing that strengthens and dehumanizes them). The body plays a central role and even defines the handmaids: despite everything, “we still had our bodies” (Atwood 4). Their bodies are exploited and objectified as something that is entirely theirs but also the Commanders’ and the state’s, forming a complicated relationship with their figures that I, as a woman living in the age of Instagram, can relate to. Offred avoids looking at her nakedness, “not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to… look at something that determines me so completely” (Atwood 63).
I think of my summer at a Christian summer camp. Young and innocent, I thought nothing of my athletic shorts until I was told that their length and the subsequently unconcealed skin of my 14-year-old thighs would distract the male campers from God’s message. The boys were shirtless and unruly, but it was never their fault. I love my body, the way it provides both pain and pleasure, but the voyeur renders it something dark and self-betraying. That’s why The Handmaid’s Tale reads so troubling to me in 2019 when there is widespread and broadcasted objectification of feminine bodies; greater awareness of rape culture; and victim-blaming. We become defined by the flesh on our bones and the nature of our anatomy.
There are times when I’ve wanted to dress in the handmaid garb, my body covered in the blood-red cloak, free from the gaze of others. The dress code is enforced to denote the purpose of the handmaids, trivializing all other traits of theirs, yet it provides a sort of strength in their fight back against the patriarchy. It is reminiscent of contemporary collective movements, like “Time’s Up” in which celebrities wore pins or all black at events in solidarity with people who have suffered from sexual harassment. The television version adds a voiceover of Offred’s: “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army” (“Night”). This togetherness under an enforced rule uses systemic patriarchal oppression against itself, fostering solidarity amongst the disenfranchised.
Another fact of the Gileadean system enmeshed with our twenty-first-century one is the commodification of women. We see that intimacy is a transaction in which the woman is compared to a material good for sale. Handmaids are valued for their ability to reproduce, losing value as each Ceremony — their ritual intercourse with the Commander in hopes of becoming impregnated — passes with them childess. I think of my sexual education class in high school, as pubescent volunteers stood up in front of the class, passing a piece of tape down a row of arms: “Having multiple sex partners is almost like tape that loses its stickiness after being applied and removed multiple times. So the more you have the harder it is to bond to the next,” reads one Christian sex-ed pamphlet. Sexuality became something I was supposed to deny, suppress, and be ashamed about. It was purely for reproduction within a marriage, as I was taught in school, and the biblical authority of Gilead enforces this mindset as well. Women should be the autocratic leaders of their bodies, but men in both Gilead and today’s world assert their belief that female sexuality is a democracy in which they can decide what’s best. Gilead is a system void of women’s choice, something we see being taken away in the Trump era of today.
Lessons like the one I was taught in sex ed, similar ones like comparing a woman’s sexuality to a piece of chewed up gum, and even lessons taught by Aunts in the Red Center slut-shame women. We see this in the scene of victim-shaming, where Janine is told that her sexual assault was “her fault, her fault, her fault” (Atwood 72). We see the rape culture and diminished choice portrayed in the novel, in which Aunt Lydia believes that “We were a society dying… of too much choice” (Atwood 25). That choice and privacy allocated to women through cases like Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey is at stake in the Trump era today.
A sign of the times is the vetting and swearing in of Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault last year by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I think of myself lying on the couch before class, weeping for this woman and all other women that have experienced or feared this crime. My roommate texted me later with words of support. I had skipped class that day, drafting emails I never sent of excuses regarding the hearings that made me feel weak, even in the face of such strength. With the controversial hearings, we saw the strength in Ford choosing to come forward with sexual violence allegations against a man in power, but we also see the pressure put on this woman who feels obligated under the law to report a past crime that has haunted her for decades. That “choice” to testify or not presented to her is one that comes with death threats and doxxings; just like when Janine comes clean and is faced with shame and punishment. It is a new form of trauma that women who have survived such a disturbing experience have to undergo years later.
This type of thinking that supporters of abusers like Kavanaugh have perpetuates a rape culture in which it is believed to be the woman’s fault and responsibility in protecting herself. “There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on the lights. These things you did were like prayers,” Offred thinks of the things she did in the past to keep herself from being another headline in the news (Atwood 226). It is almost a crime to be a woman, the body a mere implication of such guilt.
The body is conflated with the narrative itself when Offred apologizes: “I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story. I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force” (Atwood 267). It becomes a messy, Frankenstein’s-monster-like story steeped in femininity, much like this article I write, an all-over-the-place disarray with no sense of chronology or order. I don’t want to tell this story, I don’t want to consider how close we are to a world like Gilead or find similarities between Offred and women of today. But the book demands us to in the way it creates a commonality between all women and in the way it tells a story that needs to be told.
Throughout the text, Offred constantly ponders the meaning of words and the power they hold; through this, she conflates language and flesh: “I feel like the word shatter” (Atwood 103). We as readers understand what she means, despite the arbitrary nature of words, similar to the arbitrary subservience of women and distribution of power. Offred pens her narrative, giving voice to the enslaved handmaids and undermining the new biblical discourse in political power with her own pleasure through the resistance narrative. “The pen between my finder is sensuous, alive almost, I can feel its power, the power of the words it contains,” Offred thinks as she writes the resistance motto Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (Atwood 186). Offred is aware of the power of words: she gets strength from the corrupted Latin etched onto her wall, subverting the educated man’s phrase for her own use, and she hopes to resist and give voice to others through her own narrative. Just as we’ve always done and will always continue to do.
In the era of #MeToo and social media, where women can find power in sharing their experiences, context truly is all. An individual’s story of maltreatment, while carrying the weight of a unique and personal burden, is not an anomaly but rather a part of a broader context. Each post and headline comes together to create a fabric of the time we live in now and desire to change. Language becomes a means for power. The revolution against the patriarchy through storytelling is both personal and political. There is a metaphor in the novel of Serena Joy’s “subversive” garden, “a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly into the light, as if to… say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently” (Atwood 153). This tension between silence and noise refers to the difficulty in voicing one’s trauma in a system that silences them. They use the very things that silence them — their bodies, their sexuality, their collectiveness, the discourse of power — to resist through language and show that “There is an us then, there’s a we” (Atwood 169).
The normalizing and destigmatizing, and thus demanding change, of real female experiences within the patriarchal system via online platforms today gives voice to “the people who were not in the papers,” who were previously not justified to tell their tales that define a women’s culture: “We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print… We lived in the gaps between the stories” (Atwood 57). Context is both the circumstances of the greater world we live in, as well as the words that shape our narratives. This double meaning fuses the narrative with resistance. Just as the scrawled Nolite te bastardes carborundorum and fellow handmaid’s tales inspire the narrating Offred to pen her account, so too Offred inspires her reader to make change and spread their own stories; just as Atwood inspires millions of women reading her novel to spread their own stories, so too the people who share their experiences encourage the next person to tell theirs as well.
I think of the Women’s March in DC, of “women’s voices [rising] around me, a soft chant that is still too loud for me, after days and days of silence,” of roaring protests and noiseless signs from all types of people using their words to fight against a new leadership (Atwood 123). The millions of people coming together, a product of the times and a constancy of the human race, do so to alter the context that affects so much, to rewrite our future. Because I resist and make my voice heard, and because you are reading this article, someone will tell my story, and their story, and someone else theirs, and so on. And in numbers, the silence is drowned out.
About the Author
Kendall Geisel (she/her) is a 4th year from Milton, GA studying English Literature at the George Washington University. As being a woman is an important part of her identity, she is interested in female novelists of the Victorian to contemporary periods, particularly Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf. She’s at her best when she’s reading in the sun or at a concert.