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Sexual Politics in the Handmaid's Tale

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Robert Hyndiuk

Professor Fowler

English 105


Sexual Politics in The Handmaid’s Tale

        The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, is a dystopian novel set in a post-war United States. In the novel, a theocratic government called the Republic of Gilead rules over the area where the novel takes place. In Gilead, birthrates are extremely low due to exposure to radiation, women getting their tubes tied, and because of an overall lack of fertile women. Because of this, women who possess the ability to conceive children are put into the social class of Handmaids. Offred is an example of a Handmaid who, up until the end of the book, had always followed the rules of the commanders/men to stay alive and well. But some of the more brave and cunning women of the society try to rebel against its patriarchal structure. Moira, a minor character in The Handmaids Tale, was negatively influenced by the hegemonic society of Gilead, and is proof that when sexual politics are male dominated, women suffer both physically and mentally.

        In the life before Gilead existed, Moira and Offred were friends that enjoyed both the constitutional and simple freedoms women have in America today, including the choice to marry/have a relationship with whoever you desire and the freedom to use their bodies however they want. Offred described “Moira as she was when she was in college, in the room next to mine: quirky, jaunty, athletic, with a bicycle once, and a knapsack for hiking. Freckles, I think; irreverent, resourceful.” (59) Moira had a seemingly unbreakable spirit that truly embodied who she was as a person. She was living a good life before Gilead existed, having the ability to express herself in whatever manner she pleased. This was possible because the sexual politics of Pre-Gilead society were equal, and women were seen as fairly equal to men. Pre-war, Moira was described as being fiercely independent and very strong willed, with good sense of her self-identity. Never would she have expected that almost all of these characteristics she possessed, characteristics that defined who she truly was, would be stripped away by a male dominated, totalitarian government. This new government tried, and was fairly successful in stripping away her, and many other women’s rights, including her right to vote and free speech.

        To try and indoctrinate the women to the ideology’s held by the powerful men in Gilead, all women who reject Gilead’s new government including Moira, were sent to a re-education center also known as the Red Center. They learned from the Commander and “Aunts” as they were called, about how to behave in this new theocratic, totalitarian state. There all of the women are under watch by guards and spies (or Eyes), are forbidden to talk above a whisper, and get to walk around just two times a day in a football field surrounded by barbed wire. Moira was the strongest willed and bravest women out of the prisoners in the center. She knew that in order to preserve her freedoms as a women, she had to try and escape from the Red Center and its oppressive commanders. She tells Offred “I’ve got to get out of here, I’m going bats. I feel panic . . . I’ll fake sick. They send an ambulance, I’ve seen it.” (103) Moira tries to fake sick but has just her feet beaten, for it being her first offence, after she is found out to be faking. The guards at the Red Center are very severe and swift with their punishments for not following the very specific rules put in place for the women. After her beating Moira remained strong willed, this one, early defeat simply fueling her ever-burning desire to escape. Although most of the other women started to slip into conformity, following the rules of Gilead, Moira began her plans on her second escape attempt. Moira was able to escape the Red Center by kidnapping one of her captors known as Aunt Elizabeth, and forcing her to switch clothes with her, and give her the pass card so she could walk out of the Red Center without drawing attention to herself. Atwood doesn’t let the reader know at this point in The Handmaid’s Tale where Moira went after she escaped the Red Center but the reader believes that she escaped to somewhere where there was no oppression against women, due to her strong will and unbreakable sense of self identity.

        To Offred’s knowledge Moira got away safely, and represents for her what it means to have an unbreakable spirit and a true identity. Moira is someone Offred often thinks about, she gives her hope that makes life in Red Center and later in Gilead, more bearable for herself. To all of the oppressed women in the Red Center, Moira’s actions helped them to see “. . . the Aunts were less fearsome and more absurd. Their power had a flaw to it. They could be shanghaied in toilets. The audacity was what we liked.” (157) She gave them the light they needed to brighten their darkened life. Attwood portrays Moira as a symbolic character whose existence is to provide hope and to give the women someone they should aspire to be. Although Moira does her best to inspire hope to everyone that they might once again live a free life, the government of Gilead is very proficient at molding the minds of the women to believe that their rule is for the women’s own protection and to promote their solidarity.



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