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Posts Tagged ‘feminism in NZ’

(Spoiler Alert)

Everyone is talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. When I knew that the TV series had been made and that my online streaming service was going to run it, I decided I needed to read the book first, and so immediately put a hold on it at the Library. I ended up reading it in Norway, fascinated and appalled in equal measure, wondering why I hadn’t read it before. Then, on my return home, I watched the whole series in about three or four sessions.

Because I read the book so close to watching the TV series, I was a little discombobulated at first by the variations in the story, but soon embraced them as it was so well told by both the writers and actors. It was stimulating, but I also found it deeply disturbing. You’d think that, as a woman who wasn’t able to have children, the fertility issues in the book and TV series might have bothered me. But I felt for both the fertile women forced into slavery, and for the infertile women who were either enslaved in domestic service, enslaved as Wives to powerful Commanders, or enslaved as Non-Women (though I’ll admit that this name delivered a painful pinch) in “the colonies.” All women were defined solely on the basis of their fertility. They weren’t seen as individuals in their own right, they weren’t allowed to choose their path in life. To me, The Handmaid’s Tale is much less about fertility, and much more about feminism, about how the world sees and behaves towards women.

As a feminist, I recognised a lot of the slights against women, the obvious and the more subtle, and cringed at the fact that they are still so familiar. So much of what was normal and accepted by men in this dystopian world is, in fact, also seen as normal and accepted unquestionably by men today. The Gilead world in the TV series may look very different, with the red uniforms for the Handmaids and the required green for the Wives, but the similarities were at the same time shocking and not shocking; the small and not-so-small slights, insults, and denial of women’s rights that are either not recognised as such, or are deemed acceptable in both worlds – the dystopian world and our own.

The dismissing of Serena Joy, despite the important part she played in the birth of the new regime of Gilead, is not that far from the dismissals we see of women’s views in workplaces and boardrooms and TV studios today. The scene where she was kept out of the room to discuss the very policies she had developed was not so different to my own experiences as the only female director of a company, when my comments and suggestions at the board table were dismissed by the male directors, only to be blatantly proposed again shortly afterwards by one of the men, to the acclaim and acceptance of his fellow male directors. This situation is such a cliché that there was a cartoon about it in Punch in the 1980s. Sadly, 30 years on this hasn’t changed.

The forced relinquishment of the babies, when Janine, for example, has to give up her baby and move on, reminded me of the not-too-distant past in some of our own countries, when forced adoptions occurred, frequently sanctioned by the church and state. Our own government in NZ has recently refused to open an inquiry into this situation, and that infuriates me.

The differences in control over women’s bodies and lives in fictional Gilead and NZ (and much of the world) today is merely a matter of degree. Abortion in NZ is rarely a political issue, simply because neither major party has the political will (ie courage) to discuss it; scared of the debate, they shut it down and refuse to engage. Whilst abortions are available in NZ, they are not available on demand, and women have to go through the process of getting two doctors’ to sign off on the procedure, treated as if they are not responsible enough to control their own bodies. (Though at least birth control is publicly funded and readily available).

I have to say, too, that the dehumanisation of the Handmaids’ name changes, defining them only in terms of their relationship with the man who was intended to father children on them, wasn’t so very different from how I felt (and still feel) about the pressure women face to take our husband’s names at marriage.

Back to Serena Joy. There is a scene where she is embroidering (or knitting?), sitting before the fire on her own. This is virtually the only leisure activity she is permitted. Reading is now prohibited. Did she really want that, when she wrote these laws and this policy? Did she foresee how far the men could take these policies when she was involved? Did she deserve this? Maybe, but I still felt real empathy for her and all the other women in Gilead, sitting in front of the fire on their own, stripped of all power and respect, not even allowed to read or write. They had lost power, recognition, and respect in this new world.

But seriously, how much power, recognition and respect do we have now? Patriarchies still rule most/all of the world. The rooms full of men making decisions about and for women don’t occur only in Gilead, or in regimes ruled by fundamentalists or dictators. We see them here today, in our own countries and in similar cultures, most pointedly and disturbingly at the moment, in the US. It is a demonstration of how quickly things can turn against us. Within six months, women have been forced to take a back seat in policy-making. The US Vice-President would welcome a Gilead-like environment. He (along with others in the administration) doesn’t see women as equals in business and wants to control women’s reproductive rights based on religious principles. I’ve seen changes occur here too, though to a much lesser extent. The heady days when we had a female Governor-General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and CEO of our largest company have passed. Sure, we once again have a female Governor-General, the Chief Justice is still in her position, and both major political parties have women as deputies. But women in the executive branch of government are still in the minority, and we have made little progress in increasing the numbers of women in boardrooms and as CEOs over the last ten or twenty years. Sadly, the change of just a few key people at the top can suddenly remind over 50% of the population that we are still yet to take a rightful fair share of control in the world.

And yet it seems that we let this happen. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Whilst I’ve tried to lead by example in the past as the Chair of a company, I’m currently not employed, fighting against sexism and ageism in trying to find new employment, and I’ve never been politically active. There’s a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale when the new regime is just taking power, where Moira and June are discussing the changes, and say incredulously, “but they can’t do that, can they?” That’s our problem, I think. It is too easy to sit here and say this. From NZ, we look at the US and say, “but they can’t do that, can they?” And it seems they can, and will. I see my friends talking about calling and pressuring their representatives, and wish I could help them. Though the situation is far less urgent, and I hope we will continue to go the opposite direction, I am painfully aware that things could change in an instant, or an election.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling to me, was the scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where the women are sent home from work and their bank accounts frozen. June’s husband, thinking he is being supportive, says, “I’ll take care of you.” That scene screamed out to me. He was trying to mollify the women who were upset. Yes, he was trying to calm them, trying to help. But in doing so, he seemed to be accepting the new normal (even if he didn’t agree with it) because it hadn’t yet really affected him. Even the good guys don’t really get it. Neither do many women (like Serena Joy). They certainly don’t feel the fear or outrage to the same extent, or won’t until it is too late. And that’s what scares me more than anything.

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