A comparison between the fiction of the Handmaid's Tale and the current way we blame the victims of rape
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a beautiful and disturbing book. It tells the story of a dystopian future where women are only valued for their fertility. Wealthy women who cannot have children are given a Handmaid with whom the Wife’s husband has sex in order to impregnate her. The Handmaid has no job other than this.
Handmaids are not allowed to use their given name; instead they are named after their male “owner.” Offred = Of Fred. Handmaids wear a uniform of sorts that covers every inch of their bodies. And they are not allowed to read. When a Handmaid is sent to get food for the household, she takes a list with pictures on it which she uses to shop. Women below a certain class simply do not matter as people, only as incubators.
During their training, potential Handmaids go through classes and rituals designed to make them more compliant and accepting of their new role. They are housed in barracks with older women called Aunts. It is the Aunts’ job to take women who had lives, husbands, lovers and sometimes children of their own, and turn them into gestational slaves. One of the many ways this is accomplished is through shame.
Testifying is a ritual considered “special” by the Aunts. It is a time when the Handmaids-in-training speak about things that happened to them in their previous lives, sharing those experiences with the group. Here is Margaret Atwood’s description of one testifying session:
It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. She told the same story last week. She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal. But since it’s Janine, it’s probably more or less true.
But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.
Last week, Janine burst into tears. Aunt Helena made her kneel at the front of the classroom, hands behind her back, where we could all see her, her red face and dripping nose. Her hair dull blond, her eyelashes to light they seemed not there, the lost eyelashes of someone who’s been in a fire. Burned eyes. She looked disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink like a newborn mouse. None of us wanted to look like that, ever. For a moment, even though we knew what was being done to her, we despised her.
Crybaby. Crybaby. Crybaby.
We meant it, which is the bad part.
I used to think well of myself. I didn’t then.
That was last week. This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says. It was my own fault. I led them on. I deserved the pain.
Very good, Janine, says Aunt Lydia. You are an example.
I reread The Handmaid’s Tale over the weekend, and this passage stopped me dead in my tracks. Because I’ve heard it and read it before, but not just in a book. I’ve watched real people – not fictional characters – say out loud that rape is the fault of the victim. An eleven year old girl gang-raped in Texas was compared to a spider luring flies into her web by a defense attorney. The rapists in Steubenville, Ohio were defended by the majority of the town while the teenage victim received death threats. Conservative politicians tried to re-define the legal definition of rape.
What the Aunts did to Janine was fiction. What people do to rape victims every day is not. We live in a country where a court decided a woman with cerebral palsy wasn’t raped because she didn’t fight back enough. We live in a country where a CNN reporter bemoaned the fate of two teenage boys convicted of rape, but did not have one word to say about the victim. We live in a country where if you have the audacity to get raped, your life, your name, your soul will be attacked from all sides.
And if you should become pregnant from that rape, many people would like to make it illegal for you to choose how to handle that pregnancy. In The Handmaid’s Tale, abortion is illegal and the bodies of doctors who performed them can often be found hanging on The Wall, for all to see. It’s all about fanatical religion, fertility, control. Strange bedfellows, yet that message resonates loudly throughout the American conservative party.
Mandated prayer in schools. Creationism taught along with, or instead of, evolution and science. Contraception is evil, only sluts need to use The Pill. Women should learn how not to get raped, stop leading men on. Cut funding for WIC but abortion is murder.
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