The Handmaid’s Tale — both the 1985 book by Margaret Atwood and Hulu’s forthcoming adaptation — is a dystopian story about women who are reduced to the functionality of their wombs, about a Puritan theocratic society that views women as sexual objects and punishes them for it.
Since the 2016 election, much of the conversation about the new TV show has centered on how timely it is to turn to such a feminist work when the president has been accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment, and the vice president once backed a law requiring women to hold funerals for miscarried and aborted fetuses.
So when the cast of The Handmaid’s Tale told a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday that they didn’t consider the show to be particularly feminist, many fans of the story were shocked.
“Honestly, for me it’s not a feminist story,” said star Elisabeth Moss during the panel. “It’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights.”
“I don’t think this is feminist propaganda,” said Madeline Brewer, another actress on the show. “I think this is a story about women and about humans. The three people hanging on the wall [in a scene depicting the aftermath of an execution] were all men. This story affects all people.”
“How is a show about the subjugation of women and forced reproduction not feminist?” asked Roxane Gay.
Atwood responded to the debate on Twitter by noting that she thought the cast needed to clarify their comments, and to say, “It’s not only a feminist story, it’s also a human story.”
@KarmaLovesGumbo They needed an "only," an "also," and a human rights definition of the F word, imho.— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) April 22, 2017
It’s a distinction she’s been trying to make, with some nuance, for decades, having spent years dancing around the “F word” when she talks about her books.
Since the beginning of her career, critics have called Atwood a feminist and Atwood has insisted she is no such thing
Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, was labeled feminist as soon as it came out in 1969. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, you can see how critics got there: It’s about a woman who, upon becoming engaged, finds herself unable to eat anything until she bakes a cake in the shape of a woman and serves it to her fiancé because, she’s realized, he’s trying to devour her by turning her into a wife. Straightforward feminist allegory, you might assume.
Not so, says Atwood. “I was not in New York, where all of that kicked off, in 1969. I was in Edmonton, Alberta, where there was no feminist movement, and would not be for quite some time.”
Her issue is less that critics might come to the mistaken impression that she’s interested in women’s rights, which she clearly is. It’s more that she’s worried critics might think she belonged to a particular intellectual and philosophical cohort, which she did not. She wasn’t there, she didn’t set the terms of the movement, and she doesn’t want anyone to think she did. That way, she can’t be considered a traitor to the movement if she doesn’t follow all of the terms it agreed on.
“I didn’t want to become a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs,” Atwood told the New Yorker in April. “Having gone through that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick — I never had any use for that. You should be able to wear them without people saying you are a traitor to your sex.”
So Atwood’s books are full of ideas about the power dynamics between men and women and how they relate to one another, but they’re also full of men using the tenets of feminism as a blunt instrument with which to hurt women, like the bleeding-heart liberal husband in 1976’s Lady Oracle, who constantly shames his wife for caring about pretty clothes. Atwood herself quite likes pretty clothes, she says: “My problem was not that people wanted me to wear frilly pink dresses—it was that I wanted to wear frilly pink dresses, and my mother, being as she was, didn’t see any reason for that.”
Today, Atwood is slightly more relaxed about identifying as a feminist, in the “women’s rights are human rights” sense of the word. But she does not seem to like the idea of declaring allegiance to any particular movement in particular. (She’s been criticized before for disavowing science fiction after employing a number of its tropes in her work.) So when people talk about The Handmaid’s Tale as a feminist book, she draws a number of very fine, nuanced distinctions.
Atwood’s understanding of power is close to today’s intersectional feminism
Atwood generally frames The Handmaid’s Tale as being a book about oppression and dictatorship first and foremost, one that just happens to look at how oppression functions through a woman’s point of view.
"You could tell The Handmaid's Tale from a male point of view,” she has said. “People have mistakenly felt that the women are oppressed, but power tends to organize itself in a pyramid. I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid. It would be interesting."
The idea here is not that women aren’t oppressed, but that everyone is oppressed, including women. The Handmaid’s Tale shows the form that oppression takes for women, Atwood is arguing, but it could just as easily look at how oppression looks for a gay man, or a poor man.
In a 2012 essay for the Guardian, she expanded on the pyramid idea:
In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be two-layered in structure: top layer men, bottom layer women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each, all the way down to the bottom, where the unmarried men must serve in the ranks before being awarded an Econowife.
So within each level of power, women are more oppressed than men, but that does not necessarily mean that a wealthy white woman — a Wife, in the parlance of The Handmaid’s Tale — is more oppressed than a poor man of color. (In the book, all people of color are forced into chattel slavery as the Children of Ham. The first three episodes of the TV series reveal some women of color in the ranks of the Handmaids, but it’s not yet clear what’s happened to the men of color.)
Atwood’s argument regarding the feminism of The Handmaid’s Tale is more or less the argument of intersectional feminism: that gender-based oppression interacts with all kinds of different forms of oppression, and that to really understand power we need to deal with not only misogyny but also racism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, and more. But until very recently, Atwood was uncomfortable aligning her argument with feminism in particular.
“Is The Handmaid’s Tale a ‘feminist’ novel?” Atwood asked herself at the New York Times earlier this year. Her response contained more than a touch of hedging:
If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”
When she is allowed to set the terms, Atwood will call her books feminist — albeit with scare quotes — but she tends to avoid identifying herself and her work with any form of feminism whose definition does not square with her own definition of the concept. As it happens, her working definition of feminism — intersectional, interested in how power perpetuates itself through systems, unapologetic in its embrace of femininity, with plenty of room for complicated and unlikeable women — is extremely fashionable right now. But it wasn’t always, and Atwood’s hesitancy to align herself unquestioningly and firmly with feminism as an ideal reflects that history.