In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale women are pitted against one another in the quest to retain order. The Aunts in Gilead, for example, serve as moralistic and punitive coaches to the Handmaids. The Handmaids are expected to police one another and inform the authorities if anyone seems suspicious.
The rulers of Gilead, the men, understood that if the women were focused on tearing down and controlling one another, they wouldn’t have the time or the energy to mobilize against the patriarchy. Atwood, who drew on historical precedent for her dystopian theocracy, had plenty of examples to choose from as she created the world.
In the 1980s, when Atwood was working on the novel, Phyllis Schlafly was leading her “pro-family” movement designed to silence the feminists. She lobbied against the Equal Rights Amendment and argued that a woman’s highest calling was that of a mother and a homemaker. It’s easy to see Schlafly in the character of Serena Joy, the wife of a high ranking commander in Gilead. We learn that Serena Joy was once a prominent media figure who’d argued that women ought to resume traditional roles in the home. By the time the novel begins, Serena Joy’s wishes have been granted. In Gilead, women are not allowed to read or write. They can be Wives or Handmaids or Aunts or Marthas (the domestic class) or they can be declared an Unwoman and sent to clean up toxic waste in the colonies. Serena Joy is a Wife, of course, and therefore a woman who commands some respect from others. But she doesn’t seem happy about her victory.
“She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
So Serena Joy won, but she also lost. She lost her freedom and her voice. She, and other women, were complicit in stripping themselves of these rights.
Atwood knew what all good defense attorneys know: if you’re going to tear down a woman, it’s best to hire a woman to deliver the message. It’s harder to argue sexism when the speaker is a woman. Hollywood directors know this too. It’s why Harvey Weinstein looked far and wide find a woman to defend him against charges of sexual assault and rape. Donna Rotunno is that woman.
Rotunno made headlines this week when she lashed out against the #MeToo movement, saying women would “rue the day that all of this started when no one asks them out on a date, and no one holds the door open for them, and no one tells them that they look nice.”
Those lines could have been written by Atwood. They could have been spoken by Serena Joy in the pre-Gilead days. It’s a tired old ploy to convince women that what they really need to be happy is a man, or the attention of men. What will we be, after all, if men don’t chase us and whistle at us and tell us we’re pretty? What will we be if they don’t need us to cook and clean and raise their children? What will we be if they don’t call us or ask us to dance?
These are not trick questions, nor are they particularly complicated. The answer is this: we’ll be women. We’ll be women free to make decisions without fear or coercion. Many of us will still choose to couple up with men for sex or love. Many of us will still choose to give birth and raise children. Men will still ask women out on dates and women will ask men out on dates and sometimes people will get rejected and sometimes people will fall in love. With any luck, we’ll learn that it’s only really a request when one person doesn’t wield enormous power over the other. Most reasonable people understand the difference between an innocuous compliment and an inappropriate one.
This is not rocket science. Weinstein is not some sacrificial lamb. He is, by all accounts, an absolute terror, who wielded his power in destructive and often violent ways for decades. To imply that he should be excused for his bad behavior so “men can be men” is insulting to men.
The only thing I rue is the continued efforts of some women to tear down and subjugate other women. In America, every defendant is entitled to a defense, even Weinstein. Rotunno has the right to say and to believe whatever she wants, as did women like Phyllis Schlafly in the 1980s, and as did Serena Joy in the fictional world of Gilead, but these women don’t speak for all women and I’ll be damned if we submit to their vision of the world. As Atwood shows us, if they win, they’ll be damned too.
If Rotunno wants to work on the side of Harvey Weinstein, that’s her choice and her right, but please leave the rest of us out of it.
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