Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles Part II

Disclaimer: All contents of the Harry Potter books and related terms, phrases, materials and so forth belong to J.K. Rowling. I’m merely reproducing brief slightly modified extracts from the books here to illustrate a couple of points.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ALL SEVEN HARRY POTTER BOOKS ARE LIKELY

Key:
Helen Potter – Harry
Deirdre Dursley – Dudley
Veronica Dursley – Vernon Dursley
Peter Dursley – Petunia Dursley
Alberta Dumbledore – Albus Dumbledore
Apollo McGonagall – Minerva McGonagall
Ruby Hagrid – Rubeus Hagrid
Petra – Piers Polkiss
Denise – Dennis
Gerda – Gordon
Melanie – Malcolm

“Mrs. and Mr. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
“[…] Mrs. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. She was a big, beefy woman with hardly any neck, although she did have a very large moustache.* Mr. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which  came in very useful as he spent so much of his time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small daughter named Deirdre, and in their opinion there was no finer girl anywhere.”

*I kind of just find the idea of mustachioed Veronica Dursley hilarious. What do you want to bet Aunt Marge has a moustache too? Because as far as I can tell, the description of Aunt Marge as a female version of Uncle Vernon is supposed to be hilarious (she’s large, fat, ill tempered, unfeminine, and drinks WAY more than Petunia does). It also goes a long way towards cementing her position as a firmly negative character in the reader’s mind, because we invariably associate these traits in women with a particularly unsatisfactory style of non-conformity.

In the course of my exercise, what really struck me is that when I re-read the modified chapters, many aspects of them appeared jarring to me, when I’d given them barely a second thought when read in the original. A beefy, bullying Director Vernon and his thin, blonde, snoopy and gossipy wife did not evoke comment… but a beefy, bullying Director Veronica and her gossipy husband Peter straightaway falls into our trope of the butch, domineering female and her ‘whipped’ husband. A gossipy Petunia, while evoking mild contempt, generally falls under the radar because she conforms to the expected stereotype of a bored housewife. My knee jerk reaction to gossipy Peter on the other hand was that of extreme contempt.

It was only after I swapped their genders that I even realized just how much the portrayal of Petunia as OCD about cleanliness in her house, and wildly interested in celebrity divorces and neighbourhood goings on contributed to our negative impression of her. On the other hand, a Petunia Dursley who had a steady job, was more business like and didn’t really care about gossip would have evoked, I think, grudging respect even as she was being abusive to Harry.

[…] Mrs. Dursley hummed as she picked out her most boring tie for work, and Mr. Dursley gossiped away happily as he wrestled a screaming Deirdre into her high chair.

This method and line of logic informed my re-read of the series (I got as far as halfway through Chamber of Secrets) by rewriting the chapters. And the jolts and jars kept coming in steady profusion all the while.

  • “They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters. Mr. Potter was Mr. Dursley’s brother, but they hadn’t met for several years. In fact, Mr. Dursley pretended he didn’t have a brother, because his brother and his good-for-nothing wife were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be. – Here, I was interrupted in my reading so I could wonder for a miniscule second why the brothers didn’t share a surname, whereas it would not strike one as abnormal for married sisters to have different surnames. 
  • Side note: Would a screaming one year old girl child be affectionately referred to as “little tyke” by someone as Dursleyish as Vernon is?
  • Also consider Deirdre Dursley, school bully, and her little gang of likewise bullies.
    “Helen was glad school was over, but there was no escaping Deirdre’s gang, who visited the house every single day. Petra, Denise, Gerda and Melanie were all big and stupid, but as Deirdre was the biggest and the stupidest of the lot, she was the leader. The rest of them were all quite happy to join in Deirdre’s favourite sport: Helen Hunting.”

This is obviously a nitpicky point – anyone wishing to write a realistic portrayal of our contemporary world will not do differently, and the problematic gender roles and characterizations herein are a reflection of our patriarchal life structures in general. That is to say, they’re not unique to Harry Potter. 

Now check out this introduction of three extremely important characters into the series:

“Nothing like this woman had ever been seen on Privet Drive. She was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of her hair and beard which was long enough to be tuck into her belt. She was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. Her blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and her nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This woman’s name was Alberta Dumbledore.”

“[…] She turned to smile at the tom(cat), but it had gone. Instead she was smiling at a rather severe-looking man who was wearing square shaped glasses exactly the shape of the markings the cat had around its eyes. His black hair was drawn into a tight bun parted severely down the middle. He looked distinctly ruffled.”

“But how is the girl getting here, Dumbledore?” He eyed her cloak suddenly as though he thought she might be hiding Helen underneath it.
“Hagrid’s bringing her.”
“You think it – wise – to trust Hagrid with something as important as this?”
“I would trust Hagrid with my life,” said Dumbledore.
“I’m not saying her heart isn’t in the right place, […] but you can’t pretend she isn’t careless. She does tend to – what was that?”
[…] If the motorcycle was huge, it was nothing compared to the woman sitting astride it. She was almost twice as tall as a normal woman and at least five times as wide. She looked simply too big to be allowed, and so 
wild – long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of her face, she had hands the size of trash can lids, and her feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins. In her vast, muscular arms she was holding a bundle of blankets.

McGonagall’s relationship with Dumbledore was one of extreme respect (practically bordering on reverence, as was the case with most of the adults around Dumbledore). While very much her own strong and independent person, there’s no doubt that McGonagall looked to Dumbledore’s lead in all things, and was willing, even if at times irritably so, to accept a great many of his perceived eccentricities on faith alone. This reverent respectfulness and acknowledgement when seen as coming from a distinguished man towards a woman who is possibly the most capable magic user in the world makes their dynamic – and these characters – infinitely more interesting than the original (standard trope) of a very, very distinguished, very well bearded Gandalf-figure looked up to by everybody around him, saving the day in the nick of time, blah blah bleh.

If I could read a story about an Alberta Dumbledore, the most reliable person in the magical world, the one everyone turns to for assurance that the day will be saved and the fight will go on… oh, how happy I’d be.
[But what about those marvellous Dumbledore-is-an-Asshole comics? How would they work for an Alberta instead of an Albus? Would she sound bitchy, like women in power are often perceived to be?]

These comics are done by the awesome http://floccinaucinihilipilificationa.tumblr.com/

Sidenote: An additional benefit of having an Alberta Dumbledore is that Harry’s Helen Potter’s second child wouldn’t have to bear the burden of a name that was probably lame two hundred years ago.

Similarly, the case of Ruby Hagrid, the wild, leather wearing half-giantess who is so the opposite of everything Olympe Maxime stands for. Every time I replaced my mental image of the Hagrid we all know and love with that of Ruby, I felt a thrill of excitement. Careless and excitable and irresponsible and fond of large and unwieldy and severely dangerous monsters… oh Ruby!
I know that a major part of Hagrid’s appeal is that mothering streak he has which is at odds with the fact that he’s male… oh, but think of Ruby wrestling Acromantulas!

Unlike Alberta, Ruby Hagrid and Apollo McGonagall are not perfect creations of the gender swapped method. In this I see not failure, but the influence of the perfection of the original creations. Jo Rowling bent those pesky gender roles quite a bit when it came to Hagrid and Minerva McGonagall, and that shows!

To Be Continued…

Up Next: Feminist Concepts – Gender Roles Part III

Feminist Concepts: Gender Roles I

A few months ago, when the latest edition in the Twilight series (bearing the barely-connected-to-anything-really title Life and Death) was announced, I was intrigued enough to end up conducting an experiment of my own.

twilightandlifeanddeath.jpg

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years, you’ll know of the enormous amount of criticism the Twilight series has faced. This criticism has been founded on multiple grounds – being severely un-feminist, glorifying abusive relationships, providing impressionable young people with terrible role models, bad grammar and sentence structure, as well as tackiness and general bad taste all around.

Twilight also bears the blame for spawning the severely horrifying Fifty Shades series, which took everything that was bad in Twilight, laminated it, and hung it under a bright spotlight (with a ribbon on it). FSOG was a bald illustration of just how horrible Twilight really was, because it took away the fantasy elements and the teen softness that had served as a buffer between the book’s central and subliminal messages, and the reader’s conscious brain.

fsog.jpeg

If the average reader wasn’t roundly insulted by Twilight (because, SUBTLETY) then they really ought to have been when FSOG came around. Surprisingly (or not, really), the series had the opposite reaction. Women loved it. It hogged the top of the bestseller lists for so long that all the Ian McEwan books came together to plot its gruesome demise. [Citation needed].

The books were hailed as a revolutionary (and positive) expression of female sexuality – finally, we could bring it out into the open and admit that yes, we get turned on sometimes.

Riiight.

Since I’m not here to bitch about FSOG today, I’ll save that for later. Coming back to the criticism faced by Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that an author should become slightly defensive when her work is burned at stake so thoroughly. But then she went ahead and attempted to have the last laugh – to prove her detractors wrong by showing that there is no sexism in the Twilight books. Her argument was that the only reason Bella Swan is such an incorrigible damsel-in-distress is because she’s dealing with a superpowered family of vampires, around whom, duh, a human would be significantly powerless. She also decided that the best way to prove this would be to swap the female gender for the male and vice versa, and release a new version. This new version would show the female vampire, Edythe Cullen, as powerful and as always rescuing the hapless Beau Swan. Presumably.

It’s not a bad idea, really, assuming that EVERYTHING ELSE in the original book is left as is. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Changes were made, which have been discussed in detail in this video by Youtube vlogger marinashutup:

Stephenie Meyer however, did give me an interesting idea when she made her announcement. I asked myself – how would other books fare if given the same treatment? I chose none other than the most ambitious project for my newly conceived ‘Meyer Test’:

hp17coverafts
YEAH. I WENT THERE.

The results of my little experiment were…

Shocking and creepy.

Yes, you read that right. I was saddened, of course. Jo Rowling is one of the last people you’d name as a symbol/ proponent of misogynistic patriarchy. [I wasn’t really surprised though, I mean, it’s impossible to be surprised if you’ve read her Cormoran Strike series.] And yeah, regardless of all of this, I’ll still be reading HP on my deathbed. Nothing and no one is perfect, but HP comes pretty damn close, I’ll say.

I’ll detail my findings in the next post, but first a few words on gender roles and why they’re problematic.

  1. They traditionally don’t take into account the non-binariness that is the true nature of ‘gender’. We have forever divided all of humankind – and animals and everything except for algae and stuff (and even they’ve had a close shave) into ‘male’ and ‘female’. Primarily distinguished, of course, by the ability of one of these ‘genders’ to produce (in one form or another) the next generation of the species.
    Pure stuff and nonsense, I gotta say, but it’s so deeply ingrained in us that we find it difficult to think outside of these boxes.
    Also thanks to said box, I’m going to limit the rest of my points within the traditional discourse of the gender binary – I just don’t know enough to talk about it more than that.
  2. The ‘males’ are traditionally designated as the protectors, the defenders, the hunters and providers. They’re the warriors, the brave, the powerful and the ones capable of hardness/ strength (used interchangeably, of course).
  3. The ‘females’ are traditionally designated as the weak and defenseless ones that require protection, along with the offspring they produce. They take care of the ‘home’ front – turn the raw material brought in by the ‘males’ into stuff usable for the comfort and utility of everyone in the home. They produce and bring up the children and are considered sensitive, loving, kind, compassionate etc. All these qualities are considered essential for someone who needs to ‘mother’ young ones and safely bring them into adulthood.
  4. I’m already getting a headache talking about this.
  5. These gender roles are now a lot less strictly enforced than they used to – took a couple of world wars to bring that about, by the way. But even in today’s world, they’re quite evident, quite omnipresent. Women do go out to work – but they’re typically paid less, perceived as less competent, and also as a liability because of the dual nature of their responsibilities. This is because even though they now go out of the home front, all home front matters are still firmly placed on their shoulders.
  6. Representation of the genders – in our culture and media, as well as in real life – is skewed in line with these gender roles. More males are portrayed as the main protagonists of extremely popular fiction. More females are portrayed as mere love interests, damsels in distress, and – if they’re lucky – less competent sidekicks. STEM professions, as well as those that require ‘logic’ and ‘hard-headedness’ are typically filled with more males. Conversely, males taking up jobs that are seen as requiring compassion, sensitivity and caring are roundly made fun of. [See male nannies and nurses].

Well… that’s enough talking. Next post reflects on the effect of a gender swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Until then, here’s another post by marinashutup raising a few questions about the Hogwarts houses that never occurred to me. (Have they occurred to you?)

Up Next: Feminist Analysis of The Effect of A Gender Swap on the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Book Review: The Sisters Grimm # 4 – 6

Title: Once Upon A Crime; Magic and Other Misdemeanours; Tales From the Hood
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2007; 2007; 2008
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 4, 5 & 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.25; 4.28; 4.28
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 3; 3

A Few Spoilers are Inevitable

This review covers books four to six of The Sisters Grimm series. I’m your reviewer for the day, and if I sound a tad automated, it’s because I’m too tired to be witty.

*Puts on Damon Salvatore voice*

Once Upon Crime finally lets the sisters, their grandmother and the whole Scooby Gang out of the miserable little town that is Ferryport. They head to NYC, which is where the Faerie Kingdom holds court (duh) for the purpose of saving Puck’s life (he was injured by the Jabberwocky in the previous book). While they’re there, they fall headlong into the assassination of Puck’s father, Oberon, King of the Faeries. No prizes for guessing who the prime suspects are!

Literally the only interesting thing to come out of this book in the long term is the fact that Sabrina comes face to face with her mother’s legacy involving Everafters, finally allowing her to make peace with her family’s history to some extent for the first time. She basically ends up finding it difficult to hold on to her bigotry so hard when her mother was obviously an active supporter.

A supposedly funny subplot in Once Upon A Crime is the way Puck, while incapacitated in his healing cocoon (a large and smelling eggplant like structure that floats around) picks Sabrina to be his chosen guardian – instead of his fiancee, whom they discover when they reach the Faerie Court. Sabrina finds the cocoon disgusting and embarrassing, and she has to deal with the fiancee’s anger on top of everything else.

I get that this is supposed to be some kind of love triangle, but all I saw was a pair of pre-teens being catty to each other over a boy. Don’t we have enough stories of this sort flying about in the world already? Buckley tries to do a good job of writing in defences against casual and/ or internalized sexism in his stories, but they just keep creeping in!!!

[Honestly, this is a theme that will only get more pronounced as we progress through the series.]

Magic and Other Misdemeanours once again deals with a series of thefts – of magical objects, as well as a discriminatory campaign against human residents of Ferryport, who are being pushed out of their homes, jobs and lives by any means possible – courtesy of the new Mayor, the Queen of Hearts.

Baba Yaga – a crazy witch who lives in a house on legs and fits every stereotype of the ugly, scary witch there ever was – makes an appearance. Puck continues to be hyper and over the top, acting like he’s seven or eight, even though his feelings for Sabrina are actually making him grow older.

The resolution to the mystery was sad in both senses of the term. It was saddening, and it was pathetically sad at the same time. After all the mystery and tension and so many plot twists and blind alleys, the final reveal is a complete letdown.

In terms of plot development for the series overall, Magic and Other Misdemeanours holds its own. In fact, the entire Sisters Grimm series just feels like an endless row of dominos falling over – one after the other, and with each precipitating the next.

Tales From the Hood is, I suppose as close to a personal favourite as this series is ever going to get from me. That’s because it has my favourite character from this book – Canis, aka The Big Bad Wolf – at the centre of the plot.

I think part of what makes Mr. Canis so interesting is that – at this point in the series – he stands out amongst the characters. It’s been six books. We (especially those of us who binge read the series) know these characters so well, that all the quirks that started out as endearing are now extremely annoying. The characters dutifully fill in their assigned roles –

Charming is all blustery and he hates them and he gets in their way a lot, but he ends up helping save the day in the end. Puck is mischievous and a trickster and very, very GROSS. He also has his moments of maturity, but not nearly enough of them. The three little pigs were too much to write, so two of them got written off the series (TV Show style), and now there’s just one Little Pig. He’s caring, has a heart of gold, yada yada yada.

The Queen of Hearts is evil. So’s Rumplestiltskin and a bunch of other people. In fact, they’re so evil, that they’re black-and-white, cardboard caricatures of what evil fairy tale villains look like.

Disney called. They want their Standardized Villain Mould (TM) back.

Canis though, is a character with layers to him. He’s on a constant anger management schedule. He spends most of his time meditating. He can turn into a rabid wolf. He has a split personality disorder, and now that he’s put on trial in Tales From the Hood, it’s up to his lawyers (the Scooby gang) to prove that Canis is innocent because it was the other personality that did it.

I like Canis, and I’m not just saying that because I might not be entirely sober right now. I’ve always been fascinated by powerful forces of nature kept under strict restraint, lest they get free and wreak havoc.

Oh, and I appreciated the re-telling of the story of Red Riding Hood. Points for ingenuity and subversion of tropes and all that. Points off for a tale within a tale that could have been a LOT less convoluted.

The Sisters Grimm occupies a little niche all by itself in the children’s fiction market, and while the first three books were passable, the next three represents the perfect transition stage from acceptable to holy-***-everything’s-going-to-hell mode.

What I’m trying to say is they’re worse than the first three, and yet nowhere as bad as the last three.

Next Review: Aftertaste by Namita Devidayal

Next in this Series: The Sisters Grimm # 7 – 9 by Michael Buckley

 

Book Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn

Title: Pawn
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.80
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

SO MANY SPOILERS

pawnaimeecarter

Plot Description: Kitty Doe lives in a world where everyone takes a test at the age of 17 which evaluates their worth in society. She receives a 3, rather than the average 4 on her test. Just when she thinks she’s doomed to a life of menial work, she’s whisked off to be a doppelganger for the Prime Minister’s dead niece, Lila Hart. As Lila Hart, Kitty is supposed to help stop a rebellion against the current regime – a rebellion Lila had secretly been fostering.

Here’s a disclaimer: I didn’t want to read this book, but it was lying around at home and I was starved for options. Since I was going into this book with no expectations whatsoever, I actually ended up pleasantly surprised at times.

It was only after I started reading YA almost exclusively that I came across the phrase “TSTL” (too stupid to live). And that’s precisely what first comes to mind when we see Kitty Doe stealing an orange and hoping she’ll be shot on sight for theft. The idea gets even more ridiculous when you realize that her boyfriend, Benjy is with her, and she’s putting both of them in danger. The writing is vague and disconnected even here, at the beginning, and this really doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

After escaping from the Shields and relinquishing their orange, Kitty and Benjy discuss her options. With that particular brand of clear thinking apparently omnipresent in sixteen year olds, Benjy proposes to Kitty, because this means they won’t be separated. Thankfully, she has the sense to turn him down, because she’s afraid being married to a 3 will hurt his ranking chances when he takes the test.

Kitty decides to go speak to Tabs, a local prostitute who has been trying to recruit her. Benjy is dead set against this. And while Benjy seems to be speaking purely from prejudice, I agree with him because I don’t think Kitty really understands what it means to be a prostitute. The way she talks about it gives me the impression that she thinks the worst thing about prostitution is having to sleep with strange men. She doesn’t sound like she understands the physical danger involved, or the lack of choice that will end up haunting her with every step she takes. She certainly didn’t know Tabs was recruiting her because Tabs would get a cut of her pay.

“You’re my girlfriend,” he said roughly. “I don’t want those pigs touching you.”

Okay, Benjy, I know you’re sixteen, but you can’t build your life around a girl. Like, seriously. Also, possessive much?

Before she leaves, Benjy asks her to sleep with him. I don’t really know what to make of that, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. Kitty tells him that it’s better for her prospects if she’s a virgin, and then he tells her he should be her first.

Why? I know it’s hard for your sixteen year old love-crazed brain to comprehend this, Benjy, but plenty of people who are in love are never each other’s firsts. And you don’t really get to decide who should be someone else’s first. You can want Kitty to be your first, sure. Similarly, she’s the only one who gets to decide who she wants to be her first.

Kitty tells him he’s always going to be her first because sleeping with anyone else won’t count, and she breaks up with him for a month – until he knows what his ranking is going to be.

Prostitution is illegal in Kitty’s country, but since it’s the ‘oldest profession’ in the world, and since many of the highest ranking men in the country frequent these clubs, a blind eye is turned. Since she’s young and still a virgin, her virginity is auctioned off – starting with a thousand gold pieces and ending at thirty thousand. That’s more than she would have made as a sewage worker in ten years, and she’s amazed at the idea that anyone would spend that much for one night with her. Kitty’s naivete is once again starkly obvious, since she doesn’t seem to have understood that what was being bid for wasn’t her – not her as a person, but just the fact of her virginity. She’s very much still a child here, because the idea that prostitution can sometimes dehumanize the people working in that field isn’t something she’s completely recognizing.

This is the point at which I set the book down and momentarily wish that this was what this book was really about – the story of a young girl who begins to gradually understand the world through her life as a sex worker – her journey from innocence and naivete to maturity, if you will. It would definitely have made for a better plot than that of the real Pawn. But I guess that’s not what real YA literature is looking for.

I wished this because, even though prostitution is not the subject matter of Carter’s book, she introduced it all the same, and then trivialized it. In another review I read, the reviewer described the prostitution sub-plot as a gun that wasn’t loaded, and I think this gun shouldn’t have been brought into the picture and then portrayed as inconsequential. Kitty leaves the club not realizing the exact nature of the bullet she just dodged, and I think a lot of younger readers would have ended up doing the same. Prostitution and virginity auctions are not, after all, some myth conceived of in Carter’s precious fictional dystopia. They exist in the real world, and have a lot of real world dangers and connotations attached to them. Treating the subject as a convenient plot device and reducing it to prejudicial stereotypes is not okay at all.

Okay, that was intense. And it’s only now that the real plot kicks off.

To put it in short, Kitty is made to stand in for the PM’s dead niece, as a cover up for her death. Lila is a bit of a Princess Diana figure – she’d been going around saying things that were technically treasonous, and had acquired a vast following among the common people through her charisma and charm. A lot of time is devoted to describing Kitty’s eleven days of training to replace Lila, and in this time, the rest of the family is introduced. There’s Celia, Lila’s mother. Augusta, Daxton’s mother and the matriarch of the Hart family. There’s Knox Creed, Lila’s fiance. And Greyson, Daxton’s younger son and sole surviving heir.
This is where Pawn becomes a confused piece of writing, and having read the sequel – Captive – I can tell you it doesn’t get better. Pawn has a lot of things going against it. For one thing, it’s a chip off the old Hunger Games block, and derivative as such. For another, it suffers from less than sympathetic protagonists. With the exception of Knox and Greyson, even the auteurs of the rebellion are motivated by selfishness. Celia is out for power and revenge. Kitty’s heroism is impulsive and inconsistent. She’s as confused about her motivations as can be – oscillating wildly between sympathizing with the downtrodden and helping the autocrats in order to save Benjy’s life.
The confused storylines don’t help Pawn’s case. Plot twist is piled on top of plot twist, and one ends up disliking all the characters on principle. Carter seems to care more about shocking the reader and keeping them guessing than on good writing. As a result, by the time it is revealed that the real Lila Hart is still alive, one gives up.
Pawn was greatly evocative of a Meg Cabot book on similar lines – the Airhead trilogy, where a smart girl’s brain is transplanted into a supermodels body. (Spoiler: Airhead too revealed that the original owner of the body was still alive.) These books seem eager to appeal to the everygirl reader while reaffirming the idea that a heroine needs to be conventionally beautiful. It’s a sad attempt at having one’s cake and eating it too, and undermines the lesson that physical beauty isn’t the be-all and the end-all.
The book ends with an action filled showdown between Kitty and the matriarch – Augusta Hart. Where she was previously unable to take a life during the assassination attempt on Saxton’s life, Kitty now shows herself capable of killing when Benjy’s life is at stake. With Augusta out of the way and Daxton still in a coma, it seems like the perfect moment for the rebellion to take control. This opportunity is, however, wasted in favour of a set up to a sequel that honestly seems unnecessary.

Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #2 – Captive

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year of Publication: 1985
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99 
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

thehandmaidstale

Plot Description: In a dystopic world ravaged by pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, infertility is the second biggest problem faced by what once used to be the United States of America. The biggest problem is the Religious Right, although they probably don’t see it that way.

Offred, the eponymous protagonist, is a part of one of the Gileadean empire’s greatest schemes to combat infertility – that is to say, the imprisonment of women of child bearing age and their subsequent induction into sex slavery as Handmaids. The Handmaids are surrogates to the infertile wives of rich and powerful (and ever fertile) men deemed worthy of this shot at reproduction.

This review falls smack dab in the middle of my reviewing of the Shifter series, which is, incidentally also set in a universe where women are controlled for reproductive purposes.

Offred provides a first person narrative voice that is muted and numbed in tone but unceasingly rebellious in its content. Her thoughts shift from scene to scene the same way one would flip through a book one has read too many times already. And while her memories may not make for a pleasant book, it’s a compelling one all the same.

Sometimes she isn’t in the mood for the really tough parts, so she might read to you from a different, only slightly less horrifying scene. This gimmick, in my opinion, works well for the empathetic reader, because by the end of the first chapter, you’re dreading hearing Offred tell her story just as much as she dreads telling it.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been marked down both as feminist dystopia as well as speculative fiction. I find these classifications incredibly stupid for one particular reason: Both terms refer to a vague and distant future filled with horrid things that may or may not happen, and this is a singularly inaccurate way of describing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

This book is Contemporary like nobody’s business. Look around you, and you’ll see the events described in this book happening on a large scale, systemic basis somewhere or the other in the world. Sex slavery? Saudi Arabia has perfected it to the extent that their diplomats feel it’s NBD to be practicing it* carrying on with it in their embassies to foreign countries. 

* These guys don’t need to ‘practice’ sex slavery anymore, because they’ve got it down pat.

Regulation of human rights of women with regards to reproduction? The State of Alabama tried to terminate a woman’s ‘parental rights’ to her foetus. On grounds of chemical endangerment of said foetus. Because she wanted an abortion

Between the Planned Parenthood Bill and the rising prices of female contraception everywhere, there really shouldn’t be much doubt as to whether there’s a call to increasing regulation of female bodies, should there?

The fact that male politicians continue to legislate female bodies (on the basis of arguments that sound like they came out of a Insult and Dehumanization Randomizer) whilst carrying on with their often hypocritical personal lives merely holds a mirror up to characters like Commander Fred. I’m talking about those people who are literally half a step away from instituting a Gilead involving morally legitimized surrogacy cum sex slavery whilst maintaining that prostitutes are still a necessity because “men like variety”.

Patronymics (the handmaids are stripped of their original names and named after the man they now belong to – E.g.: OfFred, OfWayne, OfWarren, OfGlen), victim blaming, male privilege, and systematized rape culture. All of it exists in the extremely non fictional here and now.

(What are our surnames but patronymics after all?)

And the Religious Right is everywhere. ‘Which religion?’ is an irrelevant question. All of them. And they’re all always Right. And the one thing they all seem to agree on is woman’s rightful place (or rather, the lack thereof) in the universe.

Ookay, point made. Rant over. The next rant observation has to do with the other reviews of this book on Goodreads. In hindsight, I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that The Handmaid’s Tale has a wildly polarizing effect. For one thing, the style of writing doesn’t work for everyone. Some think it’s inconsistent to juxtapose Offred’s everyday monotone (submissive, quiet, repressed) with sentences that suddenly end with “The Commander is fucking.” Others just found it too distracting.

The other notable thing about the reviews is that on the one hand you have reviewers who – like me – see in this book a very accurate description of the world around us today (and possibly read dire warnings of the book eventually coming true). Others are quick to denounce the book as the most speculative of speculative fiction, and state categorically that “Time has not been kind to Margaret Atwood’s vision.” [As I’ve already stated, I firmly believe that the latter lot are completely wrong.]

Something I grappled with quite a lot was my inability to understand why all the characters were so subdued. It wasn’t possible, my brain reasoned, for human beings raised in lives of independence and freedom to bend their knees so easily.

Throw a frog into boiling water and it will hop out immediately. Drop it in ordinary water and slowly bring it to boil, and the frog will cook in it and die without realizing what is happening to it (until it’s too late).

Besides, that’s basically what happened during the Holocaust anyway.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautifully nuanced book that looks at all aspects of life under the patriarchy. It looks at the impact on the Handmaids – simultaneously the objects of revulsion and hope by the rest of the community and on the Wives – considered Failures because of their inability to conceive and set aside. It looks at the Young Men who are both considered ineligible for wives (and by extension Handmaids) as well as forbidden to masturbate by religion and on the Daughters fated to grow up to be Somebody’s Wife. The book even takes pity on the Husbands who seem to have it all, even Husbands like Commander Fred who wrote the system only to find, too late, that he’d robbed himself of the twin pleasures of intimacy and variety.

Motherhood is one of the central themes of the book – Offred is a mother to a lost child who is now someone else’s daughter somewhere else in the city. She is also expected to be a mother again – only for a while, only for nine months – and she hopes for this as well. Except a new pregnancy means something different to her than the first one had – it’s freedom from the threat of exile, protection from a variety of punishments, and sadly, a hunger for approval, like a dog hungers for its owner to recognize that it has been a good dog. (This makes quite a lot of sense, because in addition to the fact that she’s a sex slave being forced to bear children, it’s also important to note that the real mother of any children born to her would be the Commander’s wife.)

The book’s real ending depicts an academic conference at least a couple of centuries into the future, adding additional context in a manner reminiscent of the found-footage genre of horror movies. And as with that genre, the reader finds themselves stepping out of an intensely engaging personal narrative of horror into a disorienting context where characters who are centuries removed from the book’s subject remark upon those past events in a lighthearted manner.

After I was done reading, I compared notes on the book with the friend who recommended The Handmaid’s Tale to me. We were specifically talking about which part of the book made us feel the most physically nauseous. For her, it was the scene where Offred and her fellow inmates at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre are made to repeatedly chant “It was your fault!” at a new girl who had recounted her story of having been gangraped at the age of fourteen.

For me, it was the moment Offred realizes that the government’s move to remove women from full citizenship made her inoffensive husband happy, not sad. She has lost everything, she thinks, but he has gained instead. Everything that was hers is his now, and she too, is his.

Next: Shifters #4 – Prey