Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Banned, Censored, Challenged: The Handmaid's Tale

Written by Margaret Atwood, this is a dystopian novel from a woman's point of view. It is set in a future taken over by religious zealots who control every aspect of women's lives. The main character, Offred narrates the story of her life as a "Hagar", a woman forced to have sex with a man, in order to basically be a surrogate mother.

Like most authors of dystopian fiction, Atwood meant this to be a cautionary tale. Writing during a time of strong politically conservative influence, Atwood envisioned a future where women would lose all of the rights they had gained during the 60s and 70s movements. She drew her concept from the book of Genesis in the Bible, where the handmaiden Hagar is forced to bare children for Abraham because his wife is barren. I wasn't alive in the 80s, so I don't know how plausible this story seemed at the time (someone who read it back then could tell me) but I know that when I first read it in 2003, it seemed a little hysterical. After all, another conservative was in office at the time and though there were many things the Left feared from Bush, it never seemed that a complete repeal of women's rights was possible.

So to me, the book seemed hysterical and unrealistic. Back to the 50s- a possibility. Back to the Bronze age, not likely.

Still, it was an exciting and provocative book.

I found out about the proposed removal of this book from a Texas high school on a website called, whose main focus seems to be encouraging libraries to filter porn but they also talk about books.

In writing about the nature of some young adult books they write:

from Judson Board Set to Write Final Chapter on Sci-Fi Book, March 22, 2006:
Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said [regarding] 'The Handmaid's Tale' [that e]ven as the book is being challenged, it also is being used more frequently because teachers are trying to bring in contemporary, well-written material that interests students.... "They're dealing with real literature," she said. "These are kids who are about to step into the real world." She added: "These are people who are going to be voting soon."
What an excuse, "real literature," because children will be "voting soon." About what, aimless sex, drugs, alcohol, and death?

I read the article about the Judson High School disagreement over The Handmaid's Tale. The novel, by the way, is not a Young Adult novel.

According to the article cited by Safe Libraries, The Handmaid's Tale was a part of a college-level advanced placement course in the school and had been for 10 years before a parent complained in 2008, prompting the Superintendent to remove the book. A committee of parents, teacher and students later returned the book.

Parents at this school did have the option of substituting another book (great idea), which one school mom (according to the article) did- her child read Brave New World, which is #52 on the ALA's list of most challenged books, because of profanity, violence, drug use etc.

In fact...people do vote about drug use, alcohol, death and sex. We pass legislation involving those issues all the time.

Bookmark and Share


Jeanne Dansby said...

You wrote this review in 2009. Now, in 2012, with the out-and-out attacks against women's rights in America, do you still feel that the book "...seemed hysterical and unrealistic. Back to the 50s- a possibility. Back to the Bronze age, not likely."

Just wondering...

sharazad said...

Good question, Jeanne. I still have to say that I still feel the same. One reason is because of numbers- taking women out of the workforce today en masse would b impossible. Most families have to hav 2 people wrking anyway and women make up a significant # of drs, lawyers, professors, business owners. Then, there's the political & economic power that women (& supportive men) have. Even before suffrage & second wave feminism, women did not liv n the dystopian world of Offred . Of course, I could be wrong. But then I am a voter, a worker, a student & part of this society- I will fight like hell to make sure I am right. :-)

BardofBH said...

I have only recently read the novel for the first time and I found your analysis intriguing. Particularly the concept of it being "hysterical and unrealistic". Firstly, it was written only a few years after the revolution in Iran (1979-1980) when women's rights were restricted by a fundamentalist regime (many of which are still in place), which shocked the world. While at the same time there was a rise in fundamentalism in Christian denominations in this country. I am old enough to remember this period and as a child remember the tension, particularly in the political realm.

Secondly, the descriptions of the take over felt eerily similar to me of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. There was the same sense of fear and tension, and acceptance that if the government has to take temporary restrictive action it is OK. Hence the quick passage of the Patriot Act, many of whose parts were only supposed to be temporary and which many groups have opposed as being significant attacks on our constitutional freedoms.

Thirdly, while certainly not as extreme as in the book, the many legislative attempts on women's reproductive rights just in the last few months is cause for concern. There are already groups who under the guise of religious freedom have imposed very similar kinds of restrictions in our country (the group that follows Warren Jeffs for one). Is it widespread and government sanctioned? No, but what if enough of them got elected to a town council?

Does the book show an extreme view of what could happen? Sure. It would take a perfect storm of events to make this kind of a vision occur. But to call it "hysterical and unrealistic" I think is to ignore that fact that many such perfect storms have happened throughout history and to actively engaged citizens who never saw them coming.

Thanks for listening.

Anna said...

This book in 2012 to me seem like a very plausible situation with the attacks on women. It scares me.