Women in Margeret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale". Victims or Perpetrators?

Bachelor Thesis, 2022

33 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Understanding Power and Authority
2.1 Definition and Understanding of Power and Authority (Gramsci & Foucault)
2.2 Panopticism

3. Women as Victims
3.1 Institutionalized Sexism
3.2 Interpersonal Sexism
3.3 Internalized Sexism

4 Women as Perpetrators

5 Women in Gilead: Victims or Perpetrators?

7 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.

You are good when you are one with yourself. Yet when you are not one with yourself you are not evil. For a divided house is not a den of thieves; it is only a divided house. And a ship without rudder may wander aimlessly among perilous isles yet sink not to the bottom. (The ProphetKhalil Gibran)

This rather philosophical viewpoint of good and evil conveys evil as the good in oneself that is misled and trying to survive in the course of life. Similarly, several critics of Margaret Atwood's literature have stated that the purpose of her literature is to show that “we are all somehow guilty of being human and that malignancy is quite possibly, a metaphor for human condition” (Rigney 109).

On the one hand, Atwood sees thefrontieras the pervasive symbol of American literature, on the other hand,survivalor the “unheroic survival of victimization” as the predominant notion in Canadian fiction (Rigney 123). She names Canada's long status of being a colony as the reason for Canadian literature's theme of victim-orientation and therefore explores the victimization, exploitation, and the position of an “oppressed minority” in her literature (Rigney 123). There she explores the dynamics of victims and perpetrators and discovers victimized groups to be “victims of one another or of nature, just as nature itself is a victim of human beings” (Rigney 123). InThe Handmaid's Tale,Atwood combines both the Canadian theme of ‘unheroic victimization' with the American theme of the frontier to build the Republic of Gilead. There, women are representative of Canada as the victimized group, and Gilead and its men represent America as the oppressor (Tomc 83). The frontier is very well-defined and is not crossable without permission, advocating for the “survival of Canada's cultural autonomy” (Tomc 83). In Gilead, women are the victims of a theocratic regime that very “effectively robs women of their individual identities and transforms them into replaceable objects in the phallocentric economy” (Bouson 43). Women are robbed of their former lives and roughly divided into hierarchical groups of Aunts, Wives, Handmaids, and Marthas. Being a victim to such inherent misogyny in a patriarchal culture, the women are left with nothing other than the feeling of being “bereft, trapped, infantilized, objectified, viewed as animals, fragmented and silenced” (Tennant 76). However, in Gilead, the women also becomevictims of one anotherand the line between victim and perpetrator starts to blur. The main ways in which women mistreat other women are Aunts mistreating women by indoctrinating them with sexist ideology, Wives mistreating their Handmaids and Handmaids spying on each other, or other girls bullying Handmaids. Based on the numerous ways in which women oppress and subjugate each other, the question of the woman as a victim is raised and will be the main question of this thesis.

Although it is immediately recognizable that the women in Gilead are the victims of a sexist theocratic regime, the present thesis aims at proving that women are ultimately both the oppressed victims and the perpetrating force of oppression. Moreover, I will conclusively explain why they become the perpetrators against other women with the phenomenon of internalized sexism and argue that their position of being perpetrators against their own kind derives from their position of being victims of a Panoptic surveillance system and a sexist regime enforcing hegemonic power over women. While inThe Handmaid's Tale, it seems that the Aunts are the only perpetrating force of the oppression of women of lower positions, inThe Testamentsit becomes clear that they were forced to submit and to assume the role of the perpetrator. Unlike most of the literary critics, who have only consideredThe Handmaid's Talefor their critique, I will also includeThe Testamentsto give evidence for my argumentation.

In the following, I will prove my thesis by first introducing power, authority, and Panopticism as a concept to understand the root of the political structures in Gilead. For this, I will consult the theories of power of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, as their understanding of power provides the basis for recognizing Gilead's power as authoritative, restricting and ever-present. With the concept of panoptic power, the chapter of women as victims is properly introduced in order to analyze the various ways in which women are subjugated and controlled everywhere they go. For the chapter on women as victims, I will consider sociological and historical aspects of misogyny and sexism, feminist literature, and linguistic phenomena that can be linked to power (or a lack thereof) to analyze women's situation from a victim's perspective. Furthermore, it is sectioned into three instances of institutionalized, interpersonal and internalized sexism. In contrast to that, the next chapter evaluates how women in Gilead are the active perpetrators who watch, discipline and subjugate other women. For this, the concept of internalized sexism is also important, as it shows women actively competing and mistreating each other and I will explore the background of that with feminist and sociological theories. Finally, I will evaluate the question of whether the women in Gilead are victims or the perpetrators and conclude that while they are also the oppressing force, they are predominantly the victims.

2 Understanding Power and Authority

To analyze the hierarchical structures of power and authority in Gilead, a brief understanding of power and authority is required. In the first place, the difference between power and authority should be explained: power (Macht) is the influence of humans on other humans, authority (Herrschaft) is the actual long-lasting superiority and subordination of humans (Maset 57).

2.1 Definition and Understanding of Power and Authority (Gramsci & Foucault)

In the history of researching power, according to John Scott, there have been two directions: the “mainstream” and the “second-stream” (in Simpson/Mayr 2). The mainstream in power research focuses mainly on the “corrective power” and dominance of the state, exploring the ability of state institutions to ensure conformity throughout society despite possible resistance or rebellion (Simpson/Mayr 2). This conformity is not only secured by the state but also through the economy and the church, which brings more legitimacy to power because the influence is present on different levels and evokes more trust when it is maintained throughout several important influential institutions (Simpson/Mayr 2). In a democracy, power must be legitimate and accepted by the people, otherwise, it is not possible to withstand resistance but in order to create legitimacy for power, “opposing groups will simultaneously be ‘delegitimated'” (Simpson/Mayr 2). Therefore, the mainstream research of power treats power as an ‘asymmetric concept' and the powerover, which focuses on dominance from the state to secure compliance of the people (Maset 60). Legitimization of power always involves ‘delegitimating' the resistance, which brings up the question of whether or not there is unmanipulated power.

The second-stream of research on power mainly focuses on the persuasive effect of power, also called ideological power (Simpson/Mayr 3, Fairclough 27). One central figure in this stream was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who uses the term hegemony to describe the “mechanisms through which dominant groups in society succeed in persuading subordinate groups to accept the former's own moral, political and cultural values and institutions” (Simpson/Mayr 3). Contrary to the mainstream research on power, this definition of power is achieved very subtly. The domination happens without coercion but with a slow process of implementing a new routine and new norms, which makes the takeover seem ‘natural' and ‘commonsensical' (Simpson/Mayr 3). Thus, the subordinate group may not even notice the consent they are giving to the dominant group, as it is presented as the most logical way. However, even though the concept of hegemony persuades the subordinate group instead of coercing it, the dominant group has to work permanently to maintain their power position. In fact, according to Gramsci, the “cultural formations of individuals [...] by the institutions of civil society” like family, church, the educational system and media ensure the power position of the dominant group more subtly than through “constraining powers of the state” (Simpson/Mayr 3). To maintain their power position after they built a “ruling group” through political alliances and gained legitimate consent among the population, the dominant group has to build up a capacity for coercion (usually with police, prisons, etc.), in order to be able to stop any unwanted rebellion or resistance (Simpson/Mayr 3).

Therefore, any exercise of power is linked to a constant social struggle, where the dominant group is struggling to defend or lose its position and the „powerless“ try to gain more power (Fairclough 29, 57). Aunt Lydia describes this phenomenon inThe Testaments, saying that they all are “stretched thin” and “always on the alert” and compares the tension to a “high-voltage power line” (277). Although this concept of power applies subtle ways of dominating the subordinate group, it is still a ‘symmetric concept', as it roots in a general consensus of the legitimacy of power and focuses more on the powertoinstead of poweroversomething or someone (Maset 60). Michel Foucault, who is also considered to belong to the second-stream research on power, has a more inclusive definition of power. For instance, he agrees with Gramsci's definition that power is constituted through the smallest elements like family and living situations and that it has to have legitimacy to be accepted, so power that relies only on repression, marginalization and negation would not prevail (Maset 83). Consequently, where there is legitimate power, there must be a productive aspect of power such as generating knowledge, causing delight, producing things and discourses, instead of power as a form of “dressage or discipline” (Maset 83,Power Knowledge161). Foucault calls this aspect of power a “productive net” that covers society and is less about repression but more about the developmental impact (Maset 83,Power Knowledge159).

Authority is the institutionalized power with heavily asymmetric relations, which is legitimized through the law, ideas, and values (Maset 61). It works to dominate a society permanently and the distinction between powerover(takes the ability to act) and power to(gives the ability to act) determines if a legitimate or illegitimate authority is at hand. Hannah Arendt calls the poweroversociety a “command and obedience” relation, which is her definition of violence, and power that comes through acting jointly as a community true power (in Maset 62). Like many authoritarian states, the Republic of Gilead uses the “strengthen[ing] of social forces” (stopping the declining birthrates, increase in “level of public morality”) to legitimize its existence (FoucaultDiscipline208). Nevertheless, it does use physical repression and ideological manipulation to make the citizens compliant: “The more legitimacy dominant groups have, the less coercion they need to apply” (Simpson/Mayr 3). Aunt Lydia knows this too: “had I been more effective, I would not have needed [...] [punishment]. The persuasion in my voice would have been enough.” (AtwoodTestaments4). Therefore, Gilead's power is not legitimate, as their regime relies “entirely on threat power and exchange power” with “constant surveillance” (Sheckels 83) until the system of panoptic power is established.

2.2 Panopticism

The persuasive type of power discussed in the previous chapter relies on a phenomenon called panopticism, first introduced by Jeremy Bentham inPanopticonand adapted by Michel Foucault inDiscipline and Punish. ThePanopticonis an architectural figure that has a circular shape with windows on the inner and outer side of the ring and a tower at the center of it, from which a supervisor could see the people in the cells, but they cannot see the supervisor in the tower (FoucaultDiscipline200). This mechanism has the opposite effect of a dungeon: it uses total visibility to ensure absolute control over the captured subjects so there are “no disorders, no theft, no coalitions” and “no chatter” (FoucaultDiscipline200/201). In this way, the inmates of thePanopticonknow they are permanently visible and could be watched at any moment without knowing it certainly if they are, ensuring the “automatic functioning of power” (FoucaultDiscipline201). According to Foucault, the major aim of a panoptic concept of power is the creation and sustaining of a “power relation [that is] independent of the person who exercises it”, so that the inmates are “caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers” (Discipline201). Therefore, the source of power becomes unclear as it is “automized and disindividualized” (FoucaultDiscipline202), and “each comrade becomes an overseer” (Bentham inPower/Knowledge152), making it impossible for the inmates to be in private and break any existing rules or laws without being noticed immediately. The Panopticon is, among other things, used to “instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane” and also to control sexuality (FoucaultDiscipline205,Power/Knowledge150).

In Gilead, panopticism is utilized mainly to control the decreasing population and maintain the State of Gilead altogether. Especially the sexuality of women is under heavy surveillance with the goal of increasing the birth rates and preserving the purity of women (Sheckels 82). For this, women and especially Handmaids are stripped of their human rights and are kept inside of the houses, where they can be controlled and watched. An escape is made impossible by limiting the knowledge of Gilead and its location. Handmaids are monitored in medical status, emotions, nourishment and only are given the amount of money for the food they consume. Also, they have an ankle tattoo to mark them forever like cattle. If they are allowed to go out, it is only within a limited space (which is limited by a wall), where their every move is monitored by so-called Eyes. Eyes are the surveillance guards of Gilead, although anyone can be an Eye because everyone watches everyone in Gilead. Handmaids are only allowed to go out in pairs, and they are responsible for each other, meaning that they are each other's Eyes or overseers, reporting “non-believers” and breaches of protocol (AtwoodHandmaid's Tale19, 71). Also, every woman envies her peers in other positions of something, Wives envy other Wives for their Handmaid's babies for example (AtwoodHandmaid's126), effectively playing off women against each other. This way, women become the victims and the executing force that oppresses them at the same time, which I will evaluate in the following chapters. Just as panopticism intends, the mere thought of the force existing suffices for panoptic power structures to grow without anyone forcing them to go against each other, conclusively letting the citizens of Gilead oppress each other and making overt markings of power unnecessary.

3 Women as Victims

This chapter will present and analyze the various ways in which women are a victim in Gilead's society. While it is obvious that Gilead is a sexist society, it is not always obvious if a woman in Gilead is suffering from institutional, interpersonal or internalized sexism (Bearman and Amrhein 192). In order to understand how women are victims, I will utilize these three forms to present and analyze evidence of the mistreatment of women in Gilead.

3.1 Institutionalized Sexism

Firstly, I shall differentiate between misogyny and sexism, as the two terms relate to the same phenomenon (male superior over female) and should not be confused. The main difference is, according to Kate Manne, in their intention:misogynyis the “law enforcement branch of patriarchal order [by] policing and enforcing its governing norms and expectations”, the executing force;sexismis the “justificatory branch of patriarchal orders” which consists of “ideology that has the overall function of rationalizing and justifying patriarchal social relations” (Manne 78/79). Therefore, as misogyny derives from sexism, I will mainly use the term sexist to refer to Gilead's treatment of women. To the readers ofThe Handmaid's TaleandThe Testaments, it is immediately conspicuous how women are not in the slightest way equal to men, as indicated before in the chapter on Panopticism: “Institutional sexism occurs when sexism is woven into political, social, and economic institutions. Laws that limit women's rights, or media that portrays women primarily as sex objects, are examples of institutionalized sexism” (Bearman and Amrhein 192). Consequently, the State of Gilead is a sexist regime that calls itself a theocracy, which is a “government ruled by or subject to religious authority” (Tennant viii), as its whole educational system and social norms are to the disadvantage of women. In fact, sexism is the “naturaliz[ing of] sex differences to justify patriarchal social arrangements” (Manne 79) and Gilead uses the pretense of “divine power” to make the sexist ideology seem inevitable and absolutely necessary, but “relies heavily on human control” while doing so (Freibert 281). The Sons of Jacob, as the founders of Gilead call themselves, seem to have “misread the bible in defense of their own self­serving stance”, as they only use those Bible passages that support their agenda: men are powerful leaders and women are to be controlled and subjugated and serving of a man (Tennant viii).

Firstly, all the “traditional paths of knowledge acquisition“ are blocked for women in Gilead and women are systematically “dumbed down“ so they cannot resist (Robison-Greene 27). They are not allowed to read, write or to share information by talking, existing texts and narratives are “revised“, so that the sexist education is legitimized and any communication, mostly spoken language as that is the only one that is allowed, is heavily restricted (Robison-Greene 27). As language is an integral part of society, it cannot be separated from society itself, making it impossible to speak or write without the influence of social conventions (Fairclough 19). On the one hand, social phenomena are manifested in discourse through language, but on the other hand, discourse can manifest itself in social phenomena, so that linguistic and social phenomena are inevitably intertwined (Fairclough 19). Therefore, by analyzing the language conventions and discourse that women have access to in Gilead, I will show how the restriction of discourse and language is used to subjugate women in numerous ways and what the underlying ideology is behind that.

Usually, spoken language is “interwoven with gesture, facial expression, movement, posture to such an extent that it cannot be properly understood without reference to these ‘extras'”, these so-calledvisuals(Fairclough 22/23). These visuals, essentially non-verbal communication cues, are completely erased for Handmaids in Gilead: through their veils they cannot see any facial expressions, their movement and posture are predetermined, and their gestures are closely monitored by Eyes so that any suspicious gestures can be stopped immediately (AtwoodHandmaid's19). Even more, their verbal communication follows a strict protocol as well, which is in itself a means to control the handmaids through discourse. Their “accepted” conversation is limited to a few empty verbiages, but when looked at closely, they are not only regulated to control Handmaids but also to indoctrinate them further with Gileadean ideology. For example, the accepted greeting “Blessed Be the Fruit” and “May the Lord Open” are both related to fertility and reminds Handmaids once again that their right to exist is only granted to them if their wombs are opened by God and they are able to give birth to healthy children (Tennant 28/29). Furthermore, the shortening of “Praise Be [to God]” as a stock phrase to show agreement or appreciation, shows that Gilead leaders do not truly want to praise God, but only want to use religion as a means to gain control and authority over women (Tennant 30). Lastly, the acceptable farewell “Under His Eye” should remind the handmaids once more that they are constantly watched and monitored like a valuable object, making it sound like God is watching them for protection when instead they are watched by Eyes, which could be anyone, to check if they ever slip up (Tennant 31).

After all, language is strongly linked to power in any society as it indicates power in social and political contexts (Fairclough 47). An individual who does not have access to certain discourses or does not speak the standard language may be socially and politically marginalized, as it reflects on lifestyle, morality and the values of the speaker (Fairclough 48). In Gilead, this marginalization of women, but especially handmaids, is induced through the restriction of discourse, imposing certain values, lifestyles and moral standards onto them forcefully. This is done through the use of rewards and prestige as a power tool to encourage ignorance and compliance meanwhile critical thinking is severely punished. However, the subjugation through forced standard language is done covertly, as it is slowly taught to them by other women as the right way of behaving and talking. This way, the Commanders “systematically avoid too much overt marking of their power” (Fairclough 46) and may foster less resentment in the women for men, instead they gain more compliance, which is the natural process of implementing new norms that Antonio Gramsci calls ‘hegemony'. The accepted greeting and farewell or any other predetermined phrase of a handmaid is also a ritual way of speaking. A ritual is on the one hand a way of showing some sense of belonging, as it requires a certain qualification to participate, but on the other hand may strictly define “gestures, behavior, circumstances and the whole set of signs which must accompany discourse” (FoucaultDiscourse62). Therefore, the handmaids are put into a very conflicting circumstance where they might feel some sense of belonging but notice that it feels wrong at the same time. The reason why it feels wrong is the belonging to a ritual that systematically oppresses women, but they have no other choice and no way out of it, as they are trapped in a religious doctrine that is enforced by law (see FoucaultDiscourse62).

In contrast to general discourse which, according to Norman Fairclough, describes the „whole process of social interaction”, written text is the product of only a small fraction of discourse, namely interpretation or discourse analysis (20). Both the production and interpretation of discourse underlie certain social conditions, like the social environment of the discourse, the social institution and the influences of society in general (Fairclough 20/21). In Gilead, as the former society and social institutions underwent a significant transformation, the discourse has changed as well, particularly the discourse analysis. Religion and especially the Bible is used to legitimize misogyny and the confusing sexist ideology, which cannot be fact-checked by women with the scripture itself, as any knowledge acquisition is forbidden (Robison-Greene 28). It is forbidden for women to read as they supposedly have “smaller brains” and are therefore “incapable of thinking large thoughts”, according to Aunt Vidala (AtwoodTestaments15). They are also told by Aunts that if they would read, they would “crumble” and “fall apart under the contradictions” (AtwoodTestaments303). This constraint on access to the written discourse from “The Time Before” is there to prevent the women from seeing the contradictions of Gilead's ideology and in turn, being able to prove the mistreatment that they are enduring through the former constitution. Furthermore, it also hinders them from fleeing or resisting, as they do not know enough about Gilead to even know the direction to go, in case they want to try to break out (AtwoodTestaments224). Also, the ban on any type of interaction with text, reading or writing, gave the leaders of Gilead the “control over the production of discourse” (FoucaultDiscourse61) and subsequently, power over women. InThe Testaments, girls like Agnes Jemima, who grow up in Gilead are withheld literacy, which determines access to discourse and power and in turn lowers their position in society (Fairclough 53). Actually, there are instances where Handmaids got permission from their Commanders to read secretly (AtwoodHandmaid's184). However, the fact that the permission has to be given by a man is humiliating and shows that it is still tied to the patriarchal power that the Commander has over the Handmaid. Offred describes it as a “curiously sexual act” because the Commander watches her read like it is “a kind of performance” (AtwoodHandmaid's184), which shows the voyeuristic nature of this supposedly generous gesture.


Excerpt out of 33 pages


Women in Margeret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale". Victims or Perpetrators?
University of Göttingen  (English Department - Feminism in Dystopian Novels)
English Philology
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, The Testaments, Feminism, Victim, Perpetrator, Panopticism, Power, Authority, Sexism, Institutional Sexism, Internalized Sexism, Interpersonal Sexism, Foucault
Quote paper
Emily Meyer (Author), 2022, Women in Margeret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale". Victims or Perpetrators?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1272476


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