Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum. Reading Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and Christina Dalcher's "Vox" in Dialogue

Master's Thesis, 2019

92 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. Introduction

2. The sexual politics of patriarchal societies
2.1. Sexual politics by Millet
2.2. Sexual politics of the patriarchal societies in The Handmaid’s Tale and Vox

3. Discipline and Punish
3.1. Discipline and Punish by Foucault
3.2. Discipline and Punishment in The Handmaid’s Tale and Vox

4. Power and Resistance
4.1. Power/Knowledge by Foucault
4.2. Resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale and Vox

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Recently, and especially in 2017, when Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States, Women’s Marches occurred all over the United States. In many of these marches, women used symbols from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, such as red cloaks and white bonnets (Hauser). ‘ Nolite te bastardes carborundorum’ perhaps the most quoted phrase of The Handmaid’s Tale meaning ‘ Don’t let the bastards grind you down’ became a feminist rallying cry during those women’s marches. The Handmaid’s Tale, which was written in 1985, regained popularity and relevance due to a rising political power of Christian fundamentalists, which led to attacks on women’s rights, particularly women’s reproductive rights (Armstrong).

The Handmaid’s Tale made way for similar feminist novels exploring dystopian futures, such as Christina Dalcher’s Vox (LaMonica). Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale are both set in a dystopian future in which the U.S. has become a theocratic state. The women in Vox suffer by being limited to speak only one hundred words a day, while women in The Handmaid’s Tale are forced into circumscribed roles, for example the role of the Handmaid. These women are subject to ritualized rape. The society in The Handmaid’s Tale is reminiscent of societies in former human history, notably the Puritan society (Atwood Age of Trump) whereas the society in Vox is more futuristic and influenced by modern technologies, as this work will show.

In this thesis, the patriarchal power structures of the dystopian societies in Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale will be analyzed by examining the sexual politics of patriarchal societies and state power as well as the use of language and punishment. I argue that both novels explore overt and subtle patriarchal structures, which have different impacts on the protagonists’ identities. The protagonists differ in their strategies of resistance and process their struggles differently. While Jean in Vox angrily holds on to her dominant and bold personality and is actively involved in the resistance against the Pure state, Offred is in pain and even numb and passively retreats to her memories and thoughts. Offred’s resistance is less politically motivated but rather anchored in her feelings on a personal level.

The novels will be analyzed in dialogue with each other to point out similarities and differences between them. In the second chapter the patriarchal social structure of the Pure state in Vox and the state of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale will be compared in depth according to Kate Millet’s categories of class, religious, biological and sociological ideologies as well as education and economy. This chapter aims to answer the question how governmental power is exercised through children’s socialization according to patriarchal principles and examines the accompanying destructive psychological effects on the psyche of the states’ citizens, especially of the protagonists in the text. Kate Millet’s theory of sexual politics provides a good and structured overview of factors that help maintain a patriarchy, such as class, the principles on which patriarchal societies rely, ideologies, myths and biology. As she also names effects of the patriarchy on the psyche and behavior of women, her theory provides a useful theoretical background to analyze the characters’ identities. Since Millet is a literary theorist her work is intended for the use in literary contexts.

The third chapter is concerned with the way torture, punishment and discipline according to Foucault’s work Discipline and Punish are incorporated in the lives of the protagonists and used by the dystopian states to exercise power and control over their citizens. This chapter further looks at the significance of surveillance and technology in The Handmaid’s Tale and Vox.

The fourth chapter explores the relation of knowledge and power as stated in Foucault’s Power/Knowledge and its impact on the way of resistance of the protagonists of Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale. Foucault’s texts suit the analysis of the two selected dystopian societies as he challenges the idea that power relies only on coercion and violence but also highlights the significance of compliance and domination of the discourse. To him, power is constantly negotiated and pervades every aspect of society. In addition, Foucault shows the inevitability of resistance and the many forms in which it occurs, which is useful to approach the protagonists’ way of resistance. In the last chapter the results will be summarized and compared, and a conclusion will be drawn.

2. The sexual politics of patriarchal societies

2.1. Sexual politics by Millet

In her theory of sexual politics published in 1969 Kate Millet examines the political relationship between the sexes. Here, politics refers to “the power structured relationships [and] arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another” (Millet 23). While sex can be defined as “the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women” (WHO), gender “refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women” (ibid.).

With her work Millet wants to prove that “sex is a status category with political implications” (24) by examining how the patriarchy operates and perpetuates its power on an ideological, biological, sociological, class, economic and educational, anthropological, and psychological level. She claims that the relationship between the sexes was and still is of dominance and subordinance, a herrschaft, with males ruling over females by birthright (24 ff.).

According to Millet, every society, though with varying degree (26), is a patriarchy, meaning that men are in power of all institutions that make up its structure (25). As a consequence, this herrschaft of men over women appears to be “the most pervasive ideology of our culture [providing] its most fundamental concept of power” (ibid.). “While patriarchy as an institution is a social constant” (ibid.), there are instances of women holding power in certain areas of life depending on the nation. As stated in Hannah Arendt’s Speculations on Violence, power upholding the government is supported either through violence or consent (qtd. in Millet 26).

On an ideological level, consent of sexual politics is obtained through socialization (ibid.). Socialization is “the process whereby an individual learns to adjust to a group (or society) and behave in a manner approved by the group (or society)” (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Millet claims that men and women are conditioned to follow “patriarchal polities with regard to temperament, role, and status” (26). Temperament as a psychological category “involves the formation of human personality along stereotyped lines of sex category” (ibid.). Since men are the dominant group, they get to dictate what qualities they favor in themselves, like “aggression, intelligence, force and efficacy” (ibid.) and in the subordinate group, women, like “passivity, ignorance, docility, ‘virtue,’ and ineffectuality” (ibid.). Sex role, a sociological category, dictates a certain “code of conduct, gesture and attitude for each sex” (ibid.). Millet emphasizes that women are more limited in their roles because their assigned activities are in the area of biological experiences, like domestic work and child care and therefore excluding them from human achievement, interest and ambition, which are all reserved to men and lead to a higher status (Millet 26.). Millet views status as a political category and assumes that there exists a “prejudice of male superiority” (26) securing men’s superior status.

She argues that these differences between the sexes regarding temperament, sex role and status are not biologically but culturally shaped (28). Millet criticizes the assumption that behavior is shaped by biology and the focus on physical strength of men when reconstruction the origin of the patriarchy and male supremacy (27). Since superior physical strength does not factor in political relations, Millet concludes that male supremacy must in fact be based on “the acceptance of a value system” (ibid.).

Relying on Robert J. Stoller’s differentiation of sex as biological and gender as cultural and psychological (qtd. in Millet 29) as well as his research, Millet comes to the conclusion that “gender identity […] is the primary identity and human being holds – the first as well as the most permanent and far-reaching” (30). From the scientific fact that fetuses develop into males only at a certain stage during pregnancy she infers that there must be no psychosexual differentiation between the sexes at birth (ibid.), which means that “[p]sychosexual personality is therefore postnatal and learned” (ibid.).

Millet strongly opposes the ascription of temperamental gender differences to biology and highlights the importance of socialization (31). She believes males and females make different, gender-specific experiences due to social circumstances leading to a division in form of “two different cultures” (ibid.). Before children start speaking themselves, they develop a sense of self (ibid.). Even at that time, they are already making gender-specific experiences by being touched and spoken to in a certain manner (ibid.). Behavior displaying what is deemed appropriate to each gender regarding “temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression” (ibid.) is reinforced and by that conditioned resulting in “a circle of self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecy” (ibid.). Millet goes as far as stating that sexual behavior is also “almost entirely” (32) learned. She heavily criticizes that male aggressiveness is not only actively reinforced but also dismissed as natural and biologically rooted, as she sees it merely as a means to uphold patriarchal structures (ibid.).

On a sociological level, the patriarchy mainly operates through family (Millet 33). Millet calls family “[p]atriarchy’s chief institution” (ibid.), as the government is able rule its citizens through ruling the family’s head (ibid.) and by that establish a “co-operation between the family and the larger society” (ibid.). By socializing the youth in accordance with patriarchal ideology regarding the already mentioned categories of temperament, sex role and status, families furthermore stabilize the patriarchal state (Millet 35). Millet claims that family, society and state as patriarchal institution are backed up not only religions, that set men as the head of a family, but also by structures in which secular states operate, for example through “census practices that of designating the male as head of household, taxation, passports etc.” (Millet 33). Outside of the family, male authority is further supported culturally and “reinforced through peers, schools, media, and other learning sources, formal and informal” (ibid. 35). Whereas patriarchy used to grant men ownership over their wives and children including authorizing them to use violence (ibid. 33), modern patriarchies implemented rules protecting women, such as the right to property or divorce (ibid. 34).

Millet views the variable of class as the “most liable to confusion” (36), since certain women might appear to have a higher status than certain men due to economic, educational and social circumstances. However, this assumption is not true, as seemingly higher economic, educational or social circumstances of women do not negate existing sexual hierarchies (ibid.). Millet instances chivalry as a technique to disguise “the injustice of a women’s social position” (37). To obscure the patriarchy and seemingly elevate their social status, women are depicted as extremely good and virtuous, when in fact it has “no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status” (ibid.). In addition, Millet deems “the concept of romantic love [as] a means of emotional manipulation” (ibid.), since it enables women to let go of their instilled sexual inhibition only so man could have sex with them (ibid.). Therefore, “[r]omantic love also obscures realities of female status and the burden of economic dependency” (ibid.). Considering “women as a group do not enjoy many of the interests and benefits any class may offer its male members” (Millet 38), they seem to have “less of an investment in the class system” (ibid.).

According to Millet, one of the main effects the patriarchy has on a class level is the development of division and rivalry among women (ibid.). She criticizes the categorization of women into either the matron or the whore or, as she perceives it in her present society, the career woman and the housewife (ibid.). This concept, called the Madonna-Whore complex, arose from Sigmund Freuds work regarding male sexuality in which he states: “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love” (qtd. in Hartmann 2335). Therefore, “sexual arousal is only possible with a sexual partner who has in some way been degraded (the whore) while the adequate and respected partner cannot be fully desired (the Madonna)” (ibid.).

The Madonna-Whore complex has also found its way into popular culture and is a common TV trope. The TV tropes’ wikipedia page defines the Madonna as “always good at heart, always chaste and often passive“ and the Whore as “[o]ften evil and scheming” person with “massive sex appeal, catering to the Male Gaze and fetishes”. Resulting from this dichotomy between the Madonna and the Whore, women envy each other and compete for status and resources, such as security, prestige or respect (Millet 38).

Furthermore, women are also “estranged” (ibid.) or isolated from each other as a result of this rivalry. Referring to her own experiences, bell hooks explains the importance of what she calls “sisterhood” (hooks 13) when fighting the patriarchy. While “[m]ale bonding was an accepted and affirmed aspect of patriarchal culture” (ibid. 14), as it leads to men sticking together and supporting each other (ibid.), “female bonding was not possible within patriarchy; it was an act of treason” (ibid.). One can derive that patriarchy profits from preventing female bonding, as it keeps women from challenging the status quo together and by that threatening patriarchal structures. To represent women’s interests and goals, such as “control of [their] sexuality, effective birth control and reproductive rights, an end to rape and sexual harassment, [women] needed to stand in solidarity” (ibid. 15).

As already mentioned, the workings of patriarchy regarding class often appear to be confusing or even contradicting (Millet 37). To further complicate matters, there are also other variables, such as race, at play (ibid. 38). Millet argues that race as well as sex are caste systems, so one cannot assume the social status of an individual without considering other individual variables (36). She believes though that “sexism may be more endemic in our own society than racism” (39).

Contemporary feminism works under the assumption of intersectionality, a concept first established by the American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (The Telegraph), which tries to highlight that individuals are more than the sum of their variables, such as race, class etc. but can “experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society” (qtd. in The Telegraph). Hooks also picks up issues of class and race when she argues that “sisterhood could never have been possible across the boundaries of race and class if individual women had not been willing to divest of their power to dominate and exploit subordinate groups of women. As long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot fully be realized” (15 ff.).

Millet regards the “economic hold” (39) over women as “[o]ne of the most efficient branches of patriarchal government” (ibid.). Generally speaking, women’s work earns less money, which results in less prestige (ibid. 40). In case of need, they “function as a reserve labor force” (ibid.), hence as cheap labor (ibid. 41). Additionally, women face “[d]iscrimination in matters of hiring, maternity, wages and hours” (ibid.) and are the ones to carry “the burden of domestic care and child care” (ibid.), which is an additional and unpaid job, on top of their regular employment (ibid.).

Millet also suggests a discrepancy between men and women on an educational level visible in the power dynamics of academia. Assuming that “patriarchy enforces a temperamental imbalance of personality traits between the sexes” (42), women’s and men’s interests, or as Millet calls it “cultural programing” (41), will lead them to study different fields of academia, resulting in a division. Academic fields in which men make up the majority, such as science, technology, business and engineering, are not only prestigious precisely because they are therefore deemed as masculine but also cater to “the interests of patriarchal power in industry, government, and the military” (ibid. 42).

To examine the workings of the patriarchy on an anthropological level, Millet looks into “[e]vidence from anthropology, religious and literary myths [that attest] to the politically expedient character of patriarchal convictions about women” (46). Her basic assumption is that the “male has already set himself up as the human norm, the subject and referent to which the female is ‘other’ or ‘alien’” (ibid.). She argues that the image of women is “created by men and fashioned to suit their needs” (ibid.), which are rooted in “a fear of the ‘otherness’ of woman” (ibid.). It shows in taboos regarding woman’s bodily and sexual functions, such as for example menstruation, which are seen as “impure” (Millet 47). The aspect of fear becomes visible regarding women’s sexuality. While female virgins are by patriarchal standards “intact” as men’s “property”, they also “represent […] an unknown evil” (ibid. 48) regarding the loss of virginity.

Millet names Pandora’s box and the biblical story of the Fall as two leading myths of Western culture responsible for the attribution of woman to sexuality and sexuality to evil and sin (51), stating that “[p]atriarchy has God on its side” (ibid.). In the myth of Pandora’s box the man is punished for his curiosity for the female body, which is associated with sexual lust (ibid. 52), when in the biblical story of the fall it is the woman’s curiosity that dooms mankind by taking the snake’s apple, which symbolizes the exploration of her sexuality and is associated with guilt (ibid. 53). Both myths condemn women through their sexuality and explain women’s subordinate position as punishment in patriarchal societies (ibid. 52).

Lastly, Millet explores psychological effects of the patriarchy regarding status, temperament and sex role (54). She names “the interiorization of patriarchal ideology” as the “principle result” (ibid.) on the psyche of the sexes. Millet argues that women suffer from factors regarding their sexualities, such as the general guilt attached to their sexualities, being seen as a sex object and “denied sexual freedom and the biological control over her body through the cult of virginity, the double standard, the prescription against abortion, and in many places because contraception is physically or psychically unavailable to her” (ibid.). She also criticizes “[t]he continual surveillance in which [women are] held [as it] tends to perpetuate [their] infantilization” (ibid.). As, according to Millet, women don’t hold power themselves, they are “obliged to seek survival or advancement through the approval of males […] through appeasement or through the exchange of [their] sexuality for support and status” (ibid.).

One major effect patriarchy has on woman’s psyche is the “devastating effect upon her self image, she is customarily deprived of any but the most trivial sources of dignity or self-respect” (ibid.), rooted in “subtle denigration women encounter daily through personal contacts, the impressions gathered from the images and media about them, and the discrimination in matters of behavior, employment, and education” (ibid. 55). As a result, women internalize a hatred not only of themselves but also other women (ibid.), a concept called “internalized sexism” (hooks 14, emphasis added).

Millet calls women a minority group, not in relation to numbers, as would be true for other minorities, but to their status (55). “[G]roup self-hatred and self-rejection, a contempt both for herself and for her fellows – which she eventually accepts as fate” (ibid. 56) are common psychological effects of discrimination on marginalized people and therefore indicate a woman’s minority status. Millet also mentions how minority groups are judged more fiercely, in case of women for example regarding crimes and the already mentioned double standard, especially about sexual conduct (56). To accommodate to their subordinate status women are forced to use different tactics, such as an ingratiating or supplicatory manner invented to please, a tendency to study those points at which the dominant group are subject to influence or corruption, and an assumed air of helplessness involving fraudulent appeals for direction through a show of ignorance. (57, emphasis added) Millet attests that “universality and longevity” are “patriarchy’s greatest psychological weapon”, as it is successfully “passing itself off as nature” (58) and profits from religion (58).

2.2. Sexual politics of the patriarchal societies in The Handmaid’s Tale and Vox

As stated above, Hannah Arendt argues that governmental power is supported through violence or consent (qtd. in Millet 26). In the dystopian worlds portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale and Vox governmental power is obtained and kept up through violence; here in form of punishment and discipline, which will be further discussed in the third chapter. However, this chapter explores how governmental power is obtained through consent. The societies of Gilead and the Pure state maintain patriarchal power through their class and household or family system, underlying biological and anthropological ideologies, economic and educational policies and the destructive psychological effects these have on the psyche and behavior of the characters, mainly of the protagonists.

The regime of Gilead categorizes its citizens by their function for the state. The class system is divided into social classes for women and classes for men. In Gilead powerful positions are assigned to men as they are the dominant group. The highest class are the Commanders, the “architects of Gilead” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 307), who planned and executed the coup that overthrew the democratic United States of America and implemented the totalitarian regime of Gilead (ibid.). They are assigned to a wife, as well as a Handmaid for procreation (ibid. 304). The same goes for Gilead’s soldiers, the Angels, when they reach a certain rank (ibid. 28). A man’s status is therefore intertwined with his access to women. To the public the Angels are “objects of fear” (ibid. 10). The “Guardians of the Faith” (ibid. 26) rank under the Angels.

The Guardians aren't real soldiers. They’re used for routine policing another menial functions, digging up the Commander's Wife's garden for instance, and they’re either stupid or older or disabled or very young, apart from the ones that are Eyes incognito. (ibid.)

They are the armed (ibid.) police force of Gilead and made up of men that are considered unfit for positions of great responsibility. Though, some of them are “Eyes” (ibid.), so part of a secret police that not only spies on citizens of Gilead but also has the authority to arrest those citizens (ibid. 174) without a need for justification, a theme that will be further explored in the third chapter.

Men’s social classes are permeable, for example Guardians can be promoted to Angels (ibid. 28). Membership in a social class is never stable though as everyone who breaks Gilead’s law can also be demoted, for example homosexual men that are forced be slave workers in the Colonies, unsafe and polluted places outside of Gilead’s society (ibid. 251). In these Colonies, there are mostly women, called “Unwomen” (ibid. 133). They consist of old women, as they are of no use to Gilead, and women who failed the state (ibid. 251). Most women are the Econowives, the wives of poorer men (ibid. 29). They are housewives that “have to do everything” and wear “striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy” (ibid.). Other than that, all women of Gilead are assigned to specific functions, which is also visible in the color of their clothing. The colors immediately display the woman’s status and by that attached privileges or obligations of said person.

One powerful social class of women are the “Aunts” (ibid. 309), who wear a “khaki dress” (ibid. 118), which might be associated to the military. They are a “female control agency” (ibid. 309), responsible for tasks such as the training of Handmaids in the Red Center (ibid.).

Gilead was, although undoubtedly patriarchal in form, occasionally matriarchal in content, like some sectors of the social fabric that gave rise to it. As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove. (ibid. 309)

This quote shows that Gilead strategically uses women to control other women. Even though they are equipped with “electric cattle prods” to use on Handmaids, they were not “trusted” with guns as “[g]uns were for the guards” (ibid. 10).

The novel’s protagonist Offred is a Handmaid, meaning she belongs to a social class with ambiguous implications regarding status. As Handmaids are the only fertile women left (ibid. 304) and Gilead’s main goal is the production of more babies (ibid.) one could assume, that this puts them in a position of power. Instead, they are the property of the high-ranking men. In relation to this position, Offred has a small tattoo on [her] ankle. Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse. It’s supposed to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resource. (ibid. 70)

Her body is marked with an eye, the sign of the regime, which indicates that she is not the property of an individual man, but first and foremost of Gilead’s government. Her tattoo also entails a passport, which introduces the idea of technology as a means for power and control. It ensures that Offred is unable to leave the country, as her fertile body, not she as an individual is a “resource” (ibid.) for Gilead. Using the term “resource” (ibid.) indicates that Offred belongs to the state of Gilead and that Gilead is free to exploit her.

Offred herself refers to it as “a cattle brand” and is well aware that “[i]t means ownership” (ibid. 256). The aspect of ownership also shows in her name “Offred” (ibid. 284).

Her name means that she is ‘Of Fred.’ She belongs to Commander Fred of Gilead for the single purpose of bearing a healthy child. (Armbruster 146)

This underlines her loss of individuality and the clear historical cut the government makes to separate Offred from her former life. Handmaids are now solely seen in relation to the men that own them. Furthermore, it shows the objectification of women. It can be found in many small instances, for example when the Commander’s Wife Serena Joy “put[s] a hand on [Offred’s] shoulder, to steady herself, as if [she’s] a piece of furniture” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 85), instead of a human being.

As stated above, the Handmaid’s purpose is to “be a worthy vessel” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 71). Their goal has to be to get pregnant and bear children. The Handmaids see a pregnant woman as a “[m]agical presence […], an object of envy and desire, we covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can still be done: we too can be saved” (ibid. 32).

In case of a successful pregnancy and birth, Handmaids are awarded by not having to constantly fear for their lives anymore, as they cannot be sent to the Colonies (ibid. 133). Every Handmaid has three chances to become pregnant and will be sent to the Colonies in case of failure (ibid. 251). In contrast to men, the Handmaids’ sex role “excludes them from human achievement, interest and ambition, that could lead to a higher status” (Millet 26). Birthing a healthy baby is the only achievement connected to prestige that is available to them. Being pregnant grants them privileges such as not having to fulfil certain tasks like shopping or being allowed to spend more time outside (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 32). Still, after they give birth to a baby, they continue their work as Handmaids and are assigned to a new Commander (ibid. 132 ff.), so one can argue that it does not in fact change their status in the long term. On several occasions in the novel, Aunt Lydia superelevates the Handmaid’s status by relating to the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, for example when she says that there used to be „lazy women […] sluts” (ibid. 119) and the Handmaids are “pearls” (ibid. 120). According to Millet, depicting women as virtuous, as it is done in this example, has “no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status” (37) and is merely used to disguise “the injustice of a women’s social position” (ibid.), to obscure the patriarchy (ibid.). Thus, in contrast to men, women cannot be promoted but only demoted in this society.

In her work, Millet also criticizes “[t]he continual surveillance” of women in patriarchal societies as it perpetuates their ‘infantilization’” (54). This can be observed regarding Handmaids. Offred claims that she is seen “like a child here, there are some things I must not be told” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 59). Moreover, Handmaids are called girls instead of women (ibid. 34). Referring to the Handmaid’s as “girls” (ibid.) shows that their society perceives them as subordinate, naive and in need of guidance, unable to live their lives on their own terms. In the Women’s Salvaging, a ceremony that will be further described in the third chapter, Aunt Lydia is on stage greeting all the attendees by referring to them as “Ladies” (ibid. 276). According to Offred “[i]t’s ladies instead of girls because of the Wives” (ibid.). In this example social hierarchy clearly shows in language.

As wives of the Commanders, they rank highest among women. As they are unable to become pregnant, they serve no real purpose in Gilead’s society (ibid. 52). They have privileges regarding their spaces, for example they have their own rooms, which even the Commander is required to get permission to enter (ibid. 93), as well as a garden: “This garden is the domain of the Commander's Wife. […] it’s something for them to order and maintain and care for” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 18). Since being a mother is considered to be a woman’s purpose and the wives of Gilead are unable to become pregnant (ibid. 52), Gilead implemented the activity of caring for a garden as a means to redirect the wives’ need for maternal duty.

Offred and Serena, the Commander’s wife, have a complicated relationship that changes throughout the novel. In the beginning they hate each other and Offred is jealous of the other woman’s status but as Offred is pressured into an affair with the Commander, she feels guilty, like an intruder into their marriage and realizes that she should not be jealous of Serena as Serena is unhappy (166). Their relationship can be described as a Madonna-Whore relation and is underlined by their clothing, as Atwood describes in her article for The New York Times (Age of Trump):

The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead are derived from Western religious iconography — the Wives wear the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary; the Handmaids wear red, from the blood of parturition, but also from Mary Magdalene.

It is also no coincidence that Serena’s eyes are blue too, as blue also represents her hostility towards Offred: “her eyes, which were the flat hostile blue of a midsummer sky in bright sunlight, a blue that shuts you out ” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 21). The notion that “sexual arousal is only possible with a sexual partner who has in some way been degraded (the whore) while the adequate and respected partner cannot be fully desired (the Madonna)“ (Hartmann 2335) is taken to an extreme in this novel, as here only the whore archetype, the Handmaid, is able to become pregnant. As Millet states, the outcome of this dichotomy between a Madonna and a whore is envy as well as a competition among women for status and resources, like security, prestige or respect (38). In the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale the showrunner Bruce Miller deliberately casted a younger actress for the role of Serena to highlight the rivalry between her and Offred, making this connection even more evident:

I felt that it was a more active dynamic if Serena Joy felt like this person was usurping her role not only as the reproductive object of the house but gradually taking away the wifely duties, the intimate duties, the romantic, sexual duties (Renfro and Ahlgrim)

Offred is seen as sexy, due to her fertility, though this is not what Gilead intended:

We are for breeding purposes: We aren't concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors are to be wheeled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholes for love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices. (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 142)

Offred’s Commander pressures her into the role of a sexy woman though, for example by making her read and due to that break one of Gilead’s rules:

I felt the commander watching me as I turned the pages. I knew I was doing something I shouldn't have been doing, and that he found pleasure in seeing me do it. […] I felt […] naughty ( ibid. 161 ff.)

He also encourages her to play Scrabble, which is forbidden, as well as to cheat while doing it:

Sometimes after a few drinks he becomes silly, and cheats at Scrabble. He encourages me to do it too, and we take extra letters and make words with them that don’t exist. (ibid. 213)

Offred’s friend Moira, who works as a prostitute in Gilead’s brothel Jezebel’s (ibid. 252) says that Commanders like to bring handmaids to their club as they get a kick out of it. [You] are supposed to be such chaste vessels. They like to see you all painted up. Just another crummy power trip. (ibid. 246)

Referring to a human being as a “vessel” (ibid.) indicates that they are empty in the sense of lacking personality and individuality. It also indicates the possibility of being filled, which can be read in different ways. Firstly, it can refer to literally filling a Handmaid’s body by impregnating her and secondly, it suggests the indoctrination of a Handmaid so she would serve the regime. In the Bible, a Jezebel is a woman that seduces men to sin and by that corrupts their characters. In the setting of Jezebel’s Offred is taking the role of the Madonna, as Moira and the other prostitutes are considered the Whores or Jezebels. Bringing Offred to the brothel can also be seen as an act of corruption. Hence, Handmaids are the Madonna and the Whore at once.

Precisely because the Handmaids are perceived as sexy and unholy, while they should be seen as pure and mighty, is why they face a lot of hatred and resentment from other women. The Marthas, low class women who are responsible for housekeeping (ibid. 16), in Offred’s household think that Handmaids “debase” (ibid.) themselves and are envious of their work as they do not consider it hard work (ibid.). Instead of going after the authority that put them in their low position, they envy and shame other women. In every class, women appear to be miserable in their own way without acknowledging the other one’s pain or they even argue: “Better her than me” (ibid.).

Offred longs for what bell hooks called “sisterhood” (15), for example when she looks for a friend and for guidance in Serena:

I wanted, then, to turn her into an older sister, […] someone who would understand and protect me. […] I wanted to think I would have liked her, in another time and place, another life. But I could see already that I wouldn't have liked her, nor she me. (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 21)

According to hooks, patriarchal societies profit from women being rivals and “estranged” (38) as it prevents them from challenging the patriarchy through solidarity (15). Therefore, “[f]riendships were suspicious” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 76) in Gilead. Gilead tries to prevent sisterhood by categorizing women into different classes, letting rivalry develop and preventing women to reach out to one another, for example through the design of their clothes or spatial division.

The commanders’ methods are both subtle and heavy-handed and bespeak their desire to rationally control any and all natural expression. Handmaids wear floor-length, long-sleeved, immobilizing dresses with headdresses and veils. The headdresses restrict verbal communication and make it impossible to see to the right or left, while the veils make it impossible to see ahead. (Armbruster 148)

The headdress intentionally impairs a Handmaid’s vision and forces her to keep a distance to everyone she is talking to due to its size.

During the Women’s Prayvaganza, a wedding ceremony, “lower-ranking women” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 217) such as Marthas and Econowives are placed in galleries above, while the wives and daughters of high-ranking officials and officers sit on chairs on the right side. The Handmaid’s area is cordoned off with a […] robe, […] This rope segregates [them], marks [them] off, keeps the others from contamination by [them], makes for [them] a corral or pen; so into it we go, arranging ourselves in rows, which we know very well how to do, kneeling then on the cement floor. (ibid.)

This spatial division clearly illustrates the class as well as interpersonal division among the women. Handmaids are treated as special comparing to other women while they are also reminded of their duty to be submissive and serve the state by kneeling.

While Offred acknowledges that “there will always be alliances” (ibid. 136), when Janine helps her, she knows that “[i]t didn’t mean she wouldn’t testify against us, any of us, if she had the occasion” (ibid. 138) underlining that as long as women have to fight each other for the tiniest bit of power or just survival, by “using class […] power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot fully be realized” (hooks 15 ff.). Women do not emphasize and connect through classes, which shows when Offred assumes that wives think that Handmaids “don’t have the same feelings we do” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 219).

Still, Offred feels there are little instances of sisterhood, for example when the Handmaids support Janine in her labor. Here, Offred remembers her feminist mother and thinks: “You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now here is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies” (Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale 133), showing that though Gilead’s cult of mothers might appear women-centric, it has in fact resulted in a “women’s culture” (ibid.) that is not contributing to uniting women – with this exception.

However, there are women, like Aunt Lydia, who view this society as a Utopia for women and sisterhood, which shows in her speech addressing the Handmaids:

For the generations that come after […] it will be so much better. The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we will no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round. There can be bonds of real affection […] Women united for a common end! Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task. Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn't reasonable or humane. Your daughters will have greater freedom. (ibid. 167).

While Aunt Lydia seems to understand that this utopian vision is not in place yet, she is sure that it will become true in the future. To her, categorizing and classifying women is a tool to support and unite women, as they relieve each other of work. She thinks that what this society is “aiming for […] is a spirit of camaraderie among women” (ibid. 224), when this analysis so far showed that it is not the case, but instead the opposite is true.

While women serve different functions in The Handmaid’s Tale, Vox portrays the return of the docile silent housewife of the fifties to the present society of the United States. A conservative fundamentalist Christian movement called the “Pure Movement” (ibid. 1) expands across the United States of the present (ibid. 17) as a backlash resulting from the cultural shifts in modern society regarding gender politics (ibid. 326). A supporter of the Pure Movement argues:

We don’t know who men are or who women are anymore. Our children are growing up confused. The culture of family has broken down. We have increases in traffic, pollution, autism rates, drug use, single parents, obesity, consumer debt, female prison populations, school shootings, erectile dysfunction. That’s just to name a few. (39 ff.)

The quote shows the alienation and overstraining citizens feel due to an increasingly complex society. The Pure Movement wants to reinstall binary gender roles, as the supporters struggle with gender identity issues and “don’t know who men are or who women are anymore” (ibid.). This might also refer to dissolving gender roles or to genderfluid and transgender people, both topics of the third wave of feminism which anchors Vox thematically in the present.

When the Pure Movement takes over in the elections (ibid. 17) and installs the Pure state, all women are forced to wear “word counters” (ibid. 1) as a means of social control. In this sense, the word counters can be compared to the Handmaid’s tattoos. Unlike the Handmaid’s tattoos, however, the point of the word counters is not to mark the women as property, but to prevent them from speaking more than one hundred words per day (ibid. 14 ff.). Here, modern technology is used to induce electrical shocks to women who exceed this quota (ibid. 87).

The novel describes how in a slow process increasingly more people in the U.S. start wearing a small pin on their collar or dress demonstrating their membership in the Pure Movement (ibid. 66 ff.). Jean, the protagonist of Vox, assumes the pin is “a symbol of solidarity” (67) for the Movement. It is small, inconspicuous and understated, a “single letter P in bright blue” (66) with a silver framing (ibid.), which underlines how the Pure Movement expands in the country - slowly and for the most part unnoticed. (ibid. 18) Jean describes the blue as “quiet” (ibid. 67), which could reflect the forced silence of the women wearing it as well as the quiet and non-violent takeover of the Pure Movement. This also alludes to the threat of unforeseeable forces undermining our liberal society. Regarding the color, blue can be associated with quietness, passivity and purity as it is the color of the Madonna. The pin marks a high status in society and it is perceived as an honor every citizen of the Pure State can earn by spreading and supporting the Pure Movements ideology through volunteer work (ibid. 67). Jean knows that the “P stands for ‘Pure’—Pure Man, Pure Woman, Pure Child” (67), which shows that everyone can and should aspire to earn one by acting in accordance to their sex role prescribed by the Pure Movement’s religious ideology. Coercing people to act in accordance to their sex role like the Pure state does, is problematic since it relies on a binary system of women and men, that does not exist (ibid. 43) according to Gender theorist Judith Butler. In her text Gender Trouble, which was originally published in 1990 and is therefore a text of the third-wave of feminism, Butler argues that there are no fixed categories of men and women (44), as “gender is [socially] constructed” (43) meaning that no person is born a man or woman but becomes one within the context of their society, which is related to societal expectations and power structures (ibid.). As stated by Butler, the binary framework for both sex and gender are considered throughout as regulatory fictions that consolidate and naturalize convergent power regimes of masculine and heterosexist oppression. (44)

Applied to Vox, it means that the Pure state maintains its power by propagating the notion of two fixed categories for men and women, which Butler considers “fiction” (ibid.). By being limited in expression of their individual gender identity, the citizens of the Pure State are being oppressed by the state.

In the Pure state, the ideal Pure men are the breadwinners (ibid. 25), decisionmakers (ibid. 101) and leaders of their families and society. They enjoy a high status and the respect of their community. This goes back to an earlier model of the family, before the women’s movement of the sixties empowered women to earn their own money and be decision makers. Kate Millet’s theory of sexual politics is based on the society of the fifties and sixties and influenced the women’s movement of this era, which is why it is a good fit for this analysis.

Pure women are supposed to embrace their sex role as docile, silent and obedient housewives (ibid. 82 ff.) that take care of their families and do housework. One recurring example of a Pure woman is “Donna Reed” (ibid. 39), the actress that shaped the image of an ideal housewife of the fifties. Though Pure women are respected for being docile and pure, they do not enjoy any privileges and have the same daily word quota as any other women, which shows that their status is in fact still low in contrast to men’s. The Pure state obscures this fact by portraying them as extraordinarily good and virtuous (Millet 37), a technique Millet mentions in her theory of sexual politics.

When Jean explains her dislike for the role of women according to the school textbook of her son Steven, he argues that women are depicted as virtuous, which should please her. In the book it is stated that a [w]oman has no call to the ballot-box, but she has a sphere of her own, of amazing responsibility and importance. She is the divinely appointed guardian of the home. […] She should more fully realize that her position as wife and mother, and angel of the home, is the holiest, most responsible, and queenlike assigned to mortals; and dismiss all ambition for anything higher, as there is nothing else here so high for mortals. (ibid. 51)

Here, the Pure Movement uses religious symbols and expressions to paint women as “divinely […] guardians” and “angels” (ibid.) and therefore better than regular humans or men. The regime not only puts women on a pedestal to obscure the fact that it takes their right to speak from them but also to justify their exclusion from “all ambition” (ibid.), such as in the work force. The Pure Movement portrays being a housewife as a higher calling from God. Steven comments this book extract with “See? You’re queenlike” (ibid.), which shows that he is convinced by the Pure Movement’s ideology regarding sex roles. Similar to Gilead’s ideology, bearing children is therefore a goal of Pure women. Women are pressured into marrying as “single women who had no families to take them in […] couldn’t […] live on their own with no words and no income. They were given a choice: marry or move to a cathouse” (ibid. 121). Even though the theocratic Pure state believes in the “culture of family” (ibid. 40), they accept the infidelity of men (ibid. 121), while women are punished for infidelity (ibid. 121). Jean calls this a “double standard” (ibid.), a modern expression in feminist discourse to describe “any code or set of principles containing different provisions for one group of people than for another, especially an unwritten code of sexual behavior permitting men more freedom than women” (Dictionary). By pressuring women into being a housewife or a prostitute (ibid.), the Pure Movement encourages the binary idea of women as either the Madonna or the Whore.

Examples for the Madonna archetype in Vox are Anna Meyers, the president’s wife and Olivia King, Jean’s neighbor. According to Jean, “[t]he first lady is supposed to be [all women’s] model, a pure woman, steadfast at her husband’s side in all things, at all times” (ibid. 37). Through analyzing Anna’s body language and relying on her husband Patrick’s intel, Jean comes to the conclusion that Anna is in fact unhappy and suicidal (ibid.). While Olivia seems to have “become the purest of Pure Women, always rocking on her porch with her abridged and annotated Bible, always covering up her curls, always smiling and bowing—actually bowing—to [her husband] when he pulls their Buick into the driveway” (ibid. 41), she shows her aversion against the Pure Movement when she fights the guards that capture her daughter Julia (ibid. 148). In the end, Olivia even commits suicide by inducing electrical shocks from her word counter to herself (ibid. 190). Therefore, she used the object the Pure State used to control her, to break free from the Pure State’s control. Her death symbolizes the failure of the image of the perfectly pure wife. Both women are miserable in their roles and only perform their gender identity to a certain point, as is expected of them.

The Madonna-Whore dichotomy is illustrated best when Jean’s college friend Jackie Juarez, who is a feminist author and an activist for women’s rights (ibid. 9), debates three Pure women on TV (ibid. 39 ff.). They are arguing about feminism with Jackie being a representative for contemporary feminism and the Pure women for the fundamentalist doctrine of the Pure Movement (ibid.). Jackie wears a red suit, which makes her look “like Satan” (ibid.) to Olivia. Whereas the blue pin of the Pure women is linked to the quietness, passivity and purity of the Madonna, the red of Jackie’s suit is loud, aggressive, bold and linked to sin the Whore archetype and relates to the red attire of the Handmaids. Red is further associated with blood, such as menstrual blood, which is seen as “impure” (Millet 47) in patriarchal societies. This makes Jackie an “impure” (Millet 47) woman, the antithesis to the Pure women of the Pure state. Just as the Handmaids red cloaks, Jackie’s “red [suit] stood out like a suppurating sore amid the other three women, drab and dull in their pastel twinsets” (ibid. 39). Pastel colors, such as the “baby blue” (ibid.) of one of the women’s cardigan are associated with softness, innocence and femininity. The colors the women wear reflect their behaviors in this debate. While Jackie’s demeanor comes across as aggressive as she is “ranting” (ibid.), the Pure woman in the cardigan smiles and addresses Jackie as “dear” (ibid.), which Jean recognizes as her being condescending (ibid.). Still, [n]o one in the studio audience was paying attention to Jackie’s claims of skewed statistics, of the correlation-causation fallacy, of the fact that of course no one was taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in 1960, because they didn’t exist. That was how it started. Three women with a stack of pie charts and people like Olivia. (ibid. 40)

This quote shows how the women specifically spread wrong information by appearing nice and relatable to women in the audience, such as Olivia. Instead of being critical of how women are pitted against each other by instrumentalizing them for the Pure Movement, Jean contributes to this lack of “sisterhood” (hooks 15) by blaming Olivia and “women like her” (Dalcher 40) for her current misery. This also shows when Jean thinks about how Jackie would assess Olivia: “[Olivia]’s what Jackie would have called a Kool-Aid head, content with her place in the hierarchy: God, man, woman. Olivia had drunk up the poison, every last drop” (ibid. 34). “[P]oison” (ibid.) here refers to the Pure Movement’s harmful ideology regarding gender roles. She looks down on Pure women as they seemingly are not intelligent enough to understand the harm they cause.

There are more instances in which Jean fuels this perceived dichotomy of clever and independent women, like her and Jackie and docile and unintelligent women, like Olivia and the Pure Women in the TV show by making sexist comments. For example, when she calls the three women that argued with Jackie “seventies-era Barbie dolls” (ibid. 40). Jackie does the same, for example when she calls female supporters of the Pure Movement “Susie Homemakers. Those girls in matching skirts and sweaters and sensible shoes going for their Mrs. degrees” (ibid. 20 ff.). In this statement Jackie reveals her disregard for housewives and her own misogyny when she makes a petty comment about their attire. One could therefore argue, that it is the Pure Movement, as well as Jean herself, who create a division between women that harms the women’s mental health and sense of sisterhood but profits the maintenance of patriarchal power because there is no way a resistance movement will form. Jean misses feeling close to her family, friends and especially girlfriends. She recalls that they used to stay up late talking. We used to linger in bed on weekend mornings, putting off chores and reading the Sunday paper. We used to have cocktail parties and dinner parties and summer barbecues when the weather turned. We used to play games—first, spades and bridge; later, when the boys were old enough to tell a six from a five, war and go fish. (ibid. 7)

Like Offred, Jean dwells in the memories of her former life, when she “used to have girlfriends” (ibid.). These memories are triggered by specific situations, for example when the doorbell rings, which reminds her of when she used to have guests (ibid. 38). Now, that women are no longer allowed to read and say more than one hundred words per day (ibid. 14 ff.) there are no more “book clubs and coffee chats; [when Jean and her girlfriends] debated politics in wine bars” (ibid. 7). Now, she lacks this sort of connection, as she cannot express herself through language anymore due to the Pure state’s restrictions. When she witnesses a situation at the supermarket in which two women try to communicate non-verbally and are captured by guards for that, Jean understands that [t]hese two [women] they were close-knit, tight. It was that tightness […] that was the problem. You can take a lot away from a person—money, job, intellectual stimulation, whatever. You take her words, even, without changing the essence of her. Take away camaraderie, though, and we’re talking about something different. (ibid. 30 ff.)

Jean realizes that the Pure state actively tries to prevent female bonding as the resulting isolation will make women lose their sense of self, which makes it easier to control them. To Jean, sisterhood or as she calls it “camaraderie” (ibid. 31) is the most striking pillar to her identity. She tries to reach out to her friends, such as Dr. Claudia, as she wants “a partner in silence” (ibid. 69), another woman who suffers under the same regulations and understands her pain, but she soon comprehends that they cannot share their thoughts, so she never reaches out to her again (ibid. 70). Jean also feels alienated from her family, particularly her daughter. She states:

I hate that the males in my family tell Sonia how pretty she is. I hate that they’re the ones who soothe her when she falls off her push-bike, that they make up stories to tell her about princesses and mermaids. I hate having to watch and listen. (ibid. 27)

Jean cannot bond with her daughter like the men of her family can, which makes her feel like a lousy mother (ibid. 26). She wants to actively help Sonia but is forced into passivity by her circumstances. Just like in Gilead, the Pure state not only intentionally destroys relationships between friends but also unintentionally attacks the bonds between mothers and their children. The difference is, that in Gilead biological mothers are separated from their children on purpose while the pure state’s proclaimed intention is to have mothers care for their children but at the same time, any true parenting on the mother’s side is impossible due to the limitation put on women’s speech.

According to Millet, the patriarchy mainly operates through the family with a male head linking it to the society to establish a cooperation and stabilize patriarchal power (33). This aspect is well portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale, as Gilead installs a Commander for every household:

Household: that is what we are. The Commander is the head of the household. The house is what he holds. To have and to hold, till death do us part. The hold of a ship. Hollow.” (Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale 87)

This quote by Offred shows that she sees herself and all people of this household as the property of the Commander while also stating that this property is “[h]ollow” (ibid.), which could be interpreted as serving no real purpose and by that being pointless. Throughout the novel it becomes visible that the Commander’s powers are hollow and pointless, as he cannot reach true happiness through it. On the contrary, it becomes apparent that the Commander is “sad” (ibid. 146) because of the isolation and loneliness which come from his status on top, for example, when he wants to be kissed by Offred like she means it (ibid.). This scene displays his need for touch and love and a companion. Because his wife does not understand him (ibid. 162), he tries to find this companion in Offred by allowing her more freedoms, such as playing Scrabble (ibid. 144) or even asking her about her opinion, but in the end, she cannot give him the intimacy he wants (ibid. 214), because of her lower status and consequently possible repercussions. Offred knows that the privileges she has when talking to him semi-freely, playing boardgames (ibid. 159) or reading magazines (ibid. 160) in his room are only temporary and even though she might not be afraid of him anymore, she knows that her status had in fact not changed thereby she cannot stop acting in accordance to her sex role: “For him, I must remember, I am only a whim” (ibid. 164). Millet argues that in patriarchal societies women have to use strategies to gain power, for example pleasing the dominant group to accommodate to their subordinate status women (ibid. 57). Offred does not play boardgames with the Commander or read magazines for her own pleasure, but to please the Commander, as “[h]e likes to think [she is] being entertained” (ibid. 187). While Offred would like to use these new privileges like reading a book for herself and have some privacy, she knows that it is not about her and her needs, but a performance for him (ibid. 188). She, as well as the rest of the household, completely relies on him: To be a man, watched by woman. It must be entirely strange. To have them watching him all the time. To have them wondering, What’s he going to do next? To have them flinch when he moved, even if it's a harmless enough move, to reach for an ashtray perhaps. To have them sizing him up. To have them thinking, he can't do it, he won't do, you’ll have to do, this lab as if he were a garment, out of sight or shoddy, which must nevertheless be put on because there's nothing else available. (ibid. 94)

This quote shows the pressure under which the Commander is as the head of the household, as well as the lack of power of the women in his household. He does not have to explain or justify his actions to the women, so they have to anticipate every move of his and have to “see in darkness”, whereas he is in a position to do as he pleases on a whim and “strains blindly forward” (ibid. 94). “If he were to falter, fail or die” (ibid.), the women had to fear for their lives and future. Offred concludes that being in the Commanders position must be “hell” and “just fine” (ibid. 95) at once.

As Commander, a man has ownership over every woman in his household, but it becomes especially visible regarding his handmaid. Handmaids have tattoos on their ankles, functioning as “a cattle brand. It means ownership” (ibid. 256). Since the Commanders are not only heads of their household but also directors of the Eyes, the secret police, and the founders and official council of Gilead (ibid. 311), they are the link “between the family [as in household] and the larger society” (Millet 33).

Just as the Commander is the head of his household in Gilead, the husband is the head of his family in the Pure state. It is said that “[t]he head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (Dalcher 34). This is a hierarchy that is viewed as the “Natural Order in the Modern Family” (ibid.) and funded on fundamentalist Christian principles. Ideologically, this hierarchical family structure is also based on historical concepts such as “the [old Greek] idea of public spheres and private spheres, but it goes back further. […] hunter-gatherer communities.” (ibid. 51). In the Pure state, women are excluded from the public sphere, such as the government and work field and assigned to the private sphere, the family and home.

As “the family’s head” (Millet 33) a man has ownership over his wife and children (ibid.), a concept Jean’s son Steven has internalized. This becomes clear when he grants fathers a right to dictate their children’s lives, for example when he talks about marrying his girlfriend Julia with Julia’s father rather than Julia herself (Dalcher 101). Even if he wants to, Steven would not be able to have this conversation with Julia as she is wearing the word counter (ibid. 66) and therefore barred from having an extensive conversation. Steven believes that in their marriage Julia will be in the private sphere, taking care of the household, while he will be in the public sphere working (ibid.). In this vision of the future he sees himself as the decision maker while “Julia will go along” (ibid.) with those decisions. As she could not communicate her own standpoint or argue with him due to word limitations, she would have no other choice but to accept his decisions, which is exactly what the regime wants for all women. Steven accepts his high status in the family’s hierarchy the same way his younger sister Sonia accepts her low status, which shows in the picture she draws of her family (ibid. 92).

Instead of standing next to Patrick, or even at the far end of the family line, bookending our kids, [Jean is] fifth. After my husband, after Steven, after the eleven-year-old twins. And Sonia has made [Jean] smaller than everyone except for her.” (ibid.)

This shows that Sonia sees herself as the lowest-ranking member of her family. She also understands that in this society women in general rank lower than men, which is why she draws her mother smaller, even though she is technically taller than her twin brothers. The picture also shows that in this society marriages are not a partnership between two equal adults, but a hierarchy with the husband as superior and the wife as inferior. All men, regardless of their age, have a higher status than all women in this hierarchy, which illustrates that gender is seen as the most important defining characteristic of a person in this society. It further shows that male supremacy is based on “the acceptance of a value system” (Millet 27).

In contrast to their children’s beliefs Patrick’s and Jean’s marriage is for the most part not structured hierarchically. Patrick values his wife’s opinion, for example when he asks her about her professional opinion on their daughter’s development (Dalcher 2) and backs her up, when Steve dismisses her opinion (ibid. 101). Jean’s temperament is not in accordance to her sex role, as she does not act docile and submissive, but dominant and sometimes even aggressive, attributes encouraged in men and not women in the Pure state. One example of this is her behavior when Reverend Carl Corbin, the religious leader of the Pure Movement, visits Jean’s and Patrick’s home and subtly requests a glass of water (ibid. 46). Jean realizes that Corbin expects her to serve him water, as this is her duty as wife (ibid.). As an act of defiance, not only of him personally but of the Pure Movement’s ideology, she asks her husband to serve Corbin water, which he does (ibid.). While women’s speech usually differs from men’s speech in that it “tends to be more conservative, more ‘standard’ and more ‘polite’ than men’s speech" (Edwards 134) in order to “gain status through the use of more standard forms" (ibid.), Jean swears and acts in a hostile manner towards Corbin by making snarky comments (Dalcher 81). Still, Jean’s temperament does not negate the fact that there is at least an underlying hierarchy in her marriage.


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Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum. Reading Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and Christina Dalcher's "Vox" in Dialogue
University of Dortmund
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Anonymous, 2019, Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum. Reading Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and Christina Dalcher's "Vox" in Dialogue, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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Title: Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum. Reading Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and Christina Dalcher's "Vox" in Dialogue

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