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Female Identity in the Context of a Patriarchal Society in the Handmaid’s Tale, Thesis Paper Example

Pages: 11

Words: 2999

Thesis Paper

“Under His Eye – Patriarchy and Masculinity.”

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale explores numerous thematic concerns that affect societies, such as female exploitation. Atwood uses satire throughout her writing to ensure she relates well with her target audience by depicting the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. In this regard, it portrays a world where women are valued only for their fertility and are subject to near-constant rape by the men who rule them. The protagonist, Offred, is a woman who spends her life having sex with a man she does not love, the Commander-in-Chief and bearing his children, yet she has no choice but to obey his commands or face death at his hand. The story is about a future America is under the rule of fundamentalist Christians, who impose a brutally misogynistic society. In this society, women are stripped of their rights and forced to serve as “handmaids,” or sexually enslaved people, for the few men in power. The novel also illustrates many other women who have lost all hope and have begun to accept their role in this society.

Women in society face numerous suppressive and oppressive treatments from the males, which shows that female identity is among the major themes in Atwood’s novel. The concept of female identity is evident in different instances where Atwood criticizes the systems of male power. As a result, the author illustrates the constraints of feminism by explaining the challenges that females in the novel, including Offred, face at the hands of males. (Tolan 47). The novel clearly portrays the issues of women repression as well as the disunity of the social system. Based on the theme of gender, Atwood’s work offers prolifically distinctive clarifications concerning all the issues regarding gender roles, equality, female perception, and overall societal expectations of the female gender. There is a high chance that the socio-economic exploitation of women differs on how the whole society sees the position and relation of women and the male gender (Tolan 65). By using her critical global dialogue, Atwood has spelled out assertions regarding the position of women in society.

Patriarchy

The feminist theory states that women are usually viewed as subordinates to men (Pease 17). That is what makes the patriarchal social system and men’s unequal power over women. The social setup of a patriarchal system is that men are given more power than women (Cuesta and Del 59). Based on a broader explanation of this context, we can term patriarchy as a type of Greek or Roman law of leadership where men usually get the best treatment as they are rendered head of homes. They are further granted ultimate legal rights and freedom of maintaining and controlling the social-economic systems of families and society (Tolan 88). Being given these mandates, powers, and roles, men feel they have higher capacities, and in the end, the level of male dominance goes up.

Furthermore, the novel illustrates how society places high power on males by bestowing their specific roles and responsibilities, such as providing financial administration to women. Most male characters in the novel have higher authority than females in similar capacities who do not have the mandate to utilize such powers. For example, a male with an equivalent social rank as Offred has more control over her (Tolan 32). However, it does not mean that women have no role in society or are powerless. In such a patriarchal society, a manifestation of the female gender gets comparative analogies relative to having lesser everything in terms of rights, freedom, power, and less influence (Roland 80). Also, when it comes to social-economic resources, women tend to be limited compared to men. The Gilead system of governance is militaristic since men are viewed as exploitive (Tolan 14). In a patriarchal system, men usually dominate women, repress them, and socially exploit them. Concisely, such a system articulates the roles of women to be designed and established based on their ’inferiority’ as a weaker gender compared to men. Irrespective of all this, one is born either a man or woman in Gilead (Swayer 99). Therefore, it determines the position and role one has to render to the sexist system that disregards and undermines women.

Gilead is a hierarchical society in which only males have access to quality education or even the constitutional right to bear guns, and they are the only ones who may own properties, hold jobs, or occupy governmental roles. Women are considered second-class individuals and are subject to men’s rule (Tolan 52). They are not permitted to write or read. The totalitarian system is also reinforced in the same way as it conforms to the patriarchal patterns. Both Offred and Serena Joy represent the two extremes of female antagonists. Offred is a victim subjected to Serena Joy’s abuse (Tolan 52). She is ‘marked’ by her red dress, a symbol of purity. She has been forcibly impregnated and has no choice but to submit to the will of her oppressor. On the other hand, Serena Joy appears to be a typical housewife with a beautiful home and luxurious lifestyle (Tolan 108). She can do as she pleases, choosing to take advantage of women in dire situations for personal gain.

The prerequisites for a patriarchal system can be traced back to how Gilead’s society divided roles and functions depending on several factors. For example, it began with a simple acknowledgment and admiration of fertile women despite their lack of worldly possessions. Another feature based on Gilead’s family was a societal organization. Slavery against women and assigning more significant positions and ranks to men were also prevalent. Gradually, the flawed perceptions of women as being a “weaker” gender transformed into sexual subordination (Tolan 52). Women, after all, are seen as lower beings in society, even though married and fertile women are accorded a more excellent status. This means that women who do not have children are considered cursed. As a result, infertility concerns are prominent in the novel, as are all of the issues in Gilead’s patriarchal society that he observes.

“The Structures of Patriarchy”

The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood exhibits clear and logical patriarchal structures. These include domestic chores or housework patterns, societal culture, gender and sexuality, social-economic violence, state government, and occupation. While these aspects work differently, they display various structural forms of patriarchy that exhibit causal effects on each other, thereby adversely affecting the social dynamics between both men and women across the society (Tolan 44). Therefore, it is vital to understand those patriarchal structures to explain gender relations and sociological differences within society.

Systematic housework patterns are one of the visible patriarchal structures in The Handmaid’s Tale. The subjugation of women and their being assigned to domestic work closely links with the patriarchal social-economic status (Walby 45). Some chores, which include shopping, housekeeping, and preparing meals, are deemed to be the women’s responsibility. In the context of Gilead, a handmaid is a woman whose sole purpose is to bear children for her commander and his wife, as they are unable to do so themselves (Tolan 56). Handmaids are forced into sexual servitude as a last resort when it is determined that they can conceive.

Occupation or paid work patriarchal structure can also be seen in the discussed novel. In Gilead state, women cannot secure better jobs. Atwood explains that society does not hold value for women but instead ties their value to childbearing. Females who do not bear children are looked down in the community. Women in Gilead are regarded as unskilled, and once they secure a job and are paid, they are assumed to have less workload within their households and hence are tasked with many responsibilities at the workplace.

Based on The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead is divided into states that oversee the effective running of the society. This setting works to accomplish patriarchal objectives in social and political contexts by ensuring males maintain a higher social standing in the community compared to females. Gilead has had several transitions over the years, but women are still experiencing challenges such as getting fired even after securing jobs (Tolan 187). Besides, the growth led to the development of male-led unions and initiated legislation that pushed for the massive firing of employed women.

The Handmaid’s Tale portrays gender-based violence, which is evident in the patriarchal society in Gilead; for example, Offred encountered several incidences of violence from her spouse. Males in the community have propagated extreme behaviors that seek to oppress females, for instance, disrespecting them at home and even at the workplace. In Gilead’s social setting, violence is common in every stage and place, including government premises and private locations. Most people in this society tolerate violence against women, and hence it has progressed to almost something legal (Barret and Amy 17). Therefore, the state’s failure to institute legal action against social evils like gender harassment, domestic flights, and rape subject women to more suffering at the hands of males living in Gilead.

In terms of social behavior and relationships, society has different standards and expectations between men and women, which forms part of sexuality’s patriarchal structure portrayed by Atwood in her novel. Women in Gilead have no voice-over verdicts made by society about sex (Atwood 12). While sex is a psychological or emotional process, society does not view it as a private topic of concern, but it looks more like a patriarchal system. Many communities do not give women the opportunity to control their sexual pleasure or the capability to decide on reproduction and bearing children (Abeda 14). Instead, the male gender view and female gender as sexual objects for satisfaction.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood also points out the patriarchal cultural structure. The Gilead’s society relies on religious ideologies to drive many of their practices (Tolan 109). It notes that many patriarchal principles founded on the cultural context structure are found in today’s norms, like meaningless gynecological operations in western culture. Therefore, there are different values and standards for men and women within the social setting, and they tend to depict women as lesser than the male gender.

Masculinity

The  Handmaid’s Tale presents different levels of negative masculinity; for example, most men in the novel are either part of the ruling class or are rebels fighting against the regime. The story also clearly distinguishes between females and males, with the latter being more powerful and influential than females (Corrigan 154). The novel portrays men in the ruling class as abusive and ruthless towards females. They manipulate, control, and use them for their own needs, such as satisfying their sexual urges. The handmaids are treated as property and are expected to breed children for elite families (Sawyer 26), mostly executed through rape and a forced sex system, thus making it hard for them to resist the abuse.

On the other hand, the rebel men are compassionate and protective. They care for the women in their lives and want to help them escape the oppression they are facing. These men are also willing to risk their lives to save the women they love (Corrigan 154). The contrast between these two groups of men highlights the different attitudes towards masculinity in the novel. The ruling class men see women as objects to be used and controlled, while the rebel men see them as equals who deserve respect and protection (Sawyer 26). This contrast is an integral part of the story and helps to show how oppressive the regime truly is.

Masculinities can be categorized as hegemonic since they have everything to do with a class of men within a historical context. It can be wealth or power in a position and how men use that advantage to generate dominance (Corrigan 154). Many societies are biased toward men rejecting femininity which is a form of unfounded solidarity among the misogynists (Kimmel (19) and Tyson (84). The community does not expect male-gender to cry freely, show gentleness, or portray weakness since those traits are associated with the feminine and are not masculine characteristics (Sawyer 26). The state of Gilead prefers wealth and systematic power positioning, dominated by the male gender.

Hegemonic masculinity can be understood by looking at potency, provision, and protection pillars. It is noted that displaying the power of being in charge, heroism, tenacity, and courage is taken by many societies to represent masculinity and all that tends to segregate women (Gilmore 34). Looking at masculinity in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred (a woman) in the Gilead’s community has no voice-over men like successful commanders. She agrees that she has had to endure violent treatment, repressive, discriminative, and oppressive acts from the masculine gender or men. For example, Offred’s ability to bear children is misused when she is forced to bear children for the barren. In most cases, women are considered to be the lesser gender as they are trfaditionally treated with minimal significance to the community (Roland 446). Therefore, they are worthy of fewer-social economic parts within the community. In the Gilead state, the female gender has no voice in the republic, making them vulnerable to violence.

On the other hand, masculinity regarding men in Gilead is connected to social-economic benefits, authority and power, fear, and conditional respect. Furthermore, masculinity can be seen in how men control women. However, the benefits and privileges the male gender enjoy come with huge costs like physical harm or emotional suffering (Pease 10). The women end up suffering so that the males can have their freedom and maintain their social status.

Traditional gender roles

Men are expected to be robust, rational, determined, and assertive, according to traditional gender roles. As for women, they are viewed as weak and emotionally vulnerable; subservient; nurturing, and emotionally vulnerable. As a result, civilizations have used this as an excuse to continue discriminating against women in the workplace and in society. According to Offred’s narrative, the masculine gender is more dominant than the female gender in political and social circumstances (Cuesta and Del 12). Women are portrayed as being subordinate to the male gender, and in many countries, men are only marginally concerned with the feminine gender. Men are perceived as reasonable and superior in power based on the concept of masculinity, and as a result, they participate in decision-making that is prejudiced in favor of women (Tolan 65). Gilead is a place where women are exploited and subjugated to slavery to further men’s interests. Conversely, men are held in great regard for both power and authority. Furthermore, this dominance is reflected in the power structure of the stated republic, which is often controlled by the commander in chief.

Atwood emphasizes on the republic’s use of Aunts who act as watchdogs by collecting spy information leading to more focus on male nature since they were involved in many activities. In addition, men were also showing their gender by incorporating the aristocratic manner that rules the state. However, women have traditionally been regarded as emotional creatures and can endure too many forms of hostility. Women hardly fight for their freedom and right but instead get involved with weak tools like written materials. Based on the Gilead society, women are seen as nurturing human beings who are only supposed to sire kids for their husbands (Tolan 34). Every woman is expected to be fertile enough, and if she does not give birth, she is regarded as an outcast and good for nothing being. It is for this reason that Offred recounts one of her best memories, if not the only one she has, when she married Luke and gave birth to her daughter, as described below.

“Lying in bed, with Luke, his hand on my rounded belly. The three of us, in bed, she kicking, turning over within me… I am not frightened. (Atwood 113).”

Simply, the division of gender roles should at least impact society positively. Men are usually presumed to be bold and confident in a social setting which gives them dominating power. While society expects women to be respectful, obedient, and raise responsible offspring.

Conclusion

The predominance of a patriarchal society within the Gilead regime has resulted in the development of inhumane dynamics regarding the interpersonal interactions and relationships between men and women. Women are perceived and treated as inferior to men considering that their rights and freedoms have been suppressed across all contexts of the society, including leadership, decision-making in the family, and sexual roles and obligations. The result of such a social injustice is the deprivation of identity for women. As such, Atwood’s novel depicts the current forms of governance across the globe that are founded on totalitarianism and patriarchy. Although both men and women have made tremendous efforts toward eradicating the social injustice of sexism, there is still more that has to be done, especially in the third world nations, concerning the involvement of women in politics, leadership, and governance.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood on what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’means in the age of Trump.” The New York Times 10 (2017).

Barco Cuesta, Jorge del. “Patriarchy and Masculinity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” (2018).

Barrett, Betty Jo, Amy Peirone, and Chi Ho Cheung. “Help seeking experiences of survivors of intimate partner violence in Canada: The role of gender, violence severity, and social belonging.” Journal of Family Violence 35.1 (2020): 15-28.

Carrigan, Tim, Bob Connell, and John Lee. “Toward a new sociology of masculinity.” Theory and Society 14.5 (1985): 551-604.

Drury, Benjamin J., and Cheryl R. Kaiser. “Allies against sexism: The role of men in confronting sexism.” Journal of Social Issues 70.4 (2014): 637-652.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1-11: 26. Vol. 1. b&h publishing Group, 1996.

Needham, Maria Sian. Locating lost masculinities in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Diss. Manchester Metropolitan University, 2015.

Pease, Bob. “Disengaging Men from Patriarchy: Rethinking the Man Question in Masculinity Studies’.” (2015).

Roland, Erling, and Thormod Idsøe. “Aggression and bullying.” Aggressive Behavior: Official Journal of the International Society for Research on Aggression 27.6 (2001): 446-462.

Sawyer, Jack. “On Male Liberation. ‖ Feminism and Masculinity, edited by Peter F. Murphy.” (2004): 25-272.

Sultana, Abeda. “Patriarchy and women s subordination: a theoretical analysis.” Arts Faculty Journal (2010): 1-18.

Tolan, Fiona. Margaret Atwood: feminism and fiction. Vol. 170. Rodopi, 2007.

Walby, Sylvia. “From private to public patriarchy: the periodisation of British history.” Women’s Studies International Forum. Vol. 13. No. 1-2. Pergamon, 1990.

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