Sexism, Feminism, and Symbolism in The Handmaid’s Tale: A Comparative Analysis
Sexism and Stereotypes in Oryx and Crake
No matter which way a person may look, films and other sorts of media will find a way to be sexist towards women. Sure, there may be upcoming films with a female lead, but there will always be a character in that film who will try to bring the female down by making sexist comments. In Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, sexism is one of the biggest themes, with women throughout the book having stereotypic features, beautiful faces with amazing-looking breasts, and being known to work in the adult industry. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, females in the totalitarian universe have little to no freedom while having to serve a dominant male. My paper will primarily focus on the allegorical, symbolic, metaphoric, and allusion of both sources. Why are women viewed the way they are? How is it that we have come so far to achieve women’s rights, yet films and works of literature do not reflect that?
Objectification and Stereotyping of Women
In this essay, I will be focusing on the feminist/ sexist perspective on the books Oryx and Crake & The Handmaid’s Tale (both written by Margaret Atwood) and the television show The Handmaid’s Tale. Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes, while feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory or, more broadly, by the politics of feminism. It uses the principles and ideology of feminism to critique the language of literature. Sexism is the prejudice or discrimination based on sex/ behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.
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Oryx’s Tragic Backstory
In the novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, females live in a society that is predominantly male-dominated. Women are looked down upon and seen more as prizes/objects. In fact, Atwood had written the book Oryx and Crake during the second wave of feminism in 1960-1970. She suggests that society should stop thinking about pornography as entertainment and hereby highlights the importance of asking critical questions such as “Is pornography a power trip rather than a sex one?” An instance of women being portrayed as weak in the book is Jimmy’s mother. He enjoyed causing chaos, and as a result of his ‘tantrums,’ it caused him to treat his mother with less respect. “When he cannot receive praise, he will cause a reaction from his mother until he pushes her to a breakdown.”
Other instances of women having been overly sexualized (by exaggerating female body parts) or given the stereotypical persona include the main characters’ teacher. She was given the nickname Melons mainly because she had a large set of breasts. The main character or the classmates couldn’t be bothered trying to remember her real name since he was focused on her chest. Another example is that Jimmy (the main character) believes that the women at his workplace can only offer their bodies and not their intelligence, even though the women are scientists. The protagonist of the book seems to be judging women solely based on their physical appearance and not on their personality. “He considers women to be objects that he can choose from rather than an equal person to himself.”
The Handmaid’s Oppression and Symbolism
Relating to only caring about the female physical attributes, one of the main examples of women being objectified in the novel is Oryx’s backstory. She was brought into the adult industry at a very young age, approx. Eight years-old. She had gotten to that point because she was reluctantly sold to a man in exchange for money and as a ‘source of income.’ She worked to sell flowers out on the streets. Her boss had given her a device that would keep an eye on her at all times.
One day during her shift, a strange man had taken her up to a hotel suite to do some inappropriate actions. Thankfully, because of the device, her boss came in just before anything illegal would happen, but sadly, because the stranger gave the boss money so no information would be leaked, the boss had let this scenario happen multiple times to gain more money. After that day, she realized that everything could be sold, from flowers to bodies.
Time passed, and the boss’s business had been sold, and all of the girls working had been sold to 4different distributors to work in different fields. Oryx and other girls had gotten jobs to work in the adult film industry. She had shot pornographic videos that were uploaded onto the web and were found by Jimmy and Crake.
The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to portray the dissolution of the United States, in which a civil war is fought in order to make women ‘malleable to men’s desires. They must submit to their socially determined roles or be seen as ‘demons” (Callaway). In the post-war totalitarian society, women are stripped of their rights. They’re converted to the religious-based ideas of the new society, where they will be Handmaids. Because the handmaid’s actual name is taken away, it is replaced with the word “of” followed by the name of the Handmaid’s Commander (for example, Commander Name: Luis Handmaid’s name: Ofluis). Women who have intercourse have to execute it emotionless with high-powered men in order to provide society with children.
The women are oppressed by being put into different colored dresses that are meant to represent their social status. The Handmaids wear red dresses that are designed for adultery, and their clothing reflects that and symbolizes all blood; blood is not only life but death. The Daughters wear white until marriage, which symbolizes innocence and purity. The Wives wear blue, a color associated with Mary, the Madonna, symbolizing their ultimate role as mothers – but pure mothers, ones who have not conceived themselves but rear the children anyway.
The Aunts represent themselves as motherly mentors to the Handmaids, guides on the path to successful assimilation into Gilead. Handmaids are personal affronts to the Wives; they are continual reminders of the Wives’ failures to conceive.
- Atwood, M. (2003). Oryx and Crake. McClelland & Stewart.
- Atwood, M. (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Callaway, A. (2017). ‘This Is Not a Day Care’: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the Coming-of-Age Dystopia. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(4), 977-1001. DOI: 10.1086/690950
- Gammon, L. (2019). Re-reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘Oryx and Crake’ in the Era of CRISPR-Cas9: Constructing Gene-edited Bodies and Social Identities. New Genetics and Society, 38(2), 187-207. DOI: 10.1080/14636778.2019.1572549