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White-washing oppression in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

White privilege is rarely manifested in intentional, positive acts. It is, in Peggy McIntosh's terms, "invisible," "unearned," and "cashed in each day" ("White Privilege and Male Privilege" in Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror [Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997]: 291). To be White is to be the norm, universal. This norm functions automatically, and unless the universality of White experience is explicitly questioned or subverted, racial distortions may appear even against the conscious intent of an author.

Such distortions appear throughout Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (NY: Houghton-Mifflin, 1986). Atwood attempts to offer an archetypal account of female exploitation, but the stand-in for this universal experience is Offred, a White, college-educated American. Offred would seem an unlikely victim, but at no point in the text does Atwood acknowledge that sexism in America has, generally, been modulated by forms of race and class oppression, nor does she acknowledge the parallels between her own story and the experience of Black slavery. Because these historically-specific oppressions are removed from their broader context, the Tale drifts from speculative fiction, which is anchored in reality, into conceptually suspect and politically hazardous fantasy.

Atwood's dystopia is set in the late 20th Century, when a cadre of fundamentalist Christians have overthrown the U.S. government and created the theocratic Republic of Gilead. Due to an unexplained fertility crisis, the government has impressed unmarried women of proven fertility into a state of sexual servitude. Many others work as domestic slaves in an autarkic, inefficient command economy. Women are forbidden to read or to meet without supervision. The novel thus places particular emphasis on the most persistent forms of female victimization: the sexual exploitation, isolation, and compelled ignorance that accompany severe economic and political powerlessness.

These forms of victimization do not function in a vacuum, and in the United States they have been associated most strongly with the enslavement of African-Americans. Forced procreation arose from widespread slavery associated with plantation agriculture, particularly during in the 19th Century, when the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was on the wane and industrialization increased the demand for raw materials. This form of abuse followed a specific vector, from the White slaveholding man to the Black enslaved woman.

In The Handmaid's Tale, victimization does appear to function in a historical and causal vacuum. The Republic of Gilead is an all-White enclave, and Blacks are erased from the novel in a single line, cloaked in Old Testament euphemism:

"'Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,' says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. 'Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit.'" (83)

While the demand for Black slaves had a well-established economic cause, Offred is forced to copulate because of the novel's two ill-supported pretenses: the coup, which is glossed over in less than a paragraph, and the nebulous, unexplained "fertility crisis." These are clearly fantastic rather than speculative devices, and it is only by this inventive leap that Atwood can write a White professional into the position of a Black slave.

The restrictions on reading and assembly in the Tale are similarly contrived. Tight controls on literacy have been the norm throughout Christian history, but these controls have not been exclusively gendered. The hegemony of Latin into the 16th Century functioned as a form of class oppression. In the Antebellum South, restrictions on literacy were based on race, not gender, and here Atwood again draws from the precedent of Black slavery without acknowledgement. The novel is understood to be a transcript of a recitation given by Offred on the night of her escape into Canada. In the slave narrative genre, the "orality" of the text owed to the illiteracy of the narrator, or to the fact that the narrative was recited for a gathered crowd. Offred, a former librarian, is highly literate, and she is speaking to a tape recorder. This orality has the putative function of letting Offred's fate remain unknown to the reader. However, its deeper function is precisely the opposite. Leaving Offred in suspension, without access to paper, allows Atwood to maintain the increasingly dubious parallels to the experience of slavery.

Atwood's intentions for writing The Handmaid's Tale are noble, and most readers find it smooth and convincing. It is thus an object lesson in the pernicious character of White Privilege--a well-written, imaginative, and humane novel can nonetheless hide the link between racism and sexism. In fact, Atwood's exercise of racial privilege is more problematic because of her talent. She deftly parodies the clumsy language of racial propaganda and offers a convincing portrait of the placid, banal evil of the religious extremist. The intersection between race and sex is itself hidden in plain sight, in the improbable but extremely sympathetic Offred, and only a cad would greet her with suspicion.

Ben Merriman, University of Chicago.
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Title Annotation:Margaret Atwood
Author:Merriman, Ben
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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