Feminism as we know it began in the mid 1960's as the Women's Liberation Movement. Among its chief tenants is the idea of women's empowerment, the idea that women are capable of doing and should be allowed to do anything men can do. Feminists believe that neither sex is naturally superior. They stand behind the idea that women are inherently just as strong and intelligent as the so-called stronger sex. Many writers have taken up the cause of feminism in their work. One of the most well known writers to deal with feminist themes is Margaret Atwood. Her work is clearly influenced by the movement and many literary critics, as well as Atwood herself, have identified her as a feminist writer. However, one of Atwood's most successful books, The Handmaid's Tale, stands in stark contrast to the ideas of feminism. In fact, the female characters in the novel are portrayed in such a way that they directly conflict with the idea of women's empowerment.
On the surface, The Handmaid's Tale appears to be feminist in nature. The point-of-view character and narrator is a woman and thus we see the world through a woman's eyes. There's much more to the story than that, though. Atwood doesn't show us our world. She shows us a newly created world in which women lack the freedoms that they currently take for granted. This dystopian society is completely controlled by men. Of course, the men have help from the Aunts, a crack team of brainwashers that run the reeducation centers and teach the handmaids how to be slaves. These characters really don't speak well for womankind for two reasons. First of all, it's difficult to tell who their real life counterpart is, assuming that this...
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...st writers. It's obvious that Atwood intentionally set herself apart from these writers with The Handmaid's Tale. At times, she seems to disagree with them completely, such as when she shows pornography in a favorable manner. At other times, she portrays feminists themselves as the powerful women they would like to be seen as, but it's always with full disclosure of their human frailty. Atwood never bashes feminism. Instead, she shows both sides of it. Like everything else in the novel, feminism is shown to have good and bad elements. Even in Atwood's brave new world, there is no black and white.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1985.
Moore, Pamela, Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid's Tale. Boston, MS: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
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