Performing Dystopian Imaginations
Before there was a Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, there were Offred and Moira of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Both story-worlds imagine similar outcomes for a future post-American reality, exploring life within democracy-turned-totalitarian societies as expressed from the perspective of some of its most oppressed and vulnerable bodies: children and women.
The anxieties and fears that such imaginative worlds tap into resonate all too well with our contemporary political-economic climate, especially within the post-2008 recession experience. It comes as no surprise that today’s young adults are hyper-concerned with starvation, poverty, and class-conflict, as expressed in the popularity of dystopic fantasy and sci-fi in YA (young adult) literature. While critics say that such literature is merely a form of escapism, we could just as easily say that these imaginative “other” worlds present opportunities for readers to explore parallels and find emotional resources for critical push-back on their lived realities.
So what exactly does The Handmaid’s Tale offer both Generation Z and those of us interested in the intersections between feminism and religion?
The facts speak volumes: The Handmaid’s Tale is number 37 on the ALA’s list of the 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990-1999, continuing to spark controversy over its use in US classrooms for being “sexually explict and offensive to Christians.” It has been translated into 20+ languages and is required reading for scores of Canadian students, as well as being a staple for feminist studies. Its outreach has been extended through its production into a film (1990), an opera (2000), a ballet (2013), and it will soon be made into a graphic novel.
The work has retained its currency within feminist discourse due to its focus on Offred, an enslaved woman who is forced into the role of handmaiden, or surrogate mother, for infertile elite couples that lead the theocratic dictatorship that is The Republic of Gilead. On the one hand, Atwood’s work is first and foremost a critique of totalitarian regimes. However, its value for feminist conversation lies its attention to the suffering of female bodies and her interpretive point that women’s bodies are one of the first places where power is displayed in totalitarian regimes.
One question was on my mind before I saw the premiere of the ballet interpretation by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet on October 19th, 2013: how might this wordless medium impact the way in which one engages in feminist interpretation of the story?
For one thing, the stage and physical bodies rendered the most visceral aspects of the novel into sharp awareness. It is one thing to read about fictitious hangings, giving birth, and sexual violence, but it is another thing to see it enacted with bodies in time with throbbing beats and discordant harmonies. While much was cut and pieced together from the novel to make the performance fit the 2 hours, certain aspects seemed to speak volumes through this medium without requiring any knowledge of the book.
For example, Offred’s tragic friendship with Moira caught my attention more than the depiction of Offred’s relationships with men. I was particularly struck by the sickened Moira’s rejection of Offred at club Jezebel’s, the last resort for women to avoid going to the polluted Colonies by serving as sexual entertainment for the Officers. From a feminist perspective, it had me wondering what obligations the oppressed have towards one another. On the one hand, we can pity Offred for her grief over the broken friendship, yet we can also intuit that Moira has suffered a great deal to have ended up in such a condition at Jezebel’s: all of this is spoken without a word. It brings to mind parallels with how current systems of oppression force people to turn against one another in the name of survival.
As I sat and watched the suffering of marked bodies on stage, I could not help but wonder whether we as the audience were not intended to be a representation of the complicit populous that leads to such oppression. It is not immediately apparent to viewers that the story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chosen by Atwood in order to highlight that a place that prides itself on secularity was once a location of Puritan theocracy, and could be once again, as the story imagines. Atwood has noted that different groups respond to the story in one of three very situated ways: “It can’t happen here.”; “Can it happen here?”; or “How much time do we have before it happens?” With this in mind, perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale can be a vehicle for us to critically examine how we remain complicit in the oppression of others, whether economic, political, religious, and/or social in nature.
As I overheard many in the audience say during intermission, the book itself is a hard read to stomach. Someone said, “I got so mad I wanted to throw the book at a wall, but not because it was bad, but because it was so terrifying.” Many even admitted to their friends that they had never read the book, but their presence as a willing and captivated audience to this performative interpretation speaks volumes to the need for a variety of modes of invitation into this story-world. Not only can The Handmaid’s Tale appeal to young adults and fans of dystopian fiction, but it can also help us get mad enough to ask: How do we stop this from happening? How do we as feminists and those engaged in religion respond to the mirror that The Handmaid’s Tale imagines for us?
The Official Page of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB): The Handmaid’s Tale