Friday, February 15, 2013

Marquette Gender and Sexuality Resource Center: Demonizing Men

From Facebook, notice of an event that will be starting about the time we post this:
Come and join the GSRC and Dr. Gerry Canavan in a group discussion of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.”
This, of course, is from the Marquette Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, the same people who brought the campus FemSex.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a feminist dystopia. More detail is provided by a synopsis of the movie based on the book:
In this dystopian fable, a librarian wife and mother becomes the childbearing pawn of a Christian theocracy. In the near future, as war rages across the fictional North American Republic of Gilead and pollution has rendered 99 percent of the female population sterile, Kate (Natasha Richardson) sees her husband killed and her daughter kidnapped while trying to escape across the border. Kate herself is transformed into a handmaid -- a surrogate mother for one of the privileged but barren couples who run the country’s fundamentalist regime. Although she resists being indoctrinated into the bizarre cult of the handmaids, which mixes Old Testament orthodoxy and misogynist cant with 12-step gospel and ritualized violence, Kate soon finds herself ensconced at the home of the Commander (Robert Duvall) and his frosty wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway). Forced to lie between Serena Joy’s legs and be penetrated impersonally each month by the Commander, Kate longs for her vanished earlier life; she soon learns that since many of the nation’s powerful men are as sterile as their wives, she may have to risk the punishment for fornication -- death by hanging -- in order to sleep with another man who can provide her with the pregnancy that has become her sole raison d’être.
This, of course, plays to all the prejudices of feminists -- the notion that “religious fundamentalists” (you know, those people who oppose abortion) want to oppress women, and further men want to reduce women to mere brood matrons excluded from all activities other than producing offspring.

Aside from the naked ideological bias, there is a huge irony here.

Just which males in American society oppress women? Those who want them to bear children? Those are the guys who want to marry a woman and create a family and be a father to the children.

But then we have the guys who just want sex. Perhaps they actively don’t want the woman to be pregnant, since that comes with all kinds of hassles (pressure to marry, child support, the need to leave the state). Or perhaps they just don’t care, knowing that they are not going to be responsible for the children they create anyway. Just have a good roll in the hay, and don’t worry about the consequences, which you can usually avoid.

Out in the real world (if not in the fever swamp of feminism) women are a bit more opposed to abortion being legal than men.

But feminists have blinders that won’t allow them to see this. Recognizing this reality would be to admit that women and men have a common interest in forming families. That’s not an effective way to demonize men.

Further, this kind of “knock her up and evade the consequences” mentality is especially common among black males. Over 70% of black babies are born out of wedlock. But blacks are a politically correct victim group, and admitting that black females are victimized by black males creates too much cognitive dissonance. Black males have to be victims too. Better that the oppressors are while males, especially Christian white males.

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” in other words, is hate speech. A similar book that demonized blacks, or illegal immigrants, or homosexuals would be instantly recognized as such. We think the First Amendment protects hate speech, but this doesn’t require that Marquette University promote it.

[Update]

Check out the comment from the leader of the discussion (which has been postponed) Gerry Canavan. He promises a more critical and nuanced view of the text than it typically receives.

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9 Comments:

Blogger E2 said...

The saddest part of all this is - Dr. McAdams is the only voice publically decrying the explicitly anti-Catholic activities of the "GSRC", Dan Maguire etc. etc. etc. Why is this we wonder? Thank you, Dr.McAdams!

4:13 PM  
Blogger Gerry Canavan said...

Regrettably, the event had to be postponed, but my notes for the workshop begin the discussion by raising exactly the issues with the text you raise here.

I'm sure that you and I would find plenty to disagree about with respect to this book, but the event was not planned as a one-sided celebration of either Atwood or The Handmaid's Tale. I also don't find the book to be quite so one-sided as the synopsis of the movie suggests -- it's actually a very ironic text, even parodic of the dystopian situation it presents -- but that's another issue that can be endlessly debated and discussed.

All the best.

5:29 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

Thank you for chiming in, Gerry. If I have been unfair with regard to what you intend to do with discussion, I apologize. But you understand the context when something is scheduled by the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.

I also frankly wonder whether you are not bringing more subtlety to the interpretation of the book than the vast majority of readers do.

But if you are going to raise issues about some of the overwrought feminist assumptions behind the book (or at least which appear to be behind the book) then good for you.

Just out of curiosity: do you have any independent evidence that it's "parodic of the dystopian situation it presents?" Is it really making fun of overwrought feminist notions about a Christian theocracy? Some works unintentionally parody themselves, as I'm sure you know.

Has the author given any hints that it somehow is not to be taken at face value?

9:44 PM  
Blogger Gerry Canavan said...

Well, the second epigraph for the book is from Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (a favorite reference of Atwood's; she does the same thing with Oryx and Crake, which also starts with a quote from Swift and which people also often misread as flat and one-sided). The book also ends with a bizarre appendix called "Historical Notes on the Handmaid's Tale," which is set about a hundred years after the events of the novel at an upscale academic conference on Gilead Studies; mocking liberal academic sensibilities in a way I think you'd probably find quite pleasing, actually, it depicts a group of academics who have no genuine interest or investment in the plights of the people they study but who are rather primarily concerned with self-promotion and with when the catered lunch will be served. The primary effect of this section is to completely suck all the urgency out of the main narrative, and leave the first-time reader scratching their head about what the point was supposed to be.

The plot of the book as a whole has an uneasy relationship to the kind of dystopian literature we usually think of when we imagine that type of story. Its main character is utterly passive, and almost completely disinterested in any kind of resistance (or even the events taking place around her). Much of the book could actually pass for a parody of a dimestore bodice-ripper, rather than science fiction or anything resembling a real "prediction." The book steadfastly refuses to do any of the kind of world-building you'd need to do to make its narrative situation remotely plausible. I’d argue it's really best read as a satire, not some unvarnished or simplistic diagnosis of What's Wrong with Those Bad People.

Even the terms that are offered up when the book is reduced to its summary (or flattened into a very bad movie) don't really hold up when the full work is considered in its totality. There are bad men in the novel, but also good men, and (most commonly) men in between; the book-burners here aren't theocrats but radical, second-wave feminists looking to outlaw pornography. The story concerns a theocracy, true, but it's never explicitly or uncomplicatedly said to be a Christian one. Both Catholics and Southern Baptists are on the "good" side of the civil war, fighting *against* the theocratic forces, and the historical referent she has in mind for s sudden transformation from a secular society to a theocratic one is Iran.

I don't mean to suggest the main thrust of the book is "making fun of overwrought feminist notions about a Christian theocracy"; I don't think it's making fun. But the book really doesn't intend the situation it depicts to be some literal depiction of either a possible future, or what Christians would do if only they could; the book is extremely unrewarding when read in those terms. I should know: the first time I read the book my response was almost identical to yours, and I still have a paper I wrote then that advances the very points you make here. (I was actually going to quote from this paper at the workshop.) But having read the book three times now, at three very different points of my life, I find it much subtler than that reading would allow.

I also don't mean to suggest that Atwood's politics aren't feminist and leftist. They absolutely are, very much so. The book makes the case that both contraceptive rights and abortion rights are essential for female citizenship, that female inclusion as citizens is literally impossible without them. You and she would probably not agree on very much. But I would nonetheless argue (and would have argued at the workshop) that the best way to read it isn't as simplistic, anti-male hate speech. It's much richer than that, even if its politics would still ultimately be something you find incompatible with Catholic values.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Gerry Canavan said...

Of course it's certainly possible most people who read the book have a flatter response than this. (That's something interesting to talk about as well: to me it suggests that the book could be described as a kind of failure after all.) But I personally find there's plenty of room for critical and balanced engagement of the text; the book's politics are emphatically leftist, but it really isn't propagandistic, and isn't very satisfying when read as if it were.

12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More concerning than the book in question (which I, unlike Dr. McAdams, have read) is that a tenured member of Marquette's faculty is so quick to make broad, sweeping, and serious accusations about the content of the novel without actually reading it.

This alumnus is of the thought that even were the book to be 'anti-catholic' (it isn't) or 'anti-male' (also not true) that it still warrents consderation and discussion in a university setting.

2:23 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

>>> quick to make broad, sweeping, and serious accusations about the content of the novel without actually reading it. <<<

Would I have to read a Ku Klux Klan tract, or a holocaust denial book to make "broad sweeping accusations" about it?

Have you read either kind of literature? Would you hesitate to condemn them?

2:37 PM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how a KKK tract compares to Handmaid's Tale. The KKK is an organization with a mission that it makes clear in means beyond any individual tract--Margaret Atwood, though I appreciate her work, is hardly an institution unto herself. And to the possible rebuttal that "feminism" is an institution with a clear mission, Margaret Atwood has often declared herself to *not* be a feminist. One of her later novels, Cat's Eye, is autobiographical in describing an aging female artist who doesn't appreciate that other, younger, feminists keep reading her work as part of their agenda.

8:23 PM  

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