Being in love with either / or

The Power / The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid's Tale affirms the liberal left's worldview, while The Power challenges it.


As is well known, the US Congress is discussing a new health reform. What we do know for sure is that the new reform – if it comes – will have a negative impact on women's right to self-determination regarding abortion, so the question now is to what extent. It is both fascinating and repulsive to see what proposals come on the table, including Vice President Mike Pence suggesting that all women who want to have an abortion should be forced to see an ultrasound image of the fetus and hear its heartbeat. This law is also part of an anti-abortion law he has already introduced in Indiana, where he was previously governor.
In this political climate came the dramatization of Margaret Atwoods The Handmaid's Tale (1986) as ordered for the opposition. The series depicts a United States capped by a religious extremist group called "The Sons of Jacob," inspired by the biblical story of Jacob having children with his maid. The country has also been given a biblical name – "The Republic of Gilead" – and "Gilead" all reflect happiness, harmony and eternity. Classical Orwellian narrative, in other words. Gilead is hit by a climate crisis, as well as women's reproductive abilities have been weakened to a minimum. The few who can still have children are therefore designated as maids, handmaids, for the powerful men of the republic. Gilead is a strictly patriarchal society in which all women have a defined role to support men. With a kind of justification in religious texts, men have all the power over women. Does it sound familiar?

To give women the ultimate power to abuse, the electrical shocks from the women's fingers have the ability to both cause pain and give men an erection.

The Handmaid's Tal
The Handmaid's Speech with Janine (Madeline Brewer) on the left and Offred (Elisabeth Moss).

"Gender traitors". Something that resonates a little less with our worldview is a society where women have power over men. This is the state of Naomi Alderman's The Power. The plot assumes that women have been given a special power that allows them to harm men by sending electrical signals through their fingers, not unlike the service women at Atwood are subjected to by their superiors, except that they use electric shock weapons. When the women in The Power discover that they have this power, society is radically changed, but in no way for the better.
To compare The Power with The Handmaid's Tale is an exciting exercise. Margaret Atwood has been a consultant for Alderman herself, and she is the first to be thanked in the book's thank-you list. Both stories are about societies where gender is a defining factor, which, perhaps logically enough, results in an intolerant attitude toward those who do not fit into one or the other booth. In both books (and in the TV series), LGBTQ people are labeled as "gender traitors" and they operate with deterministic understandings of gender, although in The Power it is a point to turn these on their heads, for example in this quote: «There are advertisements on hoardings now, with sassy young women showing off their long, curved arcs in front of cute, delighted boys. They're supposed to make you want to buy soda, or sneakers, or gum. ”

Safe dichotomies. While it is very easy to take The Handmaid's Tale to income for the liberal left's positions, as many cultural journalists have been doing lately, The Power gives more resistance. For my own part, this became clear when I observed my own reactions to the various rape scenes. In the dramatization of The Handmaid's Tale, the story is naturally presented more graphically, and both camera, scenography and direction lift the atrocities off the screen and into the stomach. But strong reactions can also be obtained from written accounts, and there are many of them The Power. To give women the ultimate power to abuse, Alderman's electric shock has gained the ability to both cause pain and give men an erection (often at the same time). In the book, she describes incoming female soldiers painfully raping men, but when I read this I was struck by my weak reaction. Maybe because it feels so much less credible than rape of women but maybe also because a tiny little part of me saw some kind of justice in this.

This is an unpleasant field to enter, but is there not a certain risk that we, the left-wing liberals, can contribute to a more gender-divided society, with terms such as mansplaining and manspreading, or with safe spaces for women? The Power og The Handmaid's Tale shows how one gender distances itself from the other by giving a whole group a set of traits that are essentially different from their own. Racism and sexism have historically spread in this way, and this type of rhetoric is also used to separate the various groups in The Handmaid's Tale from one another. For example, we hear this in one of the many unbearable scenes in the series: The protagonist Offred stands in the kitchen and is offered a cake by a group of wives, and as she receives it, one says: "Oh, isn't she well behaved ". Offred struggles to swallow the piece of cake, and when she is allowed to leave the room, she hears another whisper: "Little whores, all of them, but still, you can't be choosy."

Groupthink. Since I had these thoughts on gender and language in mind for a while, I responded to a news article that appeared in The Independent yesterday. The headline read: "Swedish music festival to be female-only 'until all men learn how to behave themselves'". Isn't this the same kind of rhetoric that the liberal left is constantly attacking the conservative and alternative right-wingers to apply to women, non-westerners, LHBTQ people and so on? Could the prevalence of such a generalizing and degrading language have helped me to respond less to a cruel rape of a man than of a woman? The Power opens up these troubling questions by turning the power dynamics of The Handmaid's Tale on its head.

Atwood's work is a warning against the slippery transition, the small offsets.

In the TV series, actress Elisabeth Moss is a brilliant incarnation of the service woman Offred, with her sense of being what Immanuel Kant warned against: only a means, rather than a goal and a value in itself. Moss's talent brings out Offred's complexity: She tries to protect herself by not showing her disgust with the new community she is a part of; she must constantly work to keep the madness and suicidal thoughts at bay; She holds onto fading memories of the past, but she still has the ability to feel lust and see the beauty of life. She is the opposite of the service woman "protector" Aunt Lydia, who is "in love with the logic of either / or" (quote from the book). The ruling women of The Power also fall in love with either / or the dichotomy, and that's because "certainty feels safe". Having a clear enemy feels safe. In The Power, too, there are people who do not accept this line of thinking, and they witness how effectively it creates war and conflict.

Normalization. In the wake of The Handmaid's Tale, there has been a debate about whether it is unreasonable to compare the series with today's United States, when, for example, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria have communities that are much more similar. I think it is important to avoid an overly ethnocentric debate, which is a problem in more cases than this, but I still perceive Atwood's work and its dramatization as a warning against the slippery transition, the small shifts.
In the series, the United States is taken over by Jacob's sons in a faster and more dramatic way than in the book, but while it may be better suited to a more loud and violent takeover of a TV drama format, I think it breaks with the book's message. Atwood wrote the novel in 1986, just 13 years after abortion became legal and homosexuality was removed as a psychiatric diagnosis in the United States. There is much to indicate that in The Handmaid's Tale she will show that the struggle for what had then become normal is not over, but that it is constantly threatened by small and large changes in language, attitudes and politics. Establishing abortion clinics and relief organizations now because they no longer receive federal support is not as bad as IS- and Boko Haram-ruled communities, but Atwood's work can be used to warn of a dangerous development. When the protesters in the Women's March have divorced "Make Margaret Atwood fiction again" it's not because they think the US is like Gilead now, but that they recognize themselves in the sense that the rights they have almost taken for granted are being threatened , and that the normal state is slowly changing. "This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a while it will," Aunt Lydia tells Offred in a widely quoted passage.

Pleasant indifference. In both The Power and The Handmaid's Tale, it is the Hobbesian forces that rule. Both describe societies where violence and oppression have prevailed due to a social contract that has broken down, as a result of a demonization of ethnic groups. At Atwood, people do not rebel against this breach until the train has left; they trust too much that the new authorities want them well, and that the state of emergency they have introduced is in their own best interests. It is comfortable to continue as before; to go from their jobs and home to the TV and the family, right past the few who go on demonstration trains, without taking part. But suddenly it's too late.

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