I’ve seen a lot of scathing remarks over the years about “PC language.” Usually in reference to someone defending the rude or degrading comment they just made. They follow it up with the idea that somehow being politically correct limits their ability to freely express themselves. For the sake of discussion, I’m going to argue that the language we use is important, and that it does influence how we interact in society. One doesn’t usually categorize “Chik-Lit” as quality reading. The genre, usually written by women, is defined by the female-centered plot, sexual intrigue, girl-time and happy endings. Take The Handmaiden’s Tale for an example.
The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is about a woman in a repressive regime that actively treats women as property. The narrator is a “handmaiden,” a fertile woman who has been given to one of the “commanders” of this regime to have his children. Fertility is a prized commodity, and handmaidens are viewed as spiritual icons in this extremely religious government. This is not the point of the story, however. I’ve been putting off writing this blog post because, quite frankly, this book scared the shit out of me.
It’s set in an alt-history 1990s. It narrates how quickly society devolved into a place where women have to cover their toes and certain women must cover their faces. A quote from the beginning sums up this new social order quite nicely:
“There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from.” Freedom from sexual assault. Freedom from paying taxes. Freedom from choosing a husband. Freedom from making their own decisions.
The narrator describes how one day she was simply laid off from her job, and the next cut off from her bank account, and how change happened so quickly based simply on who held the power in congress. The book is deliberately vague about what happened. Instead, she focuses on how seemingly powerless women were to fight back, how there was no one person to protest against, how the men seemed to sit by and let this happen.
The concerns of women are nudged aside casually, almost imperceptibly.
After her bank account is frozen, the narrator’s husband comes home from his job and comforts her, “I’ll take care of you.” The narrator’s husband has no idea what his own wife is feeling, and says the thing she least wants to hear. There is a disconnect established between the sexes in this book that feels very real. I think this gets much closer to what the conflict of the novel is about.
Our narrator is eventually smuggled to safety, and within the last few pages it’s revealed to the reader that these were ‘recordings’ that have survived over time and are now in the hands of academics who study the struggle of the narrator. They have just given a presentation on the history of this anti-woman regime and the lecturer is giving closing remarks. He jokes about her plight. They question the validity of the story, despite the recordings.
Despite the harrowing experience we just read, the narrator’s honesty is still being questioned by these academics separated by space and time. And that is what frightened me about this book.
It’s often said that female experiences aren’t valid until a man experiences them. For example, this thread on Twitter:
Do you think a woman writing about the same thing would be given as much consideration? If I know the internet- and I do – her experience would be subject to endless vetting. Maybe he just had an easy week. Maybe he has more experience. Maybe you just need to deal with it. Maybe you could work faster. When was the last time you got a raise?
Though that might be unfair. The internet is a hostile place to be a woman. I saw enough backlash on my Facebook feed to know that people thought the Women’s March was too much. “Don’t women know they already have equal rights?” But not the right to march in support of other women, apparently. Of course, to have the right and to have the support are two totally different things.
It’s like “Freedom to” and “Freedom from.” They’re both freedoms, sure, but their meanings are very different.