There is a link between participatory media and consent. Unless you’re in a Clockwork Orange type situation the audience always has the option of disengaging with a work of art. We can put down the book, walk out of the theatre, turn off the television. By making the active choice to continue engaging with a work we are giving it permission to work within us, enact itself upon us. Our minds are vulnerable things, especially when we give them permission to be. The instincts that allow us to fantasise are the same that let our minds open to attack.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a gross book, almost a horror novel, there were times reading it that I felt physically ill. Yeah, sure it’s a satire, it’s speculative fiction, the proposed opinions are certainly not those of Margaret Atwood, but I could feel them in my mind. Sure, you can take a step back, look at it academically see that it is rooted in a sort of 80’s feminism in the same way that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is rooted in the insecure masculinity of the 60s. The ideas though are there, and they’re poison.
The novel revolves around America, after conquest by a radical, conservative, theocratic element. Women’s place in society has been reduced, they are once again the property of men, forbidden from reading, writing, educating themselves. A rigid caste system has been put in place, to combat a declining birth rate some women are assigned the role of handmaidens: stripped of their name by society, and their body by virtue of the clothes they are instructed to wear, they are assigned to men, for a two year period, in order to bear them a child.
We’re five years into the new order, everyone remembers the way life used to be, everyone seems to long for it, those satisfied seem to be the ones high enough up the chain to gain exemption from the stifling order of the world, although they too try to make their excuses. The horror ain’t so much in the world, it’s how all these characters seem to be numbly accepting of it. Our narration comes from Offred, first person, she is offered little opportunity to talk, and the veils they are required to wear, for modesty of course, disrupt her ability to perceive.
It is the narration of a mind imprisoned, atemporal and playful, delighting in its distractions and asides they provide a relief from the everpresent monotony. It’s a tale of very little indecent, you’re going to get about halfway through before things actually start happening, even then they’re determined to unfold around the margins of a life too restrictive for notable events. In the gaps we fall back in time, memories of a life before, memories of a husband, of a daughter, gaping psychic wounds from an earlier life.
A character says at one point that creating a better world, ‘doesn’t mean better for everyone.’ The unasked question is why, time and again, it’s women who get the rum deal?
Now, the book reminded me of a favourite game of mine, am I sure boring. Analogue: A Hate Story was released in 2012 by writer and designer Christine Love. About spaceships and the 13-18th century misogyny of the Korean Joseon dynasty, the player is tasked with reading the writings of a long dead ship’s crew in order to discover the truth behind the craft’s mysterious disappearance. It’s another piece of art which basically asks how and why weaponised patriarchy works, although this one ends up with all the patriarchs dead. It’s a happier ending.
Whatever, it feels frivolous to be bringing up this game, and indeed many of Love’s games touch around similar themes, when talking bout one of the seminal novels of the eighties. However Love towards the forefront of today’s queer games scene, and her writing is gonna be way more appealing to queer audiences, and the way they’re delivered, how gendered power can be asserted or disrupted through technology. It’s sweet stuff, a nice companion to Atwood’s poetics.
Course Atwood’s book bursts into fire in that last chapter though, it’s like she turns all the hurt of the previous tale and turns the blast straight at the male academics who annoy her, those who believe themselves so distant from the image of white male supremacy that they just blunder their way right in. It’s a good message nowadays, all these youtube idiots who couldn’t possibly comprehend the damage their words do, when it obvious they perpetuating the worst of us. Y’all’s little president shooting off his own goddamn mouth.
Whatever, read The Handmaid’s Tale, play Analogue: A Hate Story, remember how bad it can get, and how unassuming the perpetrators are.