Over the last couple weeks I read two very interesting books centered on the future of humankind and concerns of population control. Both proposed these extremist views of birth, life and death in the wake of a post-apocalyptic Earth.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, by Maragaret Atwood, the United States has become a hyper-religious police state where women are stripped of their rights as citizens. They fit into one of four classes: a Martha (housemaid/cook), a Wife (who is typically upperclass, but sterile), a Handmaid (surrogate) and an Aunt (teaches Handmaids). All women are forced to wear conservative clothes that are a uniform of their class, concealing individuality and their bodies — handmaids wear red.
In the novel, handmaids are treated as slutty servants or worse, as incubators. They cannot have relationships of their own and if they interact with the husbands without the wives present, they are punished. The handmaids are also stripped of their identity, being named Offred or Ofren depending on the name of the man they are contracted to at a given time — like Fred or Ren.
The other book I’m reading, many people read in high school. Brave New World, by Alduous Huxley, has a quite different portrayal of the future. Where the Handmaid’s Tale is stripped of sex, but uses women’s bodies as a rape of rights, Huxley created a future of test tube babies altered in utero to fit into destined castes.
I found the juxtaposition fascinating. Each narrative has their own precise delineation of class and gender, speaking to society’s economic and racial divisions. In Huxley’s world, people are made to look different and think separate thoughts — inferiority and superiority are trained mantras and biologically created. In Atwood’s account, they are later separated depending on their biology — fertile or not?
One thing both of these books share (aside from a commentary on contemporary culture) is the removal of family. Huxley makes the idea of family a perverse and heathen ritual of the past, where the word “mother” makes people want to vomit. For Atwood, families are ripped apart. Children are not allowed to be with their true mothers, the handmaids. Family is a construct built to perpetuate the human population, not to nurture with love and foster a happy life.
The most significant thing I found in reading these books together, is how women’s rights are inherently linked to the survival of family and individuality. Without equal rights, humankind is just as any other animal — reproducing, or in the case of Huxley’s novel, replicating for the sake of survival.
There is no real living. There is no love. There is no humanity. Whether you force the burden of pregnancy and birth on a woman or take it away, either way you deny her rights. Choice promotes individuality and family.
And, what is most ironic: American teens read these books when they are in high school. Yet, for them, the lesson doesn’t stick. They don’t see the connection between the books, themselves and our world. Where are the brave and new changes to feminist thought?
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