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Gender Issues And Feminism Theories

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Discuss about the Gender Issues And Feminism Theories.



Published in the year of 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale is regarded as one of the most recognized literary works of the Canadian author, Margaret Atwood (Dvorak, 2016). Since the most significant theme of the novel is the subjugation of women, it is almost impossible to read the novel without referring to the gender issues and feminism theories which are integral to the theme of the novel.

Gender Studies: A Literary Theory of Criticism:

Gender Studies is an integral theory of literary criticism which critically analyses and evaluates the presentation of masculine, feminine as well as queer (third) gendered people in the literary creation.  Ideologically speaking, most of the literary authors have rendered voice to the male perspective, and have successfully suppressed the “other” perspective rightfully belonging to the women and the members of the LGBT community. The Gender Studies, takes into careful consideration, how the “other” voice has been coerced into silence for ages, and how this has led to the subjugation and denial of rights of the “weaker sex”. Thus, this form of literary criticism challenges and interrogates the validity of normative definition of gender and sexual identity, and reinforces the importance of canonical inclusion of the female authors in literary studies.

Feminist Gender Theory: An Integral Branch of Gender Studies: 

The Feminist Literary Criticism intends to challenge the ideological representation of women in accordance with the sexual identity they are born with, in different literary articles, and examines how women are conditioned and socialized to participate in their own subjugation by men. An important feminist critic, Judith Butler considered “gender” as nothing more than a human and social construct that has been enacted by the continual repetition of social performance, as seen in real life as well as portrayed in literary creations. The feminist literary critics such as Simone de Beauvoir, Helene Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, examine and discuss the gaps, silences and spaces inherently present within the language or symbol system of a culture in which there should be a space for a women’s language, highly distinguishable from the normative male-dominated discourse.  This literary theory critiques male dominance, female subjugation and challenges the validity of social roles assigned to people, on the basis of the sexual identity they are born with.


Feminism: The Handmaid’s Tale:

There can be no point stating the fact that the novel The Handmaid’s Tale is not merely a story about women, but is essentially a novel with a strong feminist propaganda. The very name of the protagonist, Offred, which literally means “Of Fred”, signifying the name of the commander she belongs to, supports the theme of social objectification of women in the novel. In the novel, she portrays the miserable lives of the handmaids whose very identity gets subsumed by the males who exercise sexual control over them (Campbell, 2016). The women are no longer treated as separate living entities, enjoying rights of freedom, but are rather objectified and treated as the property of the master, as evident in their names- Offred, Ofglen and Ofwarren. The novel clearly shows how Gilead most ruthlessly tries to divide women based on their reproductive abilities, as the fertile females are being assigned to become the handmaids, while the ardent feminists like Offred’s mother and aunt are referred to as the “unwoman” (Timonen, 2015).

Queer Theory: The Handmaid’s Tale:

The patriarchal regime suppresses the voice of the gay and homosexual characters as well. The novel shows how Offred and Ofglen, while returning back to home, witnesses the hanging of a man who was “A priest, a doctor and a gay man”. His greatest and perhaps the only sin must have been his identification as a gay. Similarly, Moira who prefers to dress herself like men, and exhibits strong lesbian proclivities find herself shut up ‘in a women-only enclave' - which men run for their own pleasure (Donahue, 2016). At the same time, when women refuse to act in accordance with the sexual roles assigned to them, they are punished. As Ofglen turns out to be a rebellious, gender traitor, she receives the harshest punishment. She finds her lover hanged, though she is kept alive, as she herself is capable of bearing children (Fitch, 2015). The incident clearly shows how women are made subservient to the needs of the men, and are punished or spared as per their ability to satisfy the parochial needs of a male-dominated social-set up. The individual identity of the “other” sexes has been totally denied, and conforming to the male-centred ideology is the only way to survive.

How are Gender Roles Defined in The Handmaid’s Tale:

The value and importance of the women in the novel, largely relies on their fertility and reproductive ability. The handmaids are expected to deliver children for the infertile wives of the commanders, failing to do which, they are identified as the unwoman. It clearly shows a society where the women are deemed as nothing more than the sex slaves, whose sexual identity are defined or degraded based on their ability to fulfil the traditional gender roles (Timonen, 2015). The novel draws a horrific picture of sexual enslavement in the lines : “Women kneeling, sucking penises or guns, women tied up or chained or with dog collars around their necks, women hanging from trees, or upside-down, naked, with their legs held apart, women being raped, beaten up, killed” .

Race, Class and Gender: The Handmaid’s Tale:

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that explores the theme of white feminism, and focuses less on the women of colour. Though Atwood herself has stated in an interview that the novel is inspired by the highly oppressive system of the American slavery, it does not refer to the atrocities inflicted on the black characters, such as Martha. The black denizens, or the people of colour have been sidelined in the narrative, and their stories are left unexplored. The reader finds Offred enduring domestic slavery and forced sex?—?hardships that are exactly the same as experienced by a much higher number of non-white women throughout history, and in various parts of the world. Yet, despite the clear parallels to the oppression of African Americans in the United States, the novel does not portray black female slave experience (Campbell, 2016).



Campbell, L. (2016). Feminist History in Canada: New Essays on Women, Gender, Work, and Nation, edited by Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek.

Campbell, L. (2016). Feminist History in Canada: New Essays on Women, Gender, Work, and Nation, edited by Catherine Carstairs and Nancy Janovicek.

Donahue, D. (2016). Unruly Women: Performance, Penitence, and Punishment in Early Modern Spain by Margaret E. Boyle.

Dvorak, M. (2016). Lire Margaret Atwood: the handmaid's tale. Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Fitch, D. (2015). From The Handmaid’s Tale to Bumped: Dystopian Fiction and American Women’s Reproductive Rights (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University).

Timonen, J. (2015). Women and Women: Use of Women Types as Rhetorical Techniques in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country.

Timonen, J. (2015). Women and Women: Use of Women Types as Rhetorical Techniques in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country.

Wilson, S. R. (Ed.). (2014). Women's Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.


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