THT_Study_Guide_2019 - Study Guide to Margaret Atwood The...

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Study Guide to Ma rgaret Atwood : The Handma id 's Tale ( 1986 ) Many readers are surprised to hear Atwood's novel labeled science fiction , but it belongs squarely in the long tradition of near-future dystopias which has made up a large part of SF since the early50s. SF need not involve technological innovation: it has been a long-standing principle that social change can provide the basis for SF just as well as technical chang e. The Handmaid's Tale is partly an extrapolat i on of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring , attempting to ima gi ne what kind of values might evo l ve if environmental pollution rendered most of the human race sterile. It is a l so the product of debates within the feminist movement in the 70s and early 80s. Atwood has been very much a part of that movement, but she has never been a mere mouthpiece for any group, always insisting on her individual perspectives. The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, the rise of the rel i gious r i ght, the election of Ronald Reagan, and many sorts of backlash (mostly hugely misinformed) against the women's movement led wr it ers like Atwood to fear that the antife min ist tide could not only prevent further gains for women, but turn back the clock. Dystopias are a kind of thought experiment which isolates certain social trends and exa gg erates them to make clear their most negative qualities. They are rarely intended as realistic predictions of a probable future, and it is pointless to criticize them on the grounds of implausibility. Atwood here examines some of the traditional attitudes that are embedded in the thinking of the re l i gi ous right and which she finds particularly threatening. But another social controversy also underlies this novel. During the early 80s a debate raged (and continues to rage, on a lower level) about feminist attitudes toward sexuality and pornography in particular. Outspoken feminists have taken all k in ds of posit i ons: that all erotica depicting women as sexual objects is demeaning, that pornography was bad though erotica can be good, that although most pornography is deme ani ng the protection of civil liberties is a greater good which requires the toleration of freedom for pornographers, however distasteful, even that such a thing as feminist porno g raphy can and should be created.
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The sub-theme of this tangled debate which seems to have particularly interested and alarmed Atwood is the tendency of some feminist anti-porn groups to ally themselves with religious anti porn zealots who oppose the feminists on almost every other issue. The language of "protection of women" could slip from a demand for more freedom into a retreat from freedom, to a kind of neo-Victorianism. After all, it was the need to protect "good" women from sex that justified all manner of repression in the 19th century, including confining them to the home, barring them from participating in the arts, and voting. Contemporary Islamic women sometimes argue that assuming
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