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Flightless Bird: Women and Animals in the Handmaid’s Tale

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Flightless Bird: Women and Animals in The Handmaid’s Tale

Leashed, roped off, separated into controls or pens; one way or another, whether subtly or outright, the women of The Handmaid’s Tale are routinely made to be animals. With language, Atwood replicates the process of turning females into animals that is all but finished at the time the story takes place. In Gideon, women are degraded and desecrated, robbed of their agency, all under the guise that it is for their own protection. They are reduced to rats in a maze—utilized as political tools and instruments of reproduction. From “oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit” to being herded and penned like hoards of animals, the women are consistently made equivalent to animals, both with Atwood’s language and the actions of the autonomous male characters (55). Atwood’s prose is preoccupied with metaphors of animality, and not without good reason; the language reveals malign forces at work within The Handmaid’s Tale. Firstly, this trend could be explained through the male perspective: in this world women are deemed animals because it is easy to assume ownership over an animal. However, the fact that it is revealed to be an oral history, told by the female Offred, highlights just how entrenched the women are in the belief of their own animality/lack of humanity. In fact, it is mostly women (and one woman: the narrator) who regard and label one another as animals. This has heinous things to say about the process of inner-policing and victim-blaming that occurs between the women. The state of Gideon has conditioned women as a self-perpetuating engine, capable of belittling and dehumanizing one another without male intervention.

Since this phenomena is reminiscent of similar ones found among livestock animals, it is not surprising that the livestock metaphor is prevalent. As Offred awaits her Captain on the eve of the ceremony, she describes herself as “washed, brushed, fed, like a prize pig” (69). The actual prize pig, a fixture in county fairs and the like, is only presented as a spectacle, whose glory will all fall upon the owner rather than the animal itself. Offred, just the same, is used only a vessel, hence the constant reminders that the child will truly be Serena Joy and the Captain’s. It is only through the pig that the award can be obtained, and through Offred that the baby will be able to be birthed into the world, but each of their involvement and investment ends after that. To live, Offred must reproduce. The product, however, will not be hers to keep. Entirely cognizant of her resemblance to the pig, Offred offers, in a way that seems sardonic but is, on a level, poignantly genuine: “I wish I had a pig ball” (69). Even prior to this explicit linking of pig to woman, Moira executes her escape with the use of a cattle prod. The only people who face the possibility of being prodded by it are women—another instance of women acting against women—drawing another comparison between livestock animals and the female. Women are, like bovines, utilized only for the products that their bodies offer; given food only to sustain their life, living space only to ensure minimal comfort, and roaming grounds only to ensure health.

This idea is evoked again as Offred refers to herself, and the other women, as rats. “A rat in a maze” she begins “is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays within the maze” (165). Perhaps one of the most powerful metaphorical representations of their collective situation, this comparison rings truest to their lives. They are able to roam, “vary[ing] the route…as long as [they] stay within the barriers” (165). Again, the idea of a government-instituted guise of freedom surfaces. In order to fully enshrine women into their new position, they must convince them, to some degree, that it is for their own betterment. They are allotted freedom, in some respects, but that freedom is carefully rationed and controlled. This has been fully accomplished in Gideon as Offred presents it to us. They police one another. Such is the case in the scene with Janine, where Offred recalls her talking about the sexual assault she endured. As Offred and the other women sit around and routinely parrot that

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