Josie Moon

Poet, Musician and Educator

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The Handmaid’s Tale, Critical Debate and Adaptation

Literary adaptation is a problematic art form and is very much a hot topic at present with the runaway success of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). Taut, politically astute and imbued with dread the adaptation does not adhere strictly to the text and yet is paradoxically faithful to it in terms of capturing the nuances of Atwood’s cautionary tale.  

The adaptation has come at an apt moment and eerily reflects critical examples of state violence and oppression that are current. FGM, radical evangelicalism, homophobia and attacks on women’s reproductive rights are starkly presented and have their seeds in the novel. Atwood famously used precedent for everything she presented in the novel from the role of the handmaids to the salvagings. Since the publication of the novel in the 1980’s, Atwood’s novel has come to reflect the reality of many women’s lives rather than become an anachronism of a time now past. In this way it shares similarity with Orwell’s 1984 that has never also never dated or lost its impact. 

I was curious to observe and participate in discussion forums about The Handmaid’s Tale and have spent a week or so making occasional comments and reading posts. I have now withdrawn from that.  In part, life is just too short but also I found the level of some – not all – comment facile. I appreciate and support the right for everyone to take part in debates and to express opinions and clearly the adaptation has ignited a great deal of passionate conversation. However, when a particular thread was asking  ‘are you team Nick or team Luke’ I felt deeply uncomfortable.   THT is a serious novel. It is not chick lit. It is not romantic.

Luke was Offred’s husband in pre-Gilead. In the novel his fate is unclear. In the adaptation he escapes to Canada. In either scenario he is lost to Offred.  In the novel and the adaptation Offred mourns him. Nick, the driver in the Commander’s household is first used as a tool by Serena Joy to get Offred pregnant. Her body is for his use as a means of reproduction.  

In the novel Nick is ambiguous in terms of his position in Gilead. In the adaptation he is an Eye, a member of the horrific secret police. As he and Offred embark on a sexual relationship, in the novel he says ‘no romance’ and he is right. There is no romance. Like for Winston and Julia in 1984 sexual love endangers both of their lives. However, for Offred her status makes the danger worse for her. In the language of Gilead, women are whores, temptresses and responsible for the provocation of lust. The inequality in Nick and Offred’s relationship is a stark emblematic reminder of the abjection of the handmaids and the powerlessness of women. It is not something to be celebrated however much comfort it appears to give to Offred. Remember it is she, not Nick who is taken by the secret police at the end of the novel. We assume she survives at least long enough to record her story and we know Gilead falls but that does not mitigate against the horror of her life or the certainty of the violence used against her. So, ‘team Nick,’ no thank you.  

In truth, I have a problem with team anything. Superficially it’s fine to nail your colours to a mast and come out in support of a position. As evidenced by the recent UK General Election it is sometimes very important to sign up to a movement, to get behind someone and work collectively to make a difference.  However,  to do it uncritically is to put oneself under the thrall of the ‘they’ and to abdicate personal responsibility for thinking about issues that are complex and nuanced.  

In my professional life I have seen the ‘team’ principle in action and it is a business practice linked to corporate values. With the increasingly managerialist and bureaucratic culture pervading professional and public life the notion of ‘team’ is sinister. To me it’s about subsuming individual identity within the value system of a corporation or organisation. To use the language of Star Trek, I have no desire to be assimilated.

Once one accepts the subsuming of self and adherence to the values of the ‘team’ one accepts authority. The problem with authority is it leads to authoritarianism and authoritarianism is on the continuum towards totalitarianism. This is the trajectory of THT. Corporate America with its neoliberal values, tolerance of extreme right wing Christian fundamentalism and obsession with women’s bodies and reproduction gives way to Gilead. Gilead is one possible end point of a political system that was in train in the 1980’s in America and which is still in motion now. Hence the timely arrival of Hulu’s adaptation. The cast are quoted as saying their work is activism. This is why the level of debate around it is important. 

As I have said, everyone is free (ironically given the context) to express their view and engage in whatever level of debate they so desire. I want to explore this ‘team man’ idea a little deeper. Slash fiction, fan fiction and ‘shipping’ – appropriating a relationship to characters in fiction that does not exist – is a pop cultural phenomenon that started with Star Trek fans imagining a homoerotic relationship between Kirk and Spock. It’s fun and light and can be hugely creative. However, shipping also gave the world 50 Shades of Grey.  Born out of the horribly misogynistic Twilight saga, 50 Shades presents a deeply dysfunctional and abusive relationship as a romantic BDSM fantasy. The internalised misogyny in that novel is breathtaking. It was a runaway success on the back of an anti-feminist backlash. Twilight struck me – and many others -as a neo-Con, illiberal riposte to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Buffy was a series that placed feminist values at the heart of its story arc and which dealt with rape and violence seriously. It was deeply depressing to see the ascension of Twilight sweeping away the empowerment that Buffy had brought to the small screen and to see the young women I was teaching at the time wearing ‘Team Edward’ t-shirts.

Post Buffy, post Twilight the zeitgeist has lost its appetite for the supernatural and has turned to dystopian literature. Art always reflects life and in a world where there is perpetual threat from terrorism and from government it is unsurprising that THT is so powerful. There are women in the United States dressing as handmaids to make political protests, drawing attention to the violence against women’s’ bodies being committed by legislative practices. Anti-abortion laws, the religious right, the retrograde and downright dangerous Trump administration are clear and present dangers. In the UK, a filthy and discredited government is so desperate to cling to the dying embers of its power it is brokering a deal with a political party, the DUP,  that does not believe dinosaurs existed, upholds legislation that makes abortion an imprisonable offence and actively promotes homophobia. Dark times.

Offred in THT is not only a singularly oppressed woman imprisoned in a state that sentences her to constant rape and reduces her personhood to the viability of her ovaries, she is a symbol, an icon even, of oppressed women everywhere. The handmaid is the ultimate objectified woman, invisible and irrelevant except for her reproductive capacity. The brutality that is used to enforce that subjection is unflinching. The adaptation goes further than the novel. Following the episode in which Emily/Ofglen underwent a forced cliterodectomy as punishment for her sexual relationship with a woman, I could not sleep as I was so horrified. The world over, there are preachers speaking in favour of FGM as a way of controlling women’s sexuality and it is still accepted ‘cultural’ practice in too many places. There is a war being waged against women all of the time and there are those who will persist in their endeavours to roll back hard won rights and freedoms. THT is part of the fight, a cultural phenomenon that makes a challenge to power and spotlights the grotesque inequalities that women still face and which are a stark reminder that without vigilance and rigorous debate and readiness to fight,  rights and freedoms that do exist are not a given.

 

 

Photograph copyright @ McLelland and Stewart

 

 

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The Nature of Birthdays

I have just had what is often referred to as a ‘significant birthday.’  It was my 50th birthday and it did feel significant but not because of the fact of the number 50. The number 1 is in fact the reason for its significance. This was my first birthday as Josie Moon and that is what feels important about this mark in time.

I chose to change my name last year – along with a great many other things. My full adopted name is Josie-Anne Elizabeth Crescent-Moon, Josie Moon for ease. I chose to rename myself as part of the process of reclaiming myself. I had an identity and way of being that no longer fit the person I was gradually becoming.  I wanted an identity that reflected the changes I was making to myself and my life. The change was not a slight to anyone or a rejection of any other person. It was an embracing of self.

When we are born we are thrown into the world and a context we cannot comprehend. Our existence and identity is entirely dependent on others and we grow and develop as part of a family, a society with a set of rules and practices that we have not chosen for ourselves. We do our best to live within our context and our given identity.

But contexts change. Experience shapes and influences us and we change as a result. Last year as I looked ahead to turning 50, to the inevitable changes that middle life brings I knew I needed a name to take me forward, a name of my own choosing.

I’d already been writing as Josie-Anne for a while and Elizabeth was my given middle name and I like very much. It was the surname that was the most radical choice.

Every month the crescent moon appears in the sky, sharp, new and clear. For me that moon is a symbol of renewal, of possibility and of mutability. All of nature is influenced by the moon and its relationship to the tides, to the cycle of a month, to the very cycle of life itself. The moon reminds us that change is constant and inevitable.

I also love Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that is now more starkly relevant than ever. At the end Professor Maryann Crescent Moon chairs a conference on Gilead studies. Women are once again powerful, the keepers and guardians of other women’s stories, academics and thinkers and holding names relevant to the earth and nature. Although the Historical Notes section is a shock after the journey with Offred through the novel, and can arguably be read as flippant, it serves as a reminder of mutability. Nothing is constant, including fascist, totalitarian states. All will fall. There is always the possibility of change and renewal. There is always the possibility of a Professor Crescent Moon to curate the past but live in the present and look responsibly to the future.

So I became Crescent-Moon.  With this name and identity I curate the past including the person, in fact people I used to be. I honour the past and value it for all it taught me and for all its connections, relationships, triumphs and disasters.   But I live in the present and I look responsibly towards the future aware of my mutability and all the possibility symbolised in the monthly, hopeful crescent moon cutting the sky, sharp but rounded.

With this more fully realised sense of self I celebrated my first and my 50th birthday on June 3rd. On a quiet beach in a quiet place, dawn broke and I listened to the birds singing, to the breakers on the shore, to my heart beating and I knew myself very well.

 

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Gilead Advances

Handmaids Protest 2017.PNG

Handmaid’s Protest (Source: Planned Parenthood @pptxvotes)

The sight of women protesters in Texas dressed as Handmaids chills my blood. The photograph showing twelve women peacefully protesting surrounded by six armed men fills me with rage. This is Donald Trump’s America, a place in which thirty men gather in a closed room to talk about women’s reproductive and maternity rights in scenes reminiscent of the Saudi conference on women’s rights to which no women were invited.

When Margaret Atwood wrote her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 she used precedent for every seemingly unimaginable scenario that she depicted. Some of those precedents were biblical, particularly the state’s ideological appropriation of the story of Rachel and Leah from the Old Testament but some were political and reflected practices seen in oppressive regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan where women had been pushed out of public life.

What is most troubling about The Handmaid’s Tale is not the reference to oppressive practice in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan but the reference to oppression in societies and countries that claim to be democratic and to uphold women’s rights. Atwood’s forensic spotlight was very much trained on North America and the worrying anti-feminist trends that took flight in the 1980s and which have landed now with the ascendancy of Trump and his grotesque cast of misogynists undermining and destroying the progress that women have made towards emancipation and equality.

A man who sees no wrong in boasting of ‘grabbing (women) by the pussy’ will have no trouble in attacking women’s rights at work, at home and in the privacy of their own bodies. Right wing Republicans, particularly those of the Christian right have absolutely no problem with women’s health and their very lives being subject to the quite extraordinary whims of their distorted ideologies. Even a cursory search for comments made by such people about rape and domestic violence, let alone birth control and abortion yields a torrent of ill informed, deeply troubling polemic that would not seem out of place in the 1700s but which today is nothing short of abhorrent. ‘Legitimate rape’ in which a woman’s body ‘shuts down’ so as not to get pregnant was Todd Akin’s outrageous contribution to the debate on the right to abortion while he was running for public office. Although widely condemned, even by members of his own party he revoked  the apology he felt compelled to make at the time and stands by his repellent views.

The anti-abortion lobby in the USA and increasingly in the UK hold to a particularly hard line on women’s reproductive rights, preferencing the rights of a fetus over that of a fully formed, living, breathing human being. Interestingly, these people are not so vocal about actual children living in extreme poverty or actual children suffering abuse, violence and neglect while making huge, moralistic claims about the right to life.  If every life and every child mattered to these people they could do a great deal of good in the world by working tirelessly to eradicate child misery. Instead they choose to intimidate women and health professionals by standing outside clinics and interfering in people’s lives.

Reproduction is at the heart of Margaret Atwood’s novel. A major environmental incident has resulted in fertility being compromised. In true Old Testament spirit, women are deemed to be responsible for this and it is a crime to suggest men might be infertile. The handmaids are women reduced to the level of walking wombs. They are women seen as morally ‘unfit’ for anything other than breeding for the state. Some are divorcees, others activists, others unmarried mothers.  Offred, the protagonist is an ‘unfit’ woman adjudged as being of low moral value. She is imprisoned by the state not knowing if her husband is alive or dead. Her beloved daughter has been confiscated and adopted by a family considered as ‘fit’ to raise a child. She is assigned a commander and his wife and her sole purpose is to become pregnant through the enactment of monthly state-sanctioned rape.  If the handmaids do become pregnant there is no guarantee of their safety or any change in their status. They are subject to the whims of the commander’s wives who are allowed to hit them. Pregnant handmaids have been attacked by jealous wives. There are no guarantees that a healthy baby will be born at the end of a pregnancy due to the impact of the environmental disaster and successful pregnancies are rare. The births are grotesque spectacles with all handmaids in the district forced to attend, no pain relief or medical support for the mother except in cases of medical emergency and the ritual handing over of the baby to the wife immediately after birth with no care or attention to the birth mother.

The red garb of the handmaids and the white winged head dresses are designed for stigma and oppression. Red denotes their status as brood mares but also their stigmatisation as women whose former sexual behaviour marks them out as sinners, moral transgressors of the Puritanical mores of the state. The head dresses limit their field of vision and their capacity to engage with the world and with others. They are isolated and reviled. They are also subject to the control of other women, the terrifying Aunts in the Red Centre – collaborators with the state, the wives whose homes they live in and other handmaids. Each handmaid has a partner to walk with when they go shopping and they act as each other’s spy.  The Nazis well understood the power of utilising women to police each other and this principle was central to the Nazi women’s movement in which some women could enjoy elevated positions without holding actual political power. The Aunts most closely resemble that historical model.

Offred’s story in the novel is horrifying and deeply human. In the Night sections she remembers her old life; her husband, daughter and the freedoms she enjoyed before Gilead. She also indicates the warning signs that were there, the prevalence of extreme right wing televangelists, the anti-feminist backlash, the incremental creep of the religious right towards power.

It’s not until we reach the end of the novel that we realise that Offred’s narrative is historical and is being presented as a conference paper many years post the fall of Gilead. Her fate is unknown. Our final glimpse of her is in her exit as she says ‘ And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.’ We have to assume she escaped, at least for long enough to record her story for posterity and because we have spent a long and intimate time in her company we hope she made it to Canada and freedom but that speculation is both a triumph and a frustration of the text. We want a ‘happy ending’ for Offred but such an ending would have been both trite and insulting to the hundreds of thousands of people who have endured such regimes and who have not survived or who have survived but endured unspeakable damage and loss.

Offred’s story and that of others like her is in safe keeping with Professor Maryann Crescent Moon and Professor Piexoto. Professor Crescent Moon from the department of Caucasian Anthropology is an expert in Gilead studies, a keeper of women’s history, an expert, a woman free in her intellectual life post the apocalyptic dystopia of Gilead.  The conference is an opportunity to re-examine Gilead historically and to understand Offred’s position as person trapped within it.

Sales of The Handmaid’s Tale have rocketed since Herr Drumpf marched into the Oval office and this week’s protests in Texas underline the anxiety that many women are facing in the USA now, today. These are dangerous times and Drumpf and his machinery of zealous oppression are a real and present threat, not just to women but to all who do not fit with his narrow, distorted view. This is a man who plans to scrap the Environmental Protection Agency, a man who denies climate change, a man who plans to end public subsidy for the arts and humanities, a man who plans to defund state education. The horrifying list goes on and on and in spite of brave attempts to stop him in his tracks he looks pretty unstoppable. When policies such as these gather traction and momentum then their outcome is almost inevitable. The USA is looking at much greater influence from the religious right, curtailment of women’s rights on a huge scale and an assault on the environment that could well be irreversible and catastrophic. It’s beginning to look a lot like Gilead.

Of course, America is not alone in its demented swing to the right. Here in the UK swingeing cuts to public services combined with an out and out assault on the poorest and most vulnerable in society have been the prevailing norm since 2010. We have an unelected Prime Minister claiming to be guided by Christian principles imposing austerity and failing to manage Brexit. Britain’s move towards isolationist, backwards looking politics should be concerning us all particularly as we will not have the protections of European law once we are cut adrift. There are MPs here longing to curtail women’s rights particularly with regard to abortion laws and we need to be vigilant.  The tactical use of immigrants as distracting scapegoats is doing its job in keeping the focus away from what our draconian government is doing to civil liberties. It may not be long before Margaret Atwood’s frightening and prescient novel is as relevant here as it is in North America.