Can feminists please drop the Handmaid habit?

Feminists’ adoption of Margaret Atwood’s red cape serves only to obscure the complex real-life issues around women’s rights


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In may this year, Penguin Random House released an “unburnable” edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. To celebrate, Atwood was filmed taking a blowtorch to the copy, later sold for $40,000, with proceeds going to PEN America. The performance felt surprisingly anti-climactic. What exactly was being non-burned? The novel itself — dark, brilliant, politically slippery — or what it has come to symbolise? A red cape, a TV series, a feminist movement losing its grip on reality. Is anyone really scared of those? 

The past five years have seen the clothing styles of Atwood’s 1985 novel achieve iconic status. The election of Donald Trump, followed by the release of the TV adaptation, combined to make the handmaid’s cape, in the words of the Guardian, “one of the most powerful current symbols of feminist protest”.

I am a feminist; I love the novel. Yet I’m sick of the sight of the cape and with it, the idea that Atwood’s work can be superimposed onto today’s gender politics. It has become a way of misrepresenting both. 

Dressing up as Offred, the story’s main protagonist, might be a global phenomenon, but it is US-based liberal feminists who have made it a particular symbol of their pro-choice activism. “These dissenters in creepy cloaks and hats might not save Roe v. Wade,” Vanity Fair suggested in 2018, “but they do provide a constant, ominous reminder to Washington, D.C., that women are watching.”

In May this year, a leak suggesting the possible overturing of Roe v. Wade prompted red-caped protestors to gather outside the home of the Supreme Court Justice, Amy Coney Barrett. The power of “creepy cloaks” might indeed not be equal to that of the highest court in the land. Still, as one “handmaid” declared, “we’re not protesting, this is performance art”.

The red cape has become, not a shorthand for a critique, but its full-on substitute

I do not wish to kick a movement when it is down. Nonetheless, I question whether current tactics are helping or hindering. This is not feminism using storytelling as a source of creativity; it is feminism in flight from real life. Mainstream, US-centric feminism’s descent into fiction — and its shaming of any woman who maintains a toehold in material reality — may not be to blame for the current crisis, but it is hampering the formation of coherent resistance.

It has been argued that one of the benefits of the handmaid’s costume is that it doesn’t require protestors to speak. We are saved from anything so risky as words: woman, female, biology, sex, gender. We make use of symbolism, little noticing that once you become the symbol, it ceases to be a symbol at all. The red cape has become, not a shorthand for a critique, but its full-on substitute.

The rise of Handmaid’s Tale feminism has coincided with an unprecedented scaling back of reproductive rights in America which organisations such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood have vociferously (and rightly) opposed. Yet, at the same time such groups have sought to restrict the language women are permitted to use describe their predicament, with NARAL informing us that it is “not just women” who need abortions. 

Of course it’s not: it’s trans men, AFAB non-binary people, cis women, uterus owners otherwise not specified. It is all of them, plus the adult human females of Atwood’s Gilead. For some reason, “woman” isn’t an acceptable referent for the person who needs an abortion, but “handmaid” is. When you can’t even say who gets pregnant, you may well find it easier to defend fictional characters than real people. 

This is not about the book itself, nor Atwood’s personal position on current gender debates: (according to Pink News, she recently “schooled” us on “the ‘flowing bell curve’ of gender using slug sex, gay penguins and transgender fish”). Good literature thrives beyond the pronouncements of the author; it can and does challenge existing power structures, but it does not dictate.

Literary scholarship has enriched feminist analysis, and feminist analysis has formed an important part of literary scholarship. As a novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is worth reading not just because of its careful exploration of complex themes — complicity versus coercion, the lure of adaptation, the limitations of sisterhood and of feminism itself — but because it asks more questions than it answers. 

The narrative perspective is Offred’s, but there is a world of other women — the other handmaidens, the Marthas, the aunts, the wives, the econowives, the unwomen, the workers at Jezebel’s — making their own negotiations with a new normal. The question of whether the very best women can hope for is sporadic as opposed to organised, systemic abuse remains unresolved. 

As the Commander puts it, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.” You can read this as the patriarch making his usual excuses, or as one of the key sticking points when it comes to achieving a feminism that is truly intersectional. It happens to be both these things at once and it is in this combination of uncompromising horror and ideological uncertainty, harsh truths spoken by even the worst of characters, that the book’s greatest strengths lies.

What has happened to The Handmaid’s Tale as a contemporary cultural phenomenon has been the draining away of this nuance. Based on the protests, you could be forgiven for thinking the book was simply about the Christian Right and abortion: Handmaid’s Tale feminism insists the story’s baddies map neatly onto “our” baddies, and vice versa. It saves us all the bother of thinking, let alone the risk of empathising with the other. 

This simplification and distortion meets a particular need for an elite segment of the Left, for whom the worst thing about the assault on Roe v. Wade is that it makes the sex-based oppression of women so plainly visible. This is politically embarrassing if you have thrown your lot in with the idea that recognising biologically female people exist marks you out as a fascist. 

With Handmaid’s Tale feminism, the specificity of a fictional scenario is used to undermine any feminist analysis that takes account of sex difference. The insistence that the Republic of Gilead’s beliefs about women perfectly replicate those of the contemporary US right becomes a way of making the current abortion crisis into a discussion about immigration anxieties, capitalism, religious fundamentalism — anything but female bodies and how they differ from male ones.

Protesters in Handmaid’s Tale costumes walk to the U.S. Supreme Court in September 2020 to protest at Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination

Yet as Atwood herself wrote in a recent forward to the book, women “are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. Without women capable of giving birth, human populations will die out”. This is about the exploitation of female bodies as a resource; left and right might disagree about how best to enact this, but both play their part. 

The most glaring absence at the heart of Handmaid’s Tale feminism is any engagement with the rise of commercial surrogacy. If we are to make connections between the precise manner in which handmaids are exploited and contemporary reproductive injustice, it is surely the non-believing, surrogacy-touting Left who are doing most to create an official role for women as “two-legged wombs”.

Atwood has been happy to get behind the cheapening of her own creation

Gilead’s division between econowives who are “not divided into functions” and the more sophisticated hierarchy of wives, handmaids and underground sex workers is mirrored by the left’s pick ‘n’ mix reimagining of patriarchy, in which female bodies may be rented out piecemeal in the name of choice. Whether your treatment of a human being as an “ambulatory vessel” is done in the name of dismantling or reinscribing the traditional family — whether or not you make her dress in red — makes little difference to the vessel herself. 

As is the way with a feminism that is no longer about or for women, Handmaid’s Tale feminism is now eating itself. The 2021 Washington DC Women’s March banned handmaid’s costumes, claiming their message creates “more fragmentation, often around race and class”. A further criticism has been that the red cape is too defensive.

The arts writer Alina Cohen suggests that while “Black Lives Matter T-shirts advocate an America that values black lives in a way it never has before … the current challenge of the women’s movement is to find a similarly succinct, visually compelling symbology for the society we do want.” The problem is that you can’t agitate for women if you don’t have a positive definition of women as a starting point. You can only ever show female people as handmaids, forever on the back foot.

Much as I resent its imperialistic tendencies, I don’t wish to be overly critical of what is a predominantly North American brand of feminism. Coming from a country — TERF island, as I think it’s known — which has free abortion and paid maternity leave, and in which surrogate mothers still have rights, this can feel unduly harsh. Nonetheless, I find it faintly amusing that the fictional “Historical Notes” that follow Offred’s narrative feature a reference to “the various Save the Women societies, of which there were many in the British Isles at that time.” (I bet they originated on Mumsnet.) If reality is being shoehorned into fiction, that is one detail I can get behind. 

A blowtorch-wielding Atwood has been happy to get behind the cheapening of her own creation. I don’t think this necessarily matters; whatever her promotional priorities, she can’t unwrite her own genius. My fear is not for her book, but the sloganeering to which it’s been tied. Handmaid’s Tale feminism might not perish in the flames, but that’s because it was never alive to start with.

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