‘Liberal Anxiety’ is not the Problem, Colonial Feminism Is: a Response

A response to Salon’s “Stop Making ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ about Your Liberal Anxiety”

We haven’t yet spent much time talking about basic feminist principles that undergird the philosophy and movement here in the US, but today I want us to launch a bit ahead and talk about its relationship to colonial and post-colonial feminism. 45’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Ivanka Trump in tow to talk about female “empowerment,” and a Salon article on The Handmaid’s Tale moved this topic to the front of my list. They’ve all introduced problems we can label as colonial feminism, and here I’ll talk about what that means, particularly in the context of feminist movements over time and that Salon piece.

Second- and Third-Wave Feminism, Highly Abridged
A women’s march in the 1970s. Library of Congress photo in the public domain.

American feminism, particularly in the 1970s’ second wave, suffered from a narrow vision that limited its impact. Chiefly, it was white women’s feminism and middle-class feminism which got the most traction, leaving the needs of women of color, working-class women, and so on out of the conversation. We’ll delve into all of this further later, but in a nutshell, what the movement was missing was intersectionality. Interesectionality is the idea that people have multiple variables to their identities beyond just “woman” and that such elements shape their needs and goals as women. Missing that, second-wave feminism did not represent many issues beyond those women of the white middle-class.

Third-wave feminism is generally much better at intersectionality than second-wave was, but still struggles with using that lens to see the rest of the world. Such a problem often gets bound up with a “savior complex” that centers, intended or no, on implicitly white goals.

So what’s Colonial Feminism?

Here’s how the problem usually goes: we know what we want here at home in terms of feminist goals. To summarize, without intersectional contours or details, the umbrella generally includes political, social, economic equality, as well as reproductive health access. (Again, these are just the big elements—we’re not getting into, say, the problem of rape culture, what it means when people can’t recognize pay disparities based on gender and race, or even the basic constructs of power here in the US. All are topics we’ll talk about later, but not here.)

Then, we look overseas and we see other women, many of whom live in situations less feminist than our own. Saudi Arabia is usually a good place to look as its misogyny is so blatant, but other countries—other women—often get the same gaze from Americans. And then we assume they must want our values as their values, and when we seek to “help” them, we often do so with that lens firmly in place. In doing so we don’t ask those women what their feminism might look like, what their values are, what their goals might be. Thus the feminist lens we use is a colonial one. We assume they a) want our help and b) want it on our terms and thus we embody a colonial ethos, reminiscent of political colonialism in which people (white men, chiefly) told people in other countries (usually POC) what they wanted, and that it was good for them, through their white, colonial lens. Yes, there’s a huge difference between actual colonialism and a colonial feminism, absolutely—but the comparison makes sense for our purposes here.

Corley’s Take
From Hulu.

Salon published an essay on Saturday titled, “Stop Making ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ about Your Liberal Anxiety” that got me thinking about all this. It’s written by Deirdre Corley, who’s got some editorial experience at publications like the Hairpin; this essay appears to be her first out there on its own. I feel kind of bad pulling it apart, but here we go. The gist of what she’s saying is that we shouldn’t spend time writing think pieces on the ways in which we see the Handmaid’s Tale in our current US or speculating on its possibilities when women live in Gilead-ish societies now. Those societies should be our focus.

To wit:

“For a title that has received a more thorough exploration of its meaning and place in society than most, rarely are the lines drawn to other modern societies outside the U.S. where people, and women in particular, are suffering Gilead-level oppression (or worse) at this very moment. It seems that Americans now only have one lens to view things through, and it’s tinted orange.”

Now if she were encouraging women in or from those societies to pen their own think pieces, she’d have a nice point. But the problem is that what she says next about Saudi Arabia can be taken to be more broadly applied, and that’s where the trouble begins:

“Clad in robes, blinkered by headpieces, unable to travel without an escort, and barred from controlling money or property, the women of Gilead look quite a bit more like the women living under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system than your modern American woman does or likely ever will.

While women in Saudi Arabia gained the right to vote in 2015, the mix of state and socially sanctioned rules they live under mean they still require the permission of their male guardians to travel or use most social services. They’re even banned from driving cars (though not bikes any longer). When thinking of the kingdom’s dress code for women — which includes the form-covering abaya and head-covering hijab, often paired with a full-face veil — it’s difficult not to draw a parallel to the Handmaids’ robes and face-obscuring hats. This, from a functioning, recognized state that recently received a seat on the U.N. Women’s Rights Council.”

Linda Sarsour. By Festival of Faiths from Louisville, United States. CC license.

Many Saudi women have worked for change in that nation to weak results (in contrast to Ivanka Trump’s claim that the country is great about women’s rights, a comment she made after they gave her foundation $100M). And while you and I would firmly reject a state-mandated dress code, the way in which Corley talks about that dress code implies that the dress is the problem, rather than the existence of the code itself. After all, plenty of women wear conservative dress by choice and don’t feel “blinkered” by those choices. Further, because of the nature of this essay, she’s implying (however unintentionally) that conservative Muslim dress is the real problem, Again, this approach disregards that many women choose hijabs, and some even choose burkas, as a reflection of their faith, and still fight a feminist mission. Linda Sarsour is a stellar example here, as is this 2015 HuffPo piece.

Thus…

When Corley makes her argument, even as she takes pains to say it’s about Saudi Arabia, she is, however unwittingly, indulging in a colonial feminism in which the (white, non-Muslim) American way is implied as superior to a Muslim way. If we’re not to express our “liberal anxiety” through analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s because our life is still far superior to others. There’s a condescension here that ignores the extremely difficult lives plenty of American women lead, some in rigid religious circumstances, others hamstrung by the ways in which the systems of power we have limit certain women’s access to power, control and opportunity.

Lastly, Corley implies that we can’t care about both the erosion of our democracy AND the status of our sisters in other countries. We can worry about both, but let those women lead the way in determining what solutions to their oppression might look like.


(Incidentally, I feel like there’s an essay in here on the intersections of colonial feminism and conservatives who insist 45 isn’t the problem because some countries have Sharia law. Maybe someday.)

(Also, look at Iran pre-1979: they, too, didn’t think a fundamentalist revolution could happen in their cosmopolitan country—a little “liberal anxiety” guarding our values is rarely a bad thing.)

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Don’t Waste Time: The Handmaid’s Tale’s Easy Authoritarianism

handmaids, authoritarianism
Check out this photo of women in Texas surrounded by men with guns, and you tell me the likeness to elements of episode 3 isn’t eerie. Property of The Advocate, http://bit.ly/2pDVc5a

I’d avoided watching episode 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale for a while because I knew what it contained: visual depiction of how easily the revolution established authoritarianism in what became Gilead. Having read the book, I knew this part was coming, but watching it during these particular weeks felt that much more ominous than when I read it for the first time, twelve or so years ago.

In case you don’t know the story, here’s how it goes. There’s an attack on Congress, leaving few alive. It’s labeled a terrorist attack, and people step into the vacuum and establish martial law “for the duration” (in quotes because it’s a pretty quintessential thing to say in times of war). The constitution is suspended, allegedly temporarily. And before long, as adherents to the coming revolution multiply, surfacing here and there (in episode three there’s an aggressive guy in a coffee shop visited by June and Moira), the executive orders also multiply, and no one’s protesting in large numbers in the streets until it’s too late. The show does a good job of showing isolated adherents and protestors in the flashbacks to the earliest stages of the revolution; mass protests don’t even quite erupt when the government declares women working illegal and they’re all summarily fired. It’s when women lose access to their money—all electronic, like ours often is—that people take to the streets. By then there are men with machine guns everywhere, and they’re not afraid to use it to make their revolution more permanent.

Anyway.

Margaret Atwood once said there was nothing in the book that hadn’t already happened in our world, and I’ll be damned if 45’s America isn’t giving her additional fodder for a sequel. I’m a bit dramatic, I realize, but let’s be honest—there’s only so much separating one coup from another, one dictatorship from a different one. We were out in the streets for the first several executive orders, but where have we been lately? As EOs come down limiting LGBTQ rights in the name of “religious liberty,” where are we? And last week’s health care bill, which deliberately and carefully (or, alternately, stupidly and unthinkingly—I’m not sure which is worse) placed women in second-class citizenship for being women, making their health care easily more expensive?

As I’ve said to students time and again, why do we call things like reproductive care “women’s issues,” whereas we’re all supposed to be concerned about, say, prostate cancer? Why aren’t “women’s issues” everyone’s issues, which would foster a more egalitarian health and social system?

I’ll tell you why. Because once we do that, we can’t charge women more if they’ve been raped, or if they’ve carried a baby to term, while also defunding Planned Parenthood—which gives women wide access to contraceptive care, cancer screening, and abortion services. As a bill, the AHCA condemns women for existing: all stages of our life are now more expensive. And we’re paid less in the process.

Where are the people in the streets? We cannot make the same mistake as the women who became Handmaids. We cannot assume—as our dear leader fires those investigating him and people like Paul Ryan, who would rather institute Atlas Shrugged than stand up for his country, support him—that the country’s systems are going to save us. We cannot just be Twitter warriors. It’s important that we come out for major, planned marches, but we also need to be out there ALL THE FUCKING TIME. I say this as I’m firmly ensconced in my office, typing away, drinking a cup of cold coffee. I realize my hypocrisy.

But I’ll never be a fucking Handmaid, and neither should you.

If you want to protest in real style, you can knock out these easy tutorials for a cape and a bonnet and join others out there in Handmaid gear (note how that article is in HuffPo’s ‘Women’ section and scroll back up to ‘women’s issues’ in this post).


Here’s a cloak tutorial. It calls for fleece but you could likely make it out of shirting or other red fabric. https://www.fleecefun.com/long-hooded-cloak-pattern-free.html

And here’s a bonnet tutorial. To make it look closer to those on the show, you’d skip the trim and the chin strap, get rid of a little of the bulk in the back, and consequently have fewer pleats. http://www.sunsetfamilyliving.com/pioneer-bonnet/

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“Ordinary is What You’re Used To”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Episode 1

handmaid's tale frontispiece
photo credit: hulu.com

Rather than a review of the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve decided to take an element and talk about it in the context of our current political climate. I figure hot takes and warm takes and cold takes are all over the internet right now, so it doesn’t need another from me.

[In short, I felt the episode did much of what I remember the book doing: it pulls you into this terrifyingly plausible world by juxtaposing the Handmaids’ recent pre-revolution past with their horrific present, the change documented not just by the clothes worn, the greetings shared, and the wariness of all, but—subtly—by the growth in Offred’s hair. You get a sense of how much time has passed when you see it’s grown six inches.]

[Also: I’m assuming that you have a basic understanding of the story, but if not, here you go. Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is the main character, a woman who is a Handmaid in this post-revolutionary world, living in the Republic of Gilead. The revolution comes when birthrates fall precipitously and many women have become barren, a problem chalked up to the environmental crisis. Women here are entirely the property of men and fall into five categories—Wives, who are generally infertile and married to powerful men; Handmaids, who are fertile women compelled to be breeders; Marthas, women who for reasons I can’t recall are basically the cooks, housekeepers; Aunts, who are the strict, cruel teachers and enforcers of the Handmaids; and Un-women, women who don’t fall into these categories and were sent to have short, brutal lives serving in The Colonies, cleaning up toxic waste. Moira (Samira Wiley), dear friend of Offred, saw her wife sent there in a “dyke roundup.”]

That Said

For this post I’m taking a quote from one of the Aunts—Lydia, head Aunt—who presides over indoctrination at the Red Center, the place Handmaids are taken to be, essentially, broken: “Ordinary is what you are used to.” This phrase serves as her consolation to terrified women sitting in the Center. This concept forms the core of most dictatorships, large and small. People are remarkably adaptable. We can face tremendous, horrible, life-shattering events and find a way to navigate what’s replaces them. Over time, those events lose the sharpness of their edges and what remains simply become the way of things.

handmaid's tale
June, pre-revolution
Photo credit: hulu.com

At the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale, we see Offred trying to escape the revolution by fleeing through the woods of Maine, seeking the Canadian border. She’s on the run with her daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Luke. What had once been their normal has now become illegal; freedom of movement has been suspended, and women deprived of all citizenship and forced into their new roles. Men with machine guns are everywhere to keep them in line, and the Eyes—secret watchers who report infractions to the authorities—make even private conversations impossible. Offred—whose original name, June, is revealed in this episode, in contrast to the book’s silence on the topic—is hunted down by men in full military gear. The new regime forbids her independence, her clothes, her role as mother to her own child. And so they seize her.

It’s a meaningful shift: what was once normal is illegal. Ordinary life ceases. And then, in a fully ordinary way—albeit a deeply repressive one—life goes on.

We can tut-tut that such a shift is the stuff of traditional dystopias.

But we can also look around us right this very minute and see the ways in which our lives are subtly changing, and how we’re beginning to take them as ordinary. We might be horrified, we might protest, but life continues, at least for many of us, more or less as it was prior.

And in a parallel of sorts, we can see the ways in which this shift—the acceptance of a new, dystopian ordinary—revolves around the silencing of women and in our case, people of color.

The large dystopian present has to do with 45 (my synonym for He Who Shall Not be Named): on any given day (see @Amy_Siskind on twitter for a weekly roundup) he engages in any number of acts that would have landed Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in endless investigations, but which only seem to infuriate some of the people, some of the time. That’s how revolutions, however slow, however negative, can happen. Most people don’t care. Change happens, and suddenly our ordinary is different, as a consequence of apathy.

For example, look at the accelerated pace of ICE raids.

The ways agents stalk their prey—and that’s exactly how many treat the people they’re looking for, as prey—at their homes, schools, churches, even in court. Where once law-abiding (albeit undocumented) residents had been widely tolerated as a battle not worth picking, the same people now find their everyday has changed dramatically. Like June, they have to watch their backs, their children, some not even leaving their homes lest an ICE raid bust up their family. We now have stories of families running for Canada, through the woods, to secure their safety. The raids, which often seize parents and put them in detention centers [Red Center, anyone?] essentially force kids into foster care. That, in fact, burdens the system—a system people claim is fraught because of undocumented people. It’s terrible, and it’s becoming ordinary, particularly as many Americans can go on as though it’s not happening.

In the meantime, we watch our government become a source of cash into one man’s personal coffers as he turns the now-widely-understaffed branches into his own nepotistic advantage, leaving our country woefully unable to negotiate diplomacy, nevermind pursue the wars he’s consistently threatening (note, too, the presence of war in The Handmaid’s Tale—also in 1984—both not coincidental). And while many of us wave our signs, call our representatives, white America sees most of its lives undisturbed, and many are unwilling to rock the boat.

In episode one, Moira comments to June, in a flashback to the Red Center, that this nightmare in which they lived couldn’t last long—things would go back to normal. Lest we also see our own “reproductive dystopia” worsen, we shouldn’t make the same mistaken assumption.

J.

The Handmaid’s Tale, episodes 1-3, are currently available on Hulu. “Reproductive Dystopia” is from Moria Weagle, “We Live in the Reproductive Dystopia of the Handmaid’s Tale,” The New Yorker, 4.26.17, http://bit.ly/2plZIru.

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I’m a Tenacious Feminist–are you?

Last summer, on the heels of an academic sabbatical, I wrestled with a book prospectus. I wondered if writing that book was right for me, or if I might scratch my itch to write some feminist cultural and political criticism with my time. I ended up writing a pair of essays. One was on sexual harassment in colleges and universities, which Women in Higher Education recently published. The other was about the cultural contours of the 2016 election, which I turned into a workshop at the university where I work. Lately I’ve been thinking about these pieces and decided a blog would be a good place to post these musings and share with others.

The 24th of April as day 1 is partly just when I decided to take the blogging plunge, but it also allows my first essay to reflect the premier of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve spent some time lately going through the comments on Hulu’s posts about the show. I’ve already got lots to say.

Come along with me on this journey! We’ll talk culture, politics, and money, and we’ll join the chorus of people reclaiming the word “feminist” from the mire through which it’s been dragged.

In tenacious feminism,

J.

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