Impossible Expectations in Patriarchy: Induced-Detachment

“My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” (Atawood 94)

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale the narrator, an unnamed handmaid, narrates her—not ‘rape’ but—constrained choice (sigh) sexual encounter with the commander by explaining this deeply disturbing interaction with blunt diction and metaphors using a detached tone which reflects how dehumanized she is by the nature of her experiences in this brutal, totalitarian society, suggesting detachment as a necessary way by which women deal with the most painful, traumatic experiences in this patriarchal society.

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(Image from http://www.returnofkings.com)

The narrator describes her situation very bluntly in a detached tone which suggests that she considers this situation to be the norm. Below her skirt “the Commander is fucking.” She doesn’t say that they are ‘fucking’, but rather that the commander is. He is doing it by himself; it might as well have been without her body. We are not used to this type of sex being described as a one-person affair, yet the narrator proceeds to describe it as such to represent how detached she is from the process. It physically involves her body but she writes as though this is not part of her during the experience. She goes on to clarify that this is neither “making love” nor “copulation” because these words have connotations that involve feelings and the involvement of two people. This situation involves no feelings; this is simply happening. It is a ritual that is happening. The specific word “fucking” is accurate because it is commonly used as something that someone does to another, rather than a shared action. This diction is crucial.

We are left confused because the narrator’s attempts to redefine what is happening as a constrained-choice sex that is not entirely rape and yet not consensual because it does not involve her (recall that it is also not sex). This confusion of explaining exactly her difficult situation seems to represent all the no-win, tight-rope balancing situations that women have to deal with in a patriarchal society. She accurately identifies “there wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some.” What this phrase is essentially saying is that she is involved in constrained-choice sex. The phrasing here shows how the narrator is not in control of what is happening to her body; this shows the second form of detachment (after corporal) which is absence of agency.

Finally, to translate all this I shall borrow Atwood’s metaphor from this passage: Women are getting ‘fucked’ both physically and in the struggle for agency. Atwood demonstrates the difficult situation that women find themselves in and identifies detachment as the only mechanism they have of dealing with it. “Fucking” is repeated twice in the passage with the narrator as the direct object. A male, the Commander, is the subject in the sentence. The only female in the passage is the direct object of the only man’s forceful, sexual behavior. In this passage he is the sole possible representative of males and she, of females. He is the symbolic patriarchy that is screwing the females through forms sanctioned by the society. In this way diction, metaphor, and tone show the effects of dehumanizing, socially-sanctioned patriarchy, which suggests that detachment is necessary for female survival under impossible constraints.

 

Citations:

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1st ed. New York: Anchor, 1986. Print.

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