My III/IV students are reading The Handmaid’s Tale (or, at least, they’re SUPPOSED to be reading it; Goddess only knows if they are).
The novel brings up a lot really interesting (and, depending on the group of kids and how they’re approached, sticky) discussion topics: religion and government, autonomy and freedom, the role of the sexes in society, fertility and who gets to control it.
Several of the critical articles I’ve read in preparation for teaching this book are of the opinion that, like good satire, Handmaid is less a cautionary tale than it is pure fantasy. My favorite among them opens with a line something like “The English read it and say jolly good yarn. Canadians read it and ask can it happen here? Americans read it and say how long have we got?” That author’s contention is that, despite what some of us may fear coming from the ultra-conservative Christian movement, the establishment of a Gilead-like society in the U.S. is essentially an impossibility.
While that may be so, the novel and the ideas it presents still offer a valuable starting point for a lot of critical inquiry in to our current society, and I have every intention, despite the inherent risks, of engaging my students in some questions that will likely cause them (and perhaps their parents) considerable consternation.
I plan to start off relatively slow. I’ve already asked them what their impression of “feminism” is, and I got some of the usual answers (though no one ‘fessed up to thinking that feminists are angry, unshaven man-haters who love making a big deal out of nothing and who just need to lighten up and get laid, already): they identified feminists as people (and one boy said that men can be feminists – gender doesn’t matter) who are concerned with certain issues pertaining to equality and fairness. When I asked them what that means – “equality and fairness” – I was answered with issues like equal pay for equal work and family issues; no one said anything about abortion, gender roles, domestic violence, or rape.
We’ll so get there…
That conversation got me thinking, though: I tend to include feminist as a characterization of myself, but that’s only because my definition of feminism was formulated around the bumper-sticker wisdom that says “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”
I tend to think of myself more as a humanist. I am concerned with justice and equality for everyone and am not focused exclusively on one group. I went to look up “feminist issues” as I was considering what kind of writing project I will ask of my students in this unit and discovered, here, that most of the things listed are things I consider human issues, not just feminist ones.
Putting a label on something – calling it a “gay issue” or a “feminist issue” – gives excuses to entire populations of people for not thinking the issue has anything to do with them. If someone tells you that this or that is a “gay issue” then you, not being gay yourself, might feel that you don’t have to concern yourself with that problem. Certain men (I suspect a great deal of them, but not many of the ones I associate with) stop listening after something is marked as a “feminist issue.” Not being a woman – or not considering themselves feminist – gives certain men an excuse for disengaging.
I guess what I’m trying to do is figure a way that I can honor the idea of feminism while, at the same time, promoting the idea that any issue that concerns another human being – ANY other human being – is worth looking into. That I, personally, am not directly affected by domestic violence, for example (or by female genital mutilation in Africa, or by prenatal death rates in Afghanistan, or by the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda), doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be concerned with them, that I shouldn’t care enough to learn what I must and to do what I can.
I think of literature as a means for approaching the issues that affect us in our real world. Taken one step further, I think that literature is a means of expression to others who DON’T share our experiences. If I can get my kids (and myself) to think beyond our safe, comfortable little lives, I’ll consider myself to have done some good.