The Effects of Objectification of the Human Body in Margaret Atwood’s “the Handmaid’s Tale” and Nalo Hopkinson’s “a Habit of Waste”

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Kylie Greenham

March 29, 2012

In recent history, there have been many cases of rape all over the world that have been sparking public outrage, not only because of the perverse acts but also for the way that society has responded to these attacks. The Steubenville, Ohio case is one account, where a sixteen year old girl was raped by two high school football players. Instead of focusing on the tragedy of the rape, the public and the media chose to speak about the two rapists - the boys - and how their promising football careers were over. It was suggested that the girl was at fault for being drunk, and that she was known for lying in the past, and could possibly be lying about the case (Poladian, 1). This is only one example of the objectification of women that is occurring in society today.

Though the world has only recently taken a stronger stance surrounding the objectification of the human body, there are many authors that have been expressing their opinions about the issue for quite some time. Through their writing, these authors delve into details about the objectification of the body and the affects it has, or could have, on individuals and groups within a society. Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Nalo Hopkinson’s “A Habit of Waste” are both set in futuristic societies where the human body is aestheticized for a means of perceived control. This control is exercised through the demonstration of social status, political influence, and individual power in both stories.

The Republic of Gilead in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a society where the functions of men and women are highly controlled. Men are ranked based on their age, importance, and loyalty to the new government. The two main roles are the Guardians, who enforce the rules and keep the peace, and the Commanders, who are higher-ranked men who do their individual duties in the war, and are each given a women with which to breed, in addition to their wife. Women’s ranks are based on their status in relation to a man, obedience to the new laws, as well as their fertility (an uncommon feature in a dwindling population). There are: Marthas, who do cooking and cleaning for the Commanders; Wives, who were married to the men of status in pre-Gileadean times; Handmaids, who act as breeding vessels for the Commanders; Aunts, who teach the Handmaids their principles; Econowives, who are lower-class wives that also do the duties of Marthas and Handmaids; and Unwomen, who do not fit these categories and are considered the lowest class of women. They are forced into colonies to clean toxic waste.

Even in the first years of the Gileadean regime, a social stigma grows around each of the women’s roles in the new society. In the training camps, the Handmaids are taught (almost brainwashed) by the Aunts that their position “is one of honor” (Atwood, 15). The objectification of the Handmaids’ bodies is seen as a blessing, because they represent fertility and rebirth. The Marthas, Wives, and Econowives, however, despise the handmaids, seeing their duties as debasing (Atwood, 11). If the Handmaids do not wish to become Unwomen, they are forced to attempt to conceive children with the Commanders. Their bodies have become nothing but vessels used to repopulate a society. The women are told that this new system has been designed to unite women, because they are being protected by being given “freedom from” sexual promiscuity instead of being given “freedom to” (Atwood, 31). However, the objectification of the Handmaids’ bodies causes social unrest throughout the women of different roles. They despise each other because of the differences in their roles, or freedoms of their role, as a result of the level of objectivity assigned to them. This makes each of the women feel as though they have something that another woman in a different role does not. This gives them a sense of power over other women, and subsequently control over them mentally, in a...
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