Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Strange Bedfellows

One of the most interesting books I ever read is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It's a novel about a dystopian future America (called Gilead) in which women are categorised by their value as reproductive objects. The story focuses on Wives, the Handmaids who are their husband's concubines, and the Jezebels and Unwomen who can not be integrated into this new, fundamentalist society.

One thing the book touches on is the overlap of far-right and far-left ideals which results in the oppression of women in Gilead. People in the middle, who had no particular investment or opinion either way, got caught in the resulting military dictatorship. They probably approved of some of the early stages without looking into the motives of the people behind them, and implicitly endorsed a future they probably didn't want to live in.

Reproduction in Gilead is regulated by the idea that sex is inherently degrading to women. The book references a past (our present) where feminists teamed up with conservatives in campaigns against pornography. The consequences of this alliance, however, only empowered feminism's worst enemies. Descriptions of the narrator's feminist mother burning books - then being sent to labour camps as an Unwoman - show feminism allying itself with the religious right, then being discarded by those 'allies'.

(When I read this as a teenager it was powerful food for thought. Also, it was kind of nice to read a sci-fi book told exclusively from a woman's perspective, by an authentic female voice. A lot of sci-fi has too much allegory about it for my taste, and the women all end up as traitors or queens. It was refreshing to read a book that had a point to make, but made it with the voice of someone who did not know what the 'right' or 'correct' thing was, or have a particular moral agenda. Offred, the narrator, is in many ways only a vessel. Anyway.)

 Handmaids in the film of the novel, watched over by blue-suited Wives.

Silly as it seems the book has greatly influenced how I interpret, well, loads of stuff. The irony, for instance, of a parent's recent complaint against The Handmaid's Tale being taught at his son's school, because it is "rife with brutality towards and mistreatment of women" and contravenes the school's policies of respect and tolerance.

Wow. Just wow. That is Not Getting It on so many levels, you hardly know where to begin.

And yet... it is only degrees away from a lot of the arguments against adult entertainment, against sex work. It's hard not to feel defensive about sex work when it seems like just about everyone hates you. The right can't decide if you need to be in prison or saved; the left, whether you need to be in a shelter or an 'exiting' programme. There are few accepted stories for sex workers other than Criminal or Victim.

The more closely you look at the key players behind some of the stories popping up lately - particularly ones about trafficking or sexualisation - the more you notice some odd pairings. A group working closely with the anti-gay, anti-abortion US lobbying group Family Research Council using a female MP as the mouthpiece of their opinions on the internet and porn. The well-known UK feminists lending their names to international groups with questionable agendas.

There are so many ways to use women outside of sexual commerce. What is the more damaging - selling a service, or not realising you're selling out?

There's a saying where I come from: you got to dance with the one who brung you. I wonder when everyone gets to the end of their dance cards, what promises they've made and what obligations they'll have to honour.