Power of the Word: Reflections from The Handmaid’s Tale

In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are oppressed as men control much of the United States. As the book progresses, we see that men took and maintained control over women in a number of ways including limiting sight, opportunities, economic participation, and the written word.

The impact of the written word is emphasized by these women as it is a means of communication we so often take for granted. We assume we will always be able to write notes, grocery lists, and letters, but it is only when the ability to write is taken from us that we realize how much of a gift it truly was.

On page 52, Atwood describes how Offred discovers a woman’s hidden rebellion:

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell: Nolite te bastardes carborundum.

This phrase, nolite te bastardes carborundum, is perhaps the most famous line from the novel. There is an interesting story behind its meaning and many people have written about it (or tattooed it on their bodies), but it loosely translates to “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

nolite te bastardes carborundorum

Don’t let the bastards get you down

The meaning of the phrase, however, isn’t really the point. The real message here is the power of the written word, whatever it may be. Just the fact that we can craft these symbols that convey meaning when rearranged that can last for generations is an incredible power.

It is a power that has been revoked from these women.

Offred does not know the meaning of these words, but she doesn’t have to. When she is in danger of breaking down or just needs some reassurance, she recites these words to herself.

Nolite te bastardes carborundum.

Just the fact that someone, anyone, has rebelled against their oppressive society and gotten away with it gives her hope.

I worry that sometimes we forget today just how valuable the written word has. As women, especially, our voices have been kept quiet for so much of our history. There were times when we were not allowed to read, not allowed to participate in politics, not allowed to publish newspapers, not allowed to make our thoughts known.

We have that power now. Our ancestors made sure of that.

But we need to honor their hard work. We need to document our struggles, publish our thoughts, write our history. We need to make use of the gifts from the women who came before us to leave a legacy for the women who will come after us.

So please, start a blog, keep a diary, tell your daughters about your lives. Atwood’s novel is fiction, but it’s closer to reality than we may like to admit.

 

Interested in joining the conversation? Download The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon or borrow it from your local library and jump in with your comments. 

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Symbols of Oppression: Reflections from The Handmaid’s Tale

This summer, I am getting back into reading. And reading good books at that.

Right now, I am working on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is about a woman’s disheartening survival in a dystopian anti-feminist society in which men have taken control of much of the United States. The women are socialized to believe that they are submissive and in need of protection as they live their lives in one of only a few roles afforded to them.Handmaids Tale cover

I’m less than 100 pages in so far, but I am already so inspired and captivated by this novel that I just need to share it with someone else. I almost wish I was back in AP Lit just so I can discuss the symbolism and deeper implications of the novel with other readers. But alas, high school is behind me, so here I am writing in a blog for myself and a handful of others to possibly see.

But to keep this conversation going, or rather, to actually make it a conversation, please leave comments with your thoughts. Better yet, read with me and we can turn this into a virtual book club of sorts. I hate making promises about when I’ll post, but I’ll do my best to post throughout my reading as I find things particularly noteworthy.


In the novel, I am so impressed by the many layers of meaning that Atwood packs into just a few lines. On page 28, she writes:

“Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen — to be seen — is to be — her voice trembled — penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.”

Now, Atwood’s writing style is a bit odd and takes some getting used to for those of us who are grammar purists, but bear with me. These lines are incredible. Near the end, it sounds like words of empowerment; “you must be…impenetrable.” But in context, these words are part of the women’s “brainwashing” process when they attend classes to teach them to be submissive to men.

Submission

There is so much symbolism from the first section of the book that is beautifully encapsulated in these few sentences. For one, the women are called girls, as the main character, Offred, reports. They are called girls supposedly to convey their purity and innocence, but really, it is a linguistic chain. It makes these women, some of whom are in their college years, pliable, submissive, obedient, unthinking, and childlike.

oppression-luke-moore

It makes them less independent and less of a threat.

They believe themselves to be protected by these controlling men, but in reality, they are being controlled. Rather than women with equal faculties (if not freedoms) to men, they are less than and must be cared for because they lack the ability to care for themselves.

With just a few changes in rhetoric, women in this society are socialized to believe they need men to control them.

Sight

The eye and the concept of seeing is another symbol present throughout the novel that is touched upon in this excerpt. Seeing is power. Awareness is power. When we see the world, we begin to understand it. When we understand it, we have the power to change it, or at least act independently within it.

Taylor-TheHandmaidsTaleTheLostPencePrequel-1200

Understanding enables autonomy. So in Atwood’s society, limiting sight limits understanding which in turn limits autonomy. The women wear veils and the Handmaids wear wings on their hats that act as blinders you would see on a horse. Limited autonomy, like with a horse, means more control.

Seeing, in this world, is portrayed as giving men power over women; it allows them to be “penetrated” and thus less pure and more controlled. But in fact, the opposite is true. Seeing is what could give these women power over the men.

If they could only see, these women would realize the power they have. They would see that the men are no different from them, that they have the numbers and access to these men’s lives to take down the oppressive system, that they have any kind of power at all. They could see all of this, but their society has used a combination of rhetoric and socialization to twist the meaning of sight from one of empowerment to one of vulnerability.

Now

This is a message so influential to women today.

Women are encouraged to not see the inner workings of our society, to not be involved in politics for fear that it is too complicated or too disheartening. But the same fact rings true in Atwood’s society and ours: seeing is power. 

By seeing what is really going on around us, we can be aware, and by being aware, we can understand, and by understanding, we can have autonomy, and when we have autonomy, we can change the world.

Women have power, but we need to keep our eyes open and never let anyone, men or otherwise, shield or obstruct our vision.

the-handmaids-tale

Interested in joining the conversation? Download The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon or borrow it from your local library and jump in with your comments. 

Being a Republican at Queens

I’m a girl from a small town in southern Georgia, I am a freshman at Queens, and I am a Republican.

I was pretty nervous about leaving Georgia and going to the big city of Charlotte. This is my first time being away from home, and I was pretty worried about not being able to find my place.

But thankfully, I came to Queens. I found a community that loves me, supports me, and values me for who I am. I’m making friends and finding out that being away from home isn’t so bad when your university feels like your new home.

But it’s November and things have been kinda weird.

Every time I turn on the TV in my room, I see ads with horrible things about Trump. The worst pictures they can find of him. The worst things he’s ever said. Yeah, there are a few anti-Hillary ads, but  it’s nothing like the hate being thrown at Trump.

I don’t really support him, but I do agree with some of his politics. My uncle lives in Texas and was robbed by a Mexican who didn’t have papers. A friend of mine got an abortion when we were juniors and has regretted it ever since. My dad lost his job at the local factory when the company moved the jobs overseas.

I’m not really one to talk about politics, but I do have my own opinions for my own reasons. I got pretty excited when I watched CBS interview the Trump campaign manager just before the election. Finally, some of my views could get some real attention. As they interviewed her, I couldn’t believe how rude they were to her. They cut her off, asked incredibly hard and pointed questions, and presented her in a really bad light.

All the news has been showing this. Every time a conservative-thinking person says what they believe, someone calls them a Trump-supporter, a racist, a sexist. They don’t really have a voice. I see these videos on Facebook of Trump supporters being harassed or judged and I can’t help but think that those things could happen to me if I opened my mouth.

But I go to Queens, the most supportive community I’ve ever been a part of.

Our campus wants us to be informed of the issues before we vote, so we’ve been having a series of lectures and discussions about the major issues. I had time to go to the immigration one and thought it would be a great place to find out more, especially given all the controversy about the wall.

The panel went well. Everyone was very impartial and made a point to say that everyone’s opinions could be heard. They made it a safe space. When it came time to open the floor for questions, a man stood up and asked about the wall. I’m really glad he asked because the panel had never addressed it and I really wanted to know the facts before I cast my vote.

When he asked the question, the whole room kinda giggled and people shifted in their seats. One of the panelists sighed and another had a really subtle smirk.

I was so embarrassed. I wasn’t the one who asked the question, but I could have been. The whole room could have been giggling and sighing and smirking at me.

The panelists kinda answered the question, but it seemed like they had this well-prepared, even rehearsed, rebuttal. It was like they had just been waiting for someone to ask so they could point out why it was a ridiculous policy.

Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but it felt like the panel I had begun to trust for unbiased opinion was suddenly united against me.

I left the panel feeling confused and kinda hurt. I needed someone to talk to, so I walked to my RA’s room. I was just about to knock on her door when I saw she had put up a #ImWithHer sticker on her door. I know she’s supposed to be supportive of any resident who has a problem, but I just didn’t feel right talking to a Hillary supporter about my issues as a conservative voter.

I don’t know if she would have, but I just had a feeling that she would try to sway me into voting for Hillary. I didn’t need a political debate. I just needed someone to talk to.

I figured I’d just let it go and go to bed. It was just one incident of being uncomfortable. It didn’t represent Queens. My university still supported me even if that panel didn’t.

I walked to breakfast the next morning and the first thing I saw were huge posters of horrible things Trump had said. “Grab them by the p***y!” “When a woman is flat-chested, it’s really hard to be a ten.”

It hurt. Yes, it hurt to see those word because I’m a woman, but it also really hurt because that’s my candidate being smeared across the walls of Trexler. Yes, his words were wrong, but Hillary has said some pretty bad things, too, and you don’t see me putting up posters.

In gender communication that afternoon, we did peer reviews of our papers. I read the paper of the girl next to me and saw that she wrote about Donald Trump’s words about women. I didn’t really know what to say about her paper. I had to make comments on her paper, but I was scared. If I made suggestions to change her argument, she’d know I supported Trump. She’s really into politics, so if we got into a political debate, I’d be torn apart.

I decided to keep my opinions to myself, so the only comments I gave her on her paper were about a missing comma and some revisions to APA format.

I thought about my own paper and how maybe I should see a tutor, but I just couldn’t bring myself to let someone else read my defense of Trump. I’ve been to the Center for Student Success before and knew that they were really supportive of students, but I just didn’t want to take the chance that I’d get a Hillary supporter as my tutor. And as I was beginning to learn, there’s a pretty good chance of that happening at Queens.

That got me thinking. I know there are a lot of liberal-thinking people at Queens, and it makes sense being in Charlotte, but how many conservative people were there?

I asked my RA what political groups there were on campus. She told me about College Democrats, but she didn’t say anything about Republicans. I asked her if there was a College Republicans on campus and she said no. She said, “I don’t know any Republicans at Queens, but if you’re interested in it, you can start the club. You just need some people to start it with you.”

I was really excited! I was starting to feel politically active finally. I’ve heard that Queens is all about open discussion, so this was my chance to give voice to a different side.

Putting up posters to get people to start the club with me seemed like a bad idea. They say most Trump supporters are pretty shy like me, so calling people out as Republicans wouldn’t be really smart. So instead, I thought I’d just keep my eyes open and look for signs that someone might have the same views as me.

I didn’t find anyone.

I heard a lot of people talking about how ridiculous Trump’s ideas were and how he’d be the worst president in history.

I saw a glimmer of hope when I passed a dorm in Wireman with a Trump-Pence sign in the window. Finally! Someone who’s proud to support someone other than Hillary. I was trying to figure out how to get into Wireman when I saw the person who lived in the room. He saw the sign and got kinda upset. I heard him yell, “Who put this in here?!” His roommate came out and they started laughing. It was a joke. A prank.

Supporting Trump is a joke. That’s what I learned. At least it’s a joke at Queens.

I really thought Queens had my back. I thought I was free to express my views. And I guess I am. No one ever told me that I couldn’t put up posters, that I couldn’t express my views, that I couldn’t talk to anyone, but whether they realized it or not, Queens showed me that maybe I shouldn’t.

I felt abandoned by my university this semester–my first semester. I hope things will get better. Maybe this was all just because of the ugly election. But there are some things I can’t forget, and the way I felt this November is one of them.

 


 

This is not my story. This is not the story of someone I know. But this is someone’s story.

As Democrats and Hillary supporters, many of us don’t see this. We don’t see how making our voice heard affects people who disagree with us. We may not realize it, but we did this to someone on campus.

The election is over. I know people are upset and I’m not asking anyone to just “get over it.” All I’m saying is this election has caused a lot of hurt in this country and Queens is not immune from it. We have all hurt someone.

I don’t want to call anyone out, but each of the events I’ve described have happened on this campus. People did giggle when a man asked about the wall at the panel. Posters were put up in Trexler. Papers were written about Trump’s comments about women. There is no College Republicans group. A Trump-Pence sign in a dorm was put up as a joke between roommates.

These things happened.

I wrote this because I want everyone to think. Put yourself in the shoes of someone else. How do they see you? How do they feel when they hear what you say?

I truly believe Queens is a supportive community and the most supportive community I have ever been a part of, but we are not perfect. We are on the right track, but I wanted to open our eyes to the areas where we have room to grow.

Queens has become a home for me and I just ask that we all work together to make it a home for everyone.

 

A Northern Girl in a Southern World

This semester, I’m taking a class that explores the development of our identity and the different factors that shape our sense of self throughout our lifetime. Today, I wrote a journal entry for class and thought it might be interesting enough to share with you guys here. I hope you get some value from it. I know I did.

It’s interesting to consider the role of my past relationships in the development of my identity because my move from Pittsburgh, PA to Blythewood, SC has divided my relationships into two sets with only a few relationships spanning this interruption. I lived in Pittsburgh for about 10 years and then moved to SC right after I finished elementary school. The timing of the move worked out well because the transition from elementary school to middle school would have been pretty disruptive anyway, so the added layer of being in a new state was less jarring.

Still, I pretty much severed the few close friendships I had in Pittsburgh. I am an only child, had three grandparents at the time, and was only really close to two friends. I kept my network small. Looking back, I feel like it was a good thing I moved when I did. My elementary school was really small, so everyone had classes with the same people from kindergarten to 5th grade. People didn’t really change because the environment and the people around us never really changed.

I didn’t realize that I felt limited in my old school until I moved and had the chance to start fresh. I could make new friends, talk to a lot of different people, be involved in different activities, and explore areas of my personality that I knew were there, but that just didn’t quite fit with the “old me” that the people back home would have expected. I had the chance to just be me without having to worry about whether I was fitting into the identity that others already had of me. I didn’t have to be the quiet girl who didn’t speak up in class. I could explore new areas of my personality.

What stayed consistent through the whole process, though, were my parents. Both journalism majors from Point Park University, they always taught me the value of a clearly communicated idea. Find out what you want to say and say it as clearly as possible. They always encouraged me to learn and to be independent. It’s interesting because being independent is an attribute that is incredibly valued in Pittsburgh, almost to the point of fault. Pittsburghers get stuff done and often have the mindset that if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves. I had this attitude as a child, but I feel like I really grew into it after moving to South Carolina which is interesting because the southern mindset, especially for only children, is much different.

In my experience, teens in the south are much more reliant on their parents than teens in the north. Parents fight their children’s battles at school, don’t expect them to get a job, and just generally don’t encourage their children to choose their own path. I’m not sure if this is the case everywhere, but I certainly experienced it. It was interesting to me that even though I moved away from Pittsburgh so early in life, I still managed to hold onto the values of my old community: hard work, independence, and living your life your way.

It caused some cognitive dissonance at times, but I took pride in my interesting mix. I had the independence to go my own may from my northern roots, but I had the opportunities to explore in my new southern environment. It’s a unique experience, and I am grateful for my parents being the living examples of making your home-grown values thrive in a new setting. They showed me how to be steady yet adaptable and they’ve truly helped me become the person I am today.

Day 3: The Thankfulness Project

Thank you, thank you, thank you, God, for having a reliable car.

My boyfriend has been dealing with car trouble since this past summer and last month, it finally became almost undriveable. There is a lot of work to be done on it if it is going to last a few more years.

ford focus

So, I apparently don’t have any pictures of my car (see how thankful I am), but here’s what it looks like. Courtesy of http://gtcarlot.com/data/Ford/Focus/2007/384894/Exterior-59452628.html

Seeing him struggle and worry almost every day about whether it would break down in the middle of the road, I became very very thankful for my car that has never had an issue more serious than a flat tire.

Going to school in a wealthy neighborhood where my 2007 Ford Focus is probably one of the oldest cars on the block, I often take for granted my little green car that starts up every day, drives smooth, and keeps me warm (or cold) and dry. I never complain about my car, but I don’t often say thank you either.

There are a lot of people in this country who don’t have vehicles or who are restless wondering if they’ll have a way to get to work in the morning. There are a lot of people in other countries who will never have a car or maybe even see one. They walk for miles in rain, snow, and heat.

I was reminded today of how important cars are when my roommate woke me up early to ask me to drive her to class because the friend she normally rides with could not find her keys. I didn’t really think about it until after I dropped her off, but her education (at least for today) relied on me having a reliable mode of transportation.

I started thinking about how what I would do without a car. I would have to walk about a mile to the grocery store and walk back with everything I bought. The nearest non-grocery store is probably another mile further. I wouldn’t be able to drive to see my boyfriend. I wouldn’t be able to go home whenever I want. I wouldn’t be able to drive to work and I wouldn’t be able to explore my beautiful city.

I know these are first-world problems and not nearly comparable to the plights of those in impoverished or less developed nations, but they at least gave me a brief insight into what I would do without my little green blessing.

Lord,
I know it’s a little thing, but thank you for my car. I often forget how much of a blessing it is to not have to worry how I will get somewhere. All I have to do is grab my keys and go. So many people in this world do not have that luxury. For them, it is a labor to go a few miles and travelling long distances is out of the question. Thank you for giving me a blessing I can share with others by giving rides and help me find more ways to honor you with the gift you’ve given me.
Amen.

JJB- Day 3 thankful for a reliable car

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