Gender Roles in “A Handmaids Tale” by Margaret Atwood

The concept of gender is one that has been a heated topic for many years. There are many different theories on what gender is, and how it should be used and treated in society. Judith Butler argues in her piece Performative Acts and Gender Constitution that gender is not something that one is born with, but it is instead a performance. She writes about the importance of identity, and the divide between sex, gender, and race. While many believe gender is determined as a biological attribute to a person, Butler believes otherwise. A text that accurately depicts Butler’s theory of gender as a performance is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a novel surrounding a dystopian, anti-feminist society. Set in a backwards American society, where oppression has been restored, and the government has taken complete control, the story follows a female character named Offred, who has to adapt to societies new (yet old) reality. There is an overwhelming sense of essentialism in the novel in regards to women’s roles, and highlights key points referred in Judith Butler’s theory of gender as a performance. Judith Butler argues that sex and gender are socially constructed, and that they are something that is performed in society and something that one will become, not something they already are. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood emphasizes Butler’s theory through the character of Offred and her experience with the role of female gender in a dystopian society.

Judith Butler is one of the most well known writers on feminist theory, and in her piece Performative Act and Gender Constitution, she formed a theory of gender that is well known and referenced all over feminist movements. She argues around a centralized concept that your gender is constructed through repetitive acts, or performances, and that gender is not something that you are born being. They are a stylized repetition of acts that is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo (Butler 520). Although she believes in this theory, society has created a status quo of gender, one that is constrained by historical conventions (Butler 521). History and time has created a script, according to Butler, that is expected to be followed from birth. Although these social expectations are expected to be followed, she states that many people who are following said script, one that is distinguished by their biological sex, are not even aware they are doing so. She argues that sex is also assumed based off of gender. She writes that many feminists theorists, such as herself, disagree with the explanation that sex dictates social expectations from a women. In Ingrid Robeyns When will Society be Gender Just? she too defines gender as social positions that men and women occupy because of certain bodily features that reveal her reproductive capacities (Robeyns). A person’s bodily features, she says, are used as markers to determine a man and a women, and thus also justifying their social positions (Robeyns). These premade roles that are set out for them are so solidified into history that it is expected to be something they are instead of something they become. It is expected in society for biologically born women to display feminine traits, such as painting their nails, doing their makeup, wearing dresses, etc. It even goes as far as the expectation of bearing and caring for children. Men are also expected to follow their roles, as being strong and dominant, and being the monetary caretaker for the family. Butler writes that these roles are a strategy of survival, and that Discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within a contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender rights are regularly punished (522). The fear of society’s disapproval is part of what has created this monster of gender expectations.

Although tying gender in as a performative act, Butler understands the difference between theatre and gender. There is no role in gender that can be differentiated from the self. An actor has the ability to step out of their role, back into reality. The performance of gender does not give the same ability. In theatre, one is able to maintain a sense of reality in the face of this temporary challenge to our existing ontological assumptions about gender arrangements (Butler 527). Being able to say this is only a play allows a separation between performance and real life. When in society, though, there is no set conventions that distinguish the two, providing a dangerous situation for those who decided to step out of the normal performance of their expected gender roles. Our bodies are inscribed with heterosexuality as something that must be performed from the beginning of life, and the performance should be acted throughout society by every man and women. When the act of heterosexuality is broken, the history and sedimentation of societies normal gender roles are broken, thus creating a negative reaction. An example of this, referenced in Robeyn’s article, is the power imbalance between the gender performance of men and women. She writes:

The femininity norms make it much harder for women than men to gain power. As Pierre Bourdieu put it, ‘access to power of any kind places women in a double bind: if they behave like men, they risk losing the obligatory attributes of femininity and call into question the natural right of men to the positions of power.’ Whereas empirical studies show that both men and women are socially punished if they violate their respective gender norms, conforming to these norms leads to gendered behavior that puts women in structurally weaker positions than men (Robeyn 4).

Because of society’s expectations of gender, any small change in the usual performance leads to a huge imbalance. The concept of power is an important example of this, where men are expected to hold most of societies power, while women are expected to do the same in the home. If those positions are altered, or even switched, that creates social disapproval, and throws off the societies balance as a whole.

Butler argues that although this may be the case due to the layers of historical expectations for gender performance, that gender should not be referred to as something fixed and binary, but instead should be referenced as fluid, constructed, and performed. Society and its expectation of gender as a uniform act creates a compelling illusion of gender being part of human nature. This system is preserved in society because of its cultivation of bodies into discrete sexes and the reassurance that there is an essentialism of gender identity (Butler 524-528). Butler wants it to be known that gender and sex does not have to correlate, and that it is in fact possible to choose the traits of your own individualized gender. Although, unfortunately, society may have something to say about this. Even though womens suppression has become less and less every year, there are still expectations from women, such as bearing children and doing the household chores, that are still a part of society’s outlook on gender. Butler believes, though, that with enough break in the sedimented performances of gender, that it is possible to present your gender in whichever way you would like to. Although these preliminary gender roles have been acted out throughout the beginning of time, today’s society is beginning to follow Butler’s theory of gender as a performance. Many people are beginning to break out of their roles, and be someone that they want to be, without a label of gender. Although some are becoming successful at doing so, sex and gender is still a performative act that is hard to be broken.

The dystopian society of Gilead in A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is a prime example of women’s oppression and the effects gender roles have on a society.

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