Half-lives and Help-mates (a reflection on “A Handmaid’s Tale”)

Copyright Bryan Bedder, Getty images

After watching season one of the Hulu series, “A Handmaid’s Tale” which is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a dystopian world of enslaved surrogate breeders in a sterile patriarchal society; distinct parallels between Confucian and Christian doctrines that I was raised with immediately resurfaced. Historically Patriarchy thrived in militant cultures that valued competition and social hierarchies, whereas Matriarchy flourished in peaceful, cooperative, egalitarian communities. In Patriarchal societies, females are devalued and delegated into secondary, servile roles: as cooks, maids, sex slaves and breeders. Through the powerful influence of politics and religion, females are marginalized as sub-mates, not seen as whole, individual beings with equal status. Because they’re considered incomplete without an authoritarian male; they’re either infantilized or sexualized and put under male sovereignty, disguised as “protection”. Religious and cultural programming reinforces the message that females are inferior and should be controlled as property.

I don’t want to spoil the viewing of “A Handmaid’s Tale” so I won’t give away too many details about it, but it takes place in a modern world set in the United States that suddenly becomes a religious, sexist and heavily militarized society. Women’s rights are taken away overnight, they’re fired from their jobs and not allowed to work. New laws steal their freedom. Their banks accounts are closed, and everyone is observed under the rule of male guards. Fertile women are hunted, their children are stolen away into orphanages and they’re tortured into submission/trained as Handmaids (slaves). They are assigned to households, forced to wear red uniforms, and they spy/inform on each other because of fear-based brainwashing. Both men (that are sympathetic to these women) and defiant women are killed in public executions. Their limp bodies are displayed ominously on walls as a warning against rebellion. The misogynistic regime uses archaic passages from the Old Testament Bible that describe a fertile woman’s duty to be a servant-slave and surrogate breeder for the infertile, wealthy, ruling class.

I was raised in a traditional Korean, first-generation immigrant household. My parents relocated to the US when they were in their early thirties; I was three years old when I arrived in North America in 1974. Korean culture is grounded in Confucian ideology which came from a strong influence of Chinese culture in ancient Korea. Affluent Koreans studied Classical Chinese literature and philosophy which revered the concept of social hierarchies, status, and the “natural” order of things. In Korea this concept of status is deeply ingrained in the language, customs, and behavior of people. If you look at the South Korean flag, you’ll notice the familiar yin and yang symbol in the center (but instead of black and white, the opposites are represented as red and blue) and the elemental I Ching hexagrams for heaven, earth, water and fire, are framed in the four corners, against a background of white. The I Ching is an ancient divination system based on Taoist philosophy. Yin (female) and Yang (male) are seen as opposites and pairs. Yin is represented as: female, dark, inner, reflective, cold, negative, weak and is symbolized as the moon while Yang is represented as: male, light, outer, radiant, positive, strong and is symbolized as the sun. Taoists believed that everything could be understood through imitation and observation of nature. Yin and Yang were two parts of a whole, opposites that contained an element of each other and that were constantly in flux, changing into its opposite; that’s why the symbolic shape is puzzle like, (flowing into the other) with a dot of it’s opposite in the center.

South Korean flag
Yin Yang symbol

My mother would often exasperatedly tell my sister and me, to “never have daughters”, because daughters were expected to leave their original families to become servant-like wives in their new husband’s household. Whenever she said that, I felt stabbed in the heart with rejection, devalued by my own mother, but I later realized what she meant; she felt pity for the future, subservient life path of her daughters. I think she was a feminist but she didn’t realize it! She was an outspoken, intellectual woman who was criticized by the Korean Christian community for “wearing the pants in the family”, but in actuality, she was secretly fighting for survival in a domestically violent marriage to my father. Whenever I debated with her about religion or politics, she loved the intelligent banter and smiled proudly at my cleverness, exclaiming, “If only you had been born male! Then you could’ve been a force for change in society.” Once when she was angry she said, “I hope you have twin daughters!” She meant it as a curse, being female equalled disempowerment; but I ironically always wanted to be a twin or a mother of twins. I thought twins were a miracle of nature.

Within Korean culture are various levels of status and hierarchy. Elders are at the apex, then males, females and finally the children are ranked by age. There are separate formal and informal ways of speaking, used to show respect, according to the age and gender of the speaker. If someone is older than you, you have to show deference to them, referring to them as “older brother or sister”, “grandfather or grandmother”, regardless of actual family ties. It’s a communal concept, as if everyone is part of a huge Korean family. Everyone bows to each other, but the lower your ranking, the lower you must bow. Individuality or independence was seen as a selfish and rude betrayal. You were responsible not just for your actions, but for the actions of your entire family.

Within the family unit, the patriarchal structure permitted violent discipline of the women and children. For instance, if a woman was raped, she was automatically shamed and blamed. If a child was born out of wedlock, (in old Korean society), both the woman and child could be justifiably murdered for bringing shame to the clan. My Aunt, (my father’s sister) was tragically shamed by her family and community. Her life was essentially destroyed because she had a child while unmarried. She was stunningly attractive but born to a poor fisherman household. She was my father’s older sister, his favorite sibling who mothered and helped to raise him during his childhood. The playboy father of her baby abandoned her while she was pregnant. She lost her sanity and gave up her will to live. Her orphaned child was raised by her family with great disdain. Fortunately I live in North America in 2018, so I don’t have to deal with the burden or stigma of being a single mother. I had the option to marry the father of my child but I wasn’t forced into an unwanted marriage. Actually while pregnant, my mother relentlessly tried to coerce me with threats that she would be killed by my father if I didn’t get married, her fears were unfounded and extremely stressful, but I stood my ground. On many levels, I’ve subconsciously battled the injustices and hypocrisy of outdated patriarchal customs taught in my family.

The Christian values of patriarchal hierarchy were also embraced by my family. Even though Buddhism was the cultural heritage of our homeland, my family adopted the new western religion. In the Old Testament, the creation myth of Adam and Eve was reinforced as the reason why women were inferior to men. The myth subjugated women as the original sinner, Eve was scape-goated as the temptress, created from Adam’s rib, and for her original sin she and the rest of womankind was punished with the pain of labor. She wasn’t celebrated as a divine goddess or creator as she was in Matriarchal societies. The myth of Mary the virginal mother of Jesus, was a surrogate mother. She herself wasn’t divine, she was a mere vessel, magically seeded by God. Only in Catholicism was she revered as a chaste woman, but Catholicism was basically Christianity fused with older pagan, Matriarchal religions, which were destroyed by the Patriarchal religions of: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

The myth of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

My theory of religious fanaticism is that it’s root cause is of from suffering, injustice and victimization. Victim hood and helplessness sets the perfect condition for religious surrender. My sister was traumatized by domestic violence since childhood and she was also the most indoctrinated and immersed in fundamentalist religion. She believed wholeheartedly that women were created for men as “help-mates”. She saw God as a divine father figure, that was to be obeyed without question. She thought humans were born in sin, deserving of eternal torture in hell. According to biblical teaching, women were under the supervision of men: fathers, brothers and husbands had authority, ruling over dependent: mothers, sisters and wives. It was the same distorted thinking that the females were the cause of problems and needed to be controlled. In medieval times, chastity belts were shackled on young, unmarried women to insure their virginity. The women were treated as property, traded in marriage alliances by their fathers. Women couldn’t own property because they were property.

chastity belt image, copyright alamy.com

In the liberal modern society that I live in, I can’t help but notice how women and men are still divided and socialized to dress and behave in North America. Often I’ll see couples walking together and the difference is obvious. The female is often adorned (burdened) with make up, jewelry, sexualized with revealing clothing and high-heeled shoes, everything about her appearance is designed to please. She’s on display in order to be seen as “beautiful, worthy, valued”. Her male counterpart is a striking contrast; sloppily dressed in loose, baggy clothing, no makeup, no attention to detail or pressure to display his “assets”. It seems that the only males that might feel pressure to look pleasing are gay and they are seen as anomalies. The power dynamic of indifference to appearance only applies to heterosexual males. When I was in my early twenties I once cut my shoulder length hair to a nearly crew cut style. I happened to work at a cafe and the reaction from male customers was dramatic. The men were all disappointed that I cut my long, “feminine” hair. The one guy who complimented me on my haircut was a rarity. It’s interesting because he had long hair, he was breaking the gender rules too, I think that’s why he was the only one who could see the beauty of breaking out of conditioned gender roles.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Foolchund Saahil says:

    Beautiful article and very informative. However, concerning the hegemonic masculine identity that you expose though a dominant adopted pattern of attitude, there exists what is called metrosexuality or ikemen in Japanese. Metrosexuals are heterosexual men who care about their looks and dressing sense in society. Please tell/correct me if I am wrong but your analysis misses the ideological (extremely powerful) of the media because If I refer to my sociological analysis, instead of religion whose importance is undermined by a growing secular world especially in the western world, It is more the diversifying social institution of the media that impacts gender roles and identities. To effectively counteract gender bias, discrimination and misrepresentation, all change should start in the socialisation process especially in the family considered as the cornerstone of society. Your works make me remember the French play of Moliere called The Imaginary Invalid where the daughter is ruthlessly used as a means of exchange by her hypochondriac patriarch to benefit from free medial care and property and where the feeling of a woman in love is obliterated for the stupid conventions of the French aristocratic society. Though I personally find Religion as a less important reason which affects gender role perception and identities, I still find it as a major influence in traditional societies to ideologically condition individuals to do what is expected of them (considered appropriate roles reserved for each gender). Otherwise, in-depth great analysis about the position and status of women.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting comments. Yes, I forgot the meterosexual subculture, but when I look around I see that about 80% of straight men don’t put much effort in their appearance while their female partner is dressed up to please them. I went for years refusing to wear makeup or high heels and dresses because of the double standard pressure on women to look “feminine”. The media in North America really objectifies women, ads depict them almost naked often while the men in the same photo are fully clothed. Thanks for your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Foolchund Saahil says:

        You’re welcome. There was something about female objectification; a sociologist who studied the situation called Mulvey termed it the ‘male gaze’ as highly sexualised images of women served to commercialise products through ads and posts( the images of women served to maintain a dominant ideology while safeguarding the interests of capitalist societies)

        Liked by 2 people

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