I don’t know about you, but this was one of my major responses to the election:

Yup, we’re still in 2012. Collective sigh of relief.

But I keep thinking back to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, written during that period of evangelical upswing, the mid-1980s. I hadn’t read the novel since I was a teenager, but picked it up again this fall as the birth control and rape conversations were flying fast & furious. The book is every bit as good as I remember, but for different reasons: whereas what I remembered was the horrifying future Atwood imagined, what I’d forgotten was the interior experience of its protagonist.

Because I think what is so chilling about this novel is how they got there, and what they forgot along the way.

Her name is Offred, and I beg you to read the novel just to find out how she has come by that awkward name. We never learn her real name. Offred’s job in this Christian future is to get pregnant on behalf of the high-ranking couple to whom she has been assigned. Like the story from Genesis in which Rachel cannot bear children for her husband Jacob, Offred has been selected to serve as the vessel for her master’s sperm and the baby that will be assigned to her mistress.

According to every single message within society, Offred’s subject position is God’s will.

As horrifying as that is, it’s worse to find two other crucial elements to the novel. The first is that she has forgotten how to live that other life, the life that existed before this new regime. For example, she encounters  a group of Japanese tourists who stare at them and want to take photographs:

I can’t help staring. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before. 

I stop walking. Ofglen stops beside me and I know that she too cannot take her eyes off these women. We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

That’s what I worry about: that we are forgetting that making our own decisions about our bodies is both legal and a guarantor of women’s political and social equality. Instead, we’re getting used to a vast cultural and governmental apparatus making decisions for us. We’re getting used to entertaining seriously the notion that abortion is something to be debated — that it is inherently suspect, dangerous, traumatic. Not just abortion: also birth control. Also how to define “rape.”

We are forgetting what it feels like to reject those views. Texas women who undergo state-mandated trans-vaginal ultrasounds when they seek abortions are learning to forget that this is not necessary. Women who vote for libertarian candidates learn to think that those candidates’ views on state-mandated anti-abortion policies aren’t abhorrent and inconsistent with their political/ economic views. We’re told daily about the new varieties of legitimate or forcible rapes. We’re learning that birth control is the new battleground — that maybe The Pill and the IUD ought to be taken away from us.

The second chilling this about the novel is Offred’s fuzzy memories of the years before — how they looked past the ways their society was changing:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of them were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. 

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print.

It’s mid-November, the worst of the crazies were not elected, but are we in 2012? The article in The Onion is not so sure. At the end, its interviewee explains that “while she was grateful upon learning what year it was, she had to admit that living in the year 2012 was still quite frightening.” Amen to that. Let’s not forget it.

Lord knows I, as much as the next girl, love being told by white male politicians what God wants for me. It just gets so confusing for my lady brain when they disagree.

So let me fire this one at Richard Mourdock, the Republican candidate for Senate from Indiana, who explained in Monday night’s televised debate that he opposes abortion for women who’ve been impregnated by their rapists because God “intended” it to happen.

Hang on, so God wants me to be raped? and to serve as empty vessel for the rapist’s spawn?

“The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother,” said Mourdock, the Tea Party-backed candidate who knocked Sen. Richard Lugar (R) out of the race at the primary stage. “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Don’t you wish that you, too, knew what God wanted? Perhaps it’s only women who are suckers enough to believe in all that “working in mysterious ways” stuff.

Mourdock’s opponents jumped on his statement immediately (they are both rabidly anti-abortion, yet allow for exceptions). “The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen – ever,” said Mourdock’s Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly. “What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”

Whoa! whiplash! I have a question, sir: Does God want me to be raped or not? Dammit all, how can there be such confusion on this issue? And can someone tell me how anybody knows what God’s will is?

Other questions arise. If God is involved to this extent, why don’t we tell people that God wants a criminal to invade their homes and hold them hostage just for kicks? Does God want all those other rape victims to be murdered and left in shallow graves?

Yup, that’s right, ladies: we just have to lie back and take all this information about God’s will over our bodies. ‘Cuz lord knows He only talks to politicians.

Hannah (Lena Dunham) is lying in her hospital gown, rattling on nervously to the gynecologist about why she’s getting screened for sexually transmitted infections. She describes her lifelong fear of dying of AIDS. The doctor asks if she knows someone who died of it. “Umm, it’s more of like a Forrest Gump based fear,” she explains. “That’s what Robin Wright Penn’s character died of. So….”

Even though she always uses a condom with her partners, she says, she’s worried about getting infected by the “stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms.” (Having googled that query, she’s pretty convinced it’s something to worry about.) The gynecologist looks at her with exactly the kind of disbelieving annoyance that was probably on my face during this scene.

“You could not pay me enough to be 24 again,” the gynecologist says.

“Well, they’re not paying me at all,” Hannah replies.

I can’t imagine a better snippet of dialogue to catch the way these Girls of Dunham’s articulate exactly the kind of emotional and intellectual chaos I see in my students of the same relative intelligence and class status. They’ve got a whipsmart quick-wittedness that serves as the lingua franca of young women — self-identifying as smart, self-deprecating, funny, astute, sometimes brutally honest. Traveling in packs with the volume jacked up, these girls’ verbal patter can reach a manic level. But they’re neither self-aware nor knowledgeable enough to know how idiotic they sound to everyone who lives outside their tribe. The patter covers up a lot of the neurotic uncertainty.

You sort of want to grab them by the shoulders, give them a good shake, and say, calm down, shut up, and stop it with your attention-deficit chatter for a sec. You also kind of love them for their non-filtered logorrhea. Which brings me to the first relevant point about this show: as its creator/ director, Lena Dunham offers us a theory about why these are “girls,” not “women” — and it has to do with what they call themselves, and what they will allow themselves to be. Whereas Sex and the City fantasized a world we could all aspire to, with perfect financial comfort, work enjoyment, sexual confidence, spectacular clothing, and available men, these Girls are finding none of the above. They live in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. They have bodies and clothes I recognize as real. They screw up their job interviews.

The men are so undesirable as to be chilling. Hannah’s perpetually disappointing fuck-buddy Adam (Adam Driver), an “actor,” hangs out in his apartment with no shirt on — clearly imagining that he’s far more all-that than he is. Hannah’s awful sex scenes with him will make you grip the arms on your chair.

It’s not just the spectacularly bad sex that makes you cringe; it’s also the crazy sense of entitlement undercut with glimpses of self-doubt managed, one guesses, by anti-anxiety medications. How else to explain Hannah’s situation at the table with her parents as they announce they’re cutting her off financially? When she protests that she’s not done writing her memoir (!) she explains, “I think I may be the voice of my generation.” But then she backs up. “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”

You see? This is great stuff, and it’s delivered with that same combination of quick-witted self-deprecation I recognize from those students of mine. And yet: she’s writing her memoir? Also believable, also cringe-making.

So yeah, you won’t identify with these characters. My students won’t show up in the fall telling me “I am sooo like Shoshanna!” the way they did ten years ago with Miranda, Carrie, Samantha and Charlotte. (There’s even a nice scene in the first episode in which Shoshanna burbles about which character she identifies with.) These girls haven’t figured out what they want, nor how to get it. They’re full of borrowed, would-be sage advice picked up here and there — and they’re quick to criticize each other — but they’re floundering. It’s kind of amazing.

Perhaps I should pause here to note that, between gazing on these Girls with disbelieving annoyance and laughing my butt off, I can’t believe no one has done this before. This writing is crisp, subtle, tight. The characters interrupt each other with non sequiturs so realistic and ridiculous that I want to watch all the episodes again to make sure I caught all the best jokes. Like when three of them sit in the clinic’s waiting room while Hannah gets ready for her STI examination:

Marnie, speaking to Shoshanna about Hannah: She’s obsessed with getting AIDS. She’s thought she was going to get it since she was like ten years old. That’s what this is about. [rolls eyes.]

Hannah: I don’t have an obsessive fear of AIDS. I have obsessive fear of HIV that turns into AIDS. I’m not a fool.

Marnie: Well, you don’t have HIV. You just don’t. It’s not that easy to contract.

Shoshanna: It’s really not that hard to contract either, though. I mean, haven’t you seen Rent?

Marnie, rolling eyes: Please. I’ve seen it like twelve times. It’s basically why I moved to New York.

You see? I swear I heard those same girls at the coffee shop this morning.

Compared to Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010, made when she was only 23, gulp), Girls is tight — and fearless. I quite liked that film,  but this series has an underlying perception and forthrightness about how these girls live that shows Dunham’s growing talent as a writer. Parts of it even feel like a shot across the bow by this gifted writer and young woman, especially given the second episode’s subject matter, “Vagina Panic” — which circles around Jessa’s scheduled abortion as well as Hannah’s STI anxieties.

Between the four of them, they articulate virtually every perspective on abortion — everything from “it’s devastating” to “whatever” — because that’s what they do; they blather. There’s no conceptual consistency to their opinions; they haven’t really thought them through. But neither does any one of them question the utter necessity of getting that abortion. “What’s she going to do? Have a baby and take it to her babysitting job? That’s not realistic,” Hannah insists in one of those perfect moments of clarity. Let’s face it: the idea of any one of these girls taking on motherhood is appalling.

Fuck yeah, Lena Dunham. We’ve all been complaining for years about the Judd Apatow-ization of film — the perpetual focus on men’s neurotic feelings and ambivalences, while stereotyping the women in their lives — so listen, friends, the time has come to watch one of those actual women skewer her own tribe. It’s so funny, so awful that you (like me) might find yourself watching the episode all over again to catch on to the jokes.

You could not pay me enough to be 24 again. Unless I could be Lena Dunham, using this as material toward a spectacular future.

Well, count me surprised: of all rabid Republicans, Texas Senator (R) Kay Bailey Hutchison announces that she opposes Rick Perry’s defunding of Planned Parenthood for its destructive effects on women’s health in that state:

HUTCHISON: We cannot afford to lose the Medicaid funding for low income women to have health care services. We cannot. 

Whoa! I’m not sure I’ve ever agreed with Hutchison on anything!

*****

In other, less enlightening news, a group of anti-abortion activists inhabited the Idaho state capitol building and underwent ultrasounds to show the rest of us how great they are. Not the trans-vaginal kind, mind you — after all, the goal is to show how much ultrasounds are “miraculous” and not “rape-y.” The anti-abortion activist interpreting these ultrasounds “pointed out heartbeats and body parts with a red laser, suggesting at times that the fetuses were waving and making kissing faces.” Question: if the whole point is to force women to have vaginal probes, why don’t the activists have such ultrasounds to show how miraculous it is?

*****

On a lighter vaginal note, a nice line from the Kate Atkinson novel, Started Early, Took My Dog:

Tilly had always rather liked the word “vagina.” It sounded like a scholarly girl or a newfound land.

Thank you, Doonesbury and Garry Trudeau, for telling it like it is.

Richmond, VA: The Virginia personhood bill has been tabled by the state senate. Don’t worry, folks! It’s only been tabled until next year. Because the real con game here isn’t about personhood or abortion, it’s shaming women! (BTW: the unnecessary ultrasound bill is ready for the VA governor’s signature, even though it’s no longer a trans-vaginal probe ultrasound!)

Ever disliked a woman? A female boss, an ex-girlfriend, Nancy Pelosi, that mean girl in high school, that woman who got into a college that rejected you? Weeellll. This game shames all women, and that’s gotta be good for all of us!

This game is a lot like chess, except with blunt instruments. This is the long con, the game that stretches out for years. This game is not for the faint of heart.

Step #1 has already been accomplished: Making the abortion issue solely about women’s shame. When was the last time you saw a woman in one of those t-shirts that says, “I had an abortion”? Ha! All that screaming outside of women’s health clinics = success!

Step #2: Shift those glasses you’re wearing to black and white. Don’t be fooled by talk of “incest exceptions,” “women’s health,” “rape,” or “Republicans favor small government.” There is right and there is wrong, folks! Never the twain shall meet! And what is right is that men get to have patriarchal control over everything, and that women be shamed into silence and sexual submission.

Step #3: There is no hyperbole too outrageous. Propose a bill that requires all women seeking birth control to undergo religious counselling. A bill that requires female circumcision of all girls starting at the age of 10. Nothing is too extreme if you’re draped in the righteousness of Christianity!

Addendum to Step #3: Don’t worry if you lose these small battles — that’s not the point! The point is that we win the war, and the war is about shaming women and requiring female silence! In fact, the more hyperbolic the bill, the more we make all women think, “Hang on, am I supposed to be ashamed that I need birth control pills to manage my fibroid condition?”

Step #4: Shame all women in the public sphere who might offer up a counter-argument to female shame and silence. Let’s take the story of Quanitta “Queen” Underwood, the female boxer who’s likely to be the US’s best Olympic hope for the lightweight belt. Just recently she revealed something she had never told her closest friends: that between the ages of 10 and 13, Queen’s father raped her and her older sister on a regular basis. At first, he raped her older sister while Queen lay next to her in bed, pretending to be asleep. Eventually they told their (absent) mother, and he was imprisoned. This kind of coming-through-slaughter story is exactly what we need to squelch!

Solution: Propose that female boxers be forced to wear skirts when they compete. See how wearing a skirt reminds women athletes that the only important thing about their skill is their lady-business and/or how pretty they are? Get everyone distracted by the skirts question such that they ignore the Queen’s tale of survival — it doesn’t matter that you lose this campaign, because we’ll just propose skirts again for the next sport!

Our favorite part of this proposal: the perversion of the notion of choice. The outcome of this battle is that now, female boxers get to “choose” between shorts or a skirt.

And that leads to our last Step, #5: Rewrite the notion of choice. Bombard the airwaves with new definitions of the “right to choose” in a campaign so intense that everyone forgets that this terminology once had anything to do with abortion.

Example: Michelle Bachmann calls herself a feminist and speaks of the right to choose to raise 23 foster children. See how that muddies the water about choice, narrowing it down to the issue of how to be a mother?

Example: Sarah Palin calls herself a feminist and speaks of the right to choose between using a vacuum cleaner or crawling around the house on one’s hands and knees with a sponge and a bucket of water. You gotta leave room open for the fundamentalists who decry vacuum cleaners, after all.

Example: Lawmakers decide to end what some feminists call “rape culture” by urging Americans to “choose femininity, not rape.” This will mean nothing aside from shutting up those ugly women who want to break the silence. “Why do you choose rape?” we can ask in response. “Why talk about such nasty things as infections, diseases, humiliation, injury? Why not choose femininity?”

The shame game is one we will win, provided we all commit to it for the long haul. Down side: your daughters will grow up stupid, hunchbacked, and will cringe annoyingly whenever they’re spoken to. Up side: you won’t have to pay for college! and when you get bored with your alternately pregnant/breast-feeding wife, you can sleep with whomever you like, free of consequences.

Men = winners!

Dear Representative X,

I am writing to urge you to oppose H.R. 3 (the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act), for which you are currently a co-sponsor, for the following reasons:

1) The bill changes virtually nothing having to do with abortion; because of the Hyde Amendment of 1976, tax funds currently do not pay for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or in cases when the mother’s health or life is at risk. Poor women already pay for their own abortions without federal assistance. The notion that this bill enacts much change is false. The only women affected by this bill are deeply impoverished and have been impregnated by rape or incest, or face serious health problems as a result of their pregnancy.

2) What the bill does accomplish is to radically redefine legal understandings of rape, incest, and risk to a mother’s health or life. It reduces the definition of rape to “forcible” rape—thus dangerously raising the standard of proof for that crime and eliminating statutory rape. Thus, if an impoverished 14-year-old girl is impregnated by her 30-year-old “boyfriend,” she cannot seek federal assistance to get an abortion. The bill limits the term incest to sex with minors; as a result, an impoverished 18-year-old girl raped by her father or uncle is out of luck. It delimits abortions only to those women whose life is at risk rather than those for whom childbirth would seriously damage their health but leave them alive—saddling already impoverished women with serious medical costs at the same time they must mother a newborn. (Thanks to Jill at Feministe for her insights on these issues.)

3) In redefining rape, incest, and risk to a mother’s health or life, the bill has the potential to alter non-abortion related legal understandings of those crimes. Considering that 1 in 6 American women has been raped—and that only 26% of rapes are committed by a stranger—it is radically dangerous for government to limit rape only to provably “forcible” crimes. Likewise, to delimit the crime of incest only to minors has the potential to green-light incest of young women who come of age. Our nation has an epidemic of sexual crimes against women; our government should be making no moves to ease criminal restrictions on those sexual crimes.

4) The bill seeks to impose anti-abortion ethics on entities wholly separate from government:  namely, small businesses, individuals, and private insurers. It contains a stipulation that the federal government can withdraw tax subsidies for small businesses if their private insurance features coverage for abortion (and most private insurers do offer this coverage); likewise, it can withdraw tax benefits from individuals who purchase private health insurance that offers coverage for abortion. All of this appears designed to strong-arm private insurers into ending coverage for abortion; federal government should not be involved in telling private businesses what to believe or how to operate.

5) This bill seriously detracts from the truly important issues affecting the United States right now: namely, an impossibly high rate of unemployment and increasingly troubled state budgets. In fact, the bill only makes conditions worse for some Americans most at risk: those who are already poor, hungry, and under-employed.

As a professor at X University, I have spoken with many young women with histories of abuse and rape—legacies that are nearly impossible to live with. Their feelings of shame and guilt for having been sexually victimized affect them on a daily basis. In short, even with rape and incest laws as currently framed, these young women were too ignorant as a result of their youth, ashamed, or otherwise emotionally victimized to seek help. Because I’ve spoken with such women I find it all the more disturbing that our Republican state representatives would be so eager to make an anti-abortion point that they would come up with a bill as misleading and punitive to impoverished female victims as H.R. 3.

This is not the time to make the law harsher when it comes to policing sexual crimes against women, nor to make conditions remarkably worse for poor women in particular. I beg you to withdraw your co-sponsorship for H.R. 3 and to vote against it if it comes up for a full House vote.

Sincerely,

Feminéma

Read the full text of H.R. 3 here