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.

Olympia’s choice

4 March 2012

So this is the rock/ hard place scenario the Republican Party has gotten itself into: it demands such lockstep partisan behavior from its elected senators and congresspeople that it has created an impossible situation for at least one of its stalwarts.

Here’s my question: could the Party’s stand on birth control be so extreme that it becomes the tipping point for its own elected women?

I hasten to note that although Olympia Snowe was the sole Republican to vote against the Blunt Amendment (which would have given employers veto power over their employees’ health care), she has not blamed her party’s view of birth control, or its new embrace of personhood for driving her out of office. In a  She says she’s retiring because of excessive partisanship:

“…our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building — but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.”

But Snowe was not the only Republican woman to waver when it came to this ridiculous amendment. Susan Collins (Snowe’s joint senator from Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) ultimately voted with their party, but Collins remained undecided all week and Murkowski’s vote demanded that she refute her own longstanding support for women’s access to birth control.

Now, if Collins and Murkowski had gone against their party leadership to oppose the amendment, they likely would have been punished — by having their committee leadership taken away or whatever means by which Republicans so successfully get their members in order. (I hasten to note that the Democrats, ever the un-herd-able cats, have never managed such uniformity. Three of their own senators voted with the Republicans on the Blunt Amendment.) Snowe could vote with her conscience because she’s retiring.

Olympia Snowe has been a representative from Maine since 1979, first as a member of the House of Representatives and as a US Senator since 1999. If she had run for re-election, there’s no doubt she would have won. Her announcement about retiring has removed a sure-thing seat from the Republican Party and left it open to possible Democratic control. I want to know: will the Party’s radical anti-women policies ultimately paint such a picture of stark gender essentialism that it alienates its own women members and even drives some out of office?

Thanks, Rush Limbaugh!

3 March 2012

Sometime last summer one of my Facebook friends posted something about an outrageous anti-abortion issue in Texas, and I commented by saying something about how it appeared to me to be part of a widespread war on women. She reacted badly. “I don’t like to use hyperbole like ‘war on women,'” she wrote. “I just don’t think liberals should respond with the same overwrought language as conservatives use.”

I gave up. Facebook status updates are not the place to have disagreements about politics.

I’ve been wondering whether any of the intervening events have changed her mind. The vaginal probes. The personhood measures, which would seem to outlaw most forms of birth control and would make women liable to criminal investigation if they miscarried. The overt anti-contraception measures. The idea that giving employers full say over each of their employees’ health decisions is somehow a way to ensure religious “liberty.”

And now we have Rush Limbaugh, who has decided that any woman who discusses contraception needs to be humiliated on the airwaves. Apparently going with the “all publicity is good publicity” philosophy, he railed against the sole woman scheduled to appear before Congress to testify about the many medical uses of birth control. This young woman — a Georgetown law student named Sandra Fluke whose close friend lost an ovary because she could not obtain access to the Pill — was ultimately eliminated from testimony but appeared on various news shows to offer her evidence to the public. To Limbaugh her pitch for the Pill makes her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception,” he said.

People in both parties found that to be too much. Not only did President Obama call Fluke to thank her for publicly backing his regulations mandating contraception coverage, but even Republicans John Boehner and Rick Santorum came out to denounce Limbaugh’s “absurdity.”

Georgetown’s president, John DiGioia, emailed the Georgetown University community to back Fluke and celebrate her intelligent, respectful engagement with civil discourse and to decry Limbaugh’s “behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student.”

Limbaugh has doubled down. In response to the furor, on Thursday’s show he followed up his prior comments with even better ones. “So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you post the videos online so we can all watch.”

So why, given this diarrheac mess, do I want to thank Rush Limbaugh? For making the two sides abundantly clear. I want to thank him for taking Rick Santorum’s anti-contraception theology to its logical conclusion. To clarify the Blunt Amendment’s obfuscation of the contraception issue. For reviving his “feminazi” term to apply to all 98% of American women who use birth control.

Because here’s the thing: I am really fucking sick of having male politicians tell me their vaginal probes are about a “freedom of information,” or that their denial of women’s reproductive health coverage is about “religious liberty.” Thanks for articulating the War on Women in the starkest possible terms.

At last, a real rain has come to wash all the doublespeak away. Women who have health needs are sluts, and women who speak about those needs should be publicly humiliated. Whew! The fresh air is exhilarating.

(Democrats: this is your cue to start winning elections. Do you really need more ammunition than this?)

Hobags unite!

10 April 2010

Here’s what they hand out to students at my campus:

I can’t believe I’m complaining about a condom, but it’s the most perverse birth control message ever:  don’t make any more hobags like you.  Does the damn logo have to show a porno woman on her back?  Moreover, if you go to Hobag.com (but really, please don’t), you find women’s t-shirts and “booty shorts” (sigh) that proclaim its wearer as a HOBAG in big letters.  Or SKANK.  There’s a couple of guys’ t-shirts too; to be precise, 11 products are for women, and 4 for men. But half of the men’s t-shirts look like this:

There’s a larger conversation to be had about the use of irony and self-reflexivity in advertising (Bitch has a smart post about the Kotex ads that make fun of “feminine protection” ads) but this isn’t ironic anymore.  This is just misogyny.  Die, Hobag.com, lest I send Lisbeth Salander after you.