Masculinity: Atwood and Orwell
Atwood and Orwell’s differing assessments of masculinity are largely due to their differing narrative voices. Through the eyes of Offred, Atwood constructs a pointed feminist critique of masculinity as a nymphomaniacal and tyrannical animal that can’t be tamed. Conversely Orwell, with his male protagonist, depicts a highly thoughtful and vulnerable man, whose maleness is defined not by his relations with women, but by his relationship with humanity as a whole.
In 1984 Big Brother is the ultimate patriarch. A retrospective fusion of two of the 20th centuries most evil dictators, Hitler and Stalin, he inspires fear and adoration in equal measure from the subservient party members. Yet it is not his maleness, so much as his omniscience that is his fear defining characteristic. He is all-seeing and all-knowing, able to detect the subtlest of thoughtcrime and hence he is feared. In fact it is his gendered nomenclature, the fact he is a “brother”, not a domineering father, which is what makes him so relatable and adorable to the party members. It provides an emotional affinity that is so vital for keeping the party in unity. Compared with the ‘god’ of Gilead, in The Handmaids Tale, Big Brother is so much more real and more present. As Offred prays “I’ll pretend you can hear me. But it’s no good, because I know you can’t”. But while the subject of peoples’ love might be male, so is the subject of their hate: Emmanuel Goldstein. It is certainly credible to suggest that the proliferation of these super-human male characters is not so much an authorial statement on the abundance of patriarchy, but rather a product of the state of Orwell’s contemporary society; since nearly all dictators throughout history have been male. But while the major male characters in Oceania may not be defined by their masculinity, the rulers of Gilead most certainly are. Although literary critic S. Vervaina argues the sexual model adopted by the Gileadean Patriarchy is socio-biologically oriented due to lack of fertility, exegetically it is clear that Gilead is a state principled upon the abuse and oppression of female sexuality. “The ceremony” is the antithesis of passionate consensual sex. During it Offred feels nothing, before it she feels dread and afterwards shame. The overriding sense is one of powerlessness and it is this complete lack of autonomy which induces her fear of the alpha-male commander. Still, for all his posturing we find that the commander craves passion just as much he wants power. In the same way that Winston wanted “to make love with Julia, before slitting her throat at the point of climax”, the commander, despite having already abused and denigrated Offred, wanted to ‘make love’. His fetishist games of ‘Scrabble’ stem from a complete of sexual empathy: Atwood shows him to be feared, whilst also desiring to be loved. In the same predatory fashion displayed by the now infamous Harvey Weinstein: the commander entices her with gifts and promises; invites her to Jezebels; rents out a hotel room; and lies naked on the bed leaving her with little choice but to satisfy his desires. The similarity with the behavior of ex-film mogul Weinstein is frightening and demonstrates just how accurate Atwood’s depiction of the potential primal behaviour of men is, when they perceive themselves to be in a position of power.
However maleness, or masculinity, is a state of behaviour, not a state of being. Simply because a character is male, it does not necessarily follow that they embody maleness. For example, in The Handmaid’s Tale, the Aunts who run the Red Centre are portrayed as semantically masculine. Their permission to read and write (an almost exclusively male freedom in Gilead), immediately marks them out as masculine figures. Moreover, the way in which Aunt Lydia almost disenfranchises her femininity in order to amalgamate her views with that of the governing Patriarchy is truly chilling. “The spectacles women used to make of themselves”, she says, attempting to exclude herself from the collective of women, as she viscerally breaks down at the thought of bikini-clad sunbathing women. As critic Onyett notes, “Essentially the aunts are ciphers of a continuing patriarchy that merely pretends to be a patriarchy” – yet the pretense is merely biological. The supposed distinction between a person’s biological sex, and gender-identity is a relatively recent phenomenon, propagated by 21st Century liberal institution such as the Women’s March of 2017. Therefore the fact that Atwood subversively deploys these ideas in her novels show just how attuned she was to sex-gender dynamics. The Aunts may be female, but their behavior is principally masculine, and thus they are feared. The distinction between sex and gender, or biology and behavior, is less clear in Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s 1984 was written post two World Wars – wars which had inadvertently led to an increase in woman’s rights and suffrage since women were called into to fill labor shortage caused by male military conscription. This national experience, along with Soviet Russia which in the name of equality also began to change the role of women in society to become more part of the workforce, probably caused Orwell to portray ‘The Party’ as largely gender-equal. Within the party hierarchy Winston and Julia are defined by their jobs not their gender. Furthermore, Julia does not fear male sexuality but pleasures in it, boasting to Winston of the numerous sexual partners she’s entertained since the age of 16. And although Offred’s frigid state during “The Ceremony” mirrors the semantics of Winston’s wife’s “stiff” body, Winston’s wife stiffness is out of autonomous sexual repression rather than fear of Winston’s masculinity. 20th Century critic Atkins describes Winston as “A weak creature who was born to be victimised” and arguably one could regard him as the antithesis of alpha-male patriarchy. His relationship with Julia is clearly dominated her, after all she is one who actively strips naked in front of him. Winston is portrayed as perpetually weak, his failure to be able to stretch like his female fitness instructor further demonstrating his ineptitude. If one is to view Orwell’s INGSOC as some subversive patriarchy, then one must also except that Winston is its biggest failing. Unlike the commander, Orwell’s Winston neither inspires fear nor wants to inspire fear. He thinks he craves power, but after meeting Julia realizes he instead requires love.
Ultimately Patriarchy is predicated upon contradictions, since men are reliant upon women for the affirmation of their masculinity. Women are simultaneously oppressed but necessary to the functioning of Gilead. Atwood uses Serena to show the reader this paradoxical relationship. Most likely based on American conservative pioneer, Phyllis Schlafly, Serena Joy is described as an anti-feminist women’s rights activist, who became the victim of her own success when actually subjected to the Gileadean society she helped bring about. Schlafly once said that “so long as a woman’s husband earns a good income, she doesn’t care about the pay gap between them”. However, while Serena Joy’s husband certainly earns a good income, her despondent depression is clearly ostensible as she wallows in the shadow of her husband. Yet women are necessary not only for the control of the women but also for the sexual satisfaction of men. ‘Jezebels’ is justified on the pretense that men have their “needs” and patriarchy could be defined as a system which panders exclusively to men’s supposed “needs”. Winston has his “needs” too. His initial lust for Julia is violently consuming as he fantasizes about killing her. But Julia also has her “needs”, arguably even more so than Winston. If Winston is to embody masculinity, then Orwell seems to show maleness as less primal and sex based then femaleness. As Boddoe observes, “She [Julia] is totally incapable of understanding the motives which drive Winston to revolt”. Julia is too visceral and emotional to see the party for what it is, and falls asleep while listening to Goldtsein’s book. Whereas Winston is much less concerned with gender and sex dynamics, than he is with humankind and societal liberation. The skill of Orwell is to create in Winston a character which rises above individual self-centered emotions of love and fear, and take a more holistic view at the fate of all humanity. For Orwell, Winston’s masculinity is his intelligence and his emotional detachment, characteristics which Atwood parallels in her own female protagonist.
Therefore, in Conclusion I believe that Atwood and Orwell’s presentation of maleness is vastly different. Whereas Atwood constructs a picture of sex-driven, power-hungry, love-starved masculinity, Orwell takes a more positive outlook: For him masculinity is defined by intelligence and emotional detachment. “If you are a man, you are the last man”, boasts O’Brien as he inflicts Winston’s torture; however Orwell’s story is not just about man, but about mankind.
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Atwood and Orwell’s differing assessments of masculinity are largely due to their differing narrative voices. Through the eyes of Offred, Atwood constructs a pointed feminist critique of masculinity as a […]