Skip to content

Handmaids as technology

2009 March 18
by Guinevere

With our broad definition of technology in mind, I’m beginning to see technology everywhere. While rereading The Handmaid’s Tale, I am becoming exceedingly frustrated with the paradoxical role of technology in the novel. I will save the larger discussion of this topic to the final paper and will focus this post on how the handmaids/their bodies can be seen as technology.

Already on page 16, we have our first reference to a handmaid being doll-like: “They used to have dolls, for little girls, that would talk if you pulled a string at the back; I thought I was sounding like that, voice of a monotone, voice of a doll.” Then, on page 43, referring to her twin, Ofglen: “Without a word she swivels, as if she’s voice-activated, as if she’s on little oiled wheels, as if she’s on top of a music box.” In this two quotations, we understand these women to be doll-like; the former is acting out a scripted role while the latter is physically mimicking the movements of a toy (the quotation is a little cyborgian, no?).

In addition, while waiting for the Ceremony to begin, Offred contemplates the act of waiting (pp. 66): “I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.” I was struck by the similarity of this description of self to (one of) our definition(s) of technology. The self she creates/composes is, by our definition, technology; it is something created by humankind to improve quality of life, to make things easier. But what are the complications of this? Offred’s publicly presented self is technology, but it is not also a gender? The self she composes is the appropriate embodiment of being a woman of the time. So, to get a little mathematical on you, technology = Offred’s public self = gender. Then, by transitivity, doesn’t technology = gender? How’s that strike you?

Before I get carried away contemplating that, let’s move on to other ways in which handmaids/their bodies are technology. I first thought of handmaids’ bodies as an economic commodity, as the bodies of the workers in Metropolis, on page 24: “Women were not protected then.” The idea was reinforced on page 63: “I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.” These quotations imply that women are valuable enough to be protected and that it is a woman’s body that is more valued than mind. If you’re not convinced yet, turn the page (to 65) and read the first full paragraph:

“I cannot avoid seeing, now, the small tattoo on my ankle. Four digits and an eye, a passport in reverse. It’s supposed to guarantee that I will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resource.” Offred is no longer a ‘who,’ she is a ‘what.’ A valuable ‘what,’ but nevertheless, she has become a tool, a version of technology necessary in the process of producing children.

What do you think? Do you agree or not? Perhaps you believe that the very nature of how the handmaids are used in the process of producing children makes them non-technology. Perhaps you go further than I do and believe that the handmaids are cyborgs, robots with programmed responses. Thoughts?

4 Responses
  1. Alexandra Funk permalink
    March 18, 2009

    Really great post!

    I definitely believe handmaids are a technology. They are considered objects, not people (they don’t even have an identity separate from their specific commander. They have no individual name/label and therefore no legitimacy). Because of this however, they are not robots with programmed responses . . . YET. Offred is in my mind more of a cyborg, still obviously human, but she taking on the robotic actions required of her in Gilead. She is not programmed (although the aunts made a good attempt and I would argue that they must have been successful with some). She is still able to make the decision to join the underground freedom movement.

    It would have been really interesting to see how the intended “programming” effected later generations who did not have ties to the old way of life.

  2. Baibh Cathba permalink
    March 19, 2009

    This is a really thought-provoking post.

    I’m not sure what I think of the handmaids in regards to technology. As seems to be the case with a lot of our other conversations in this class, there is an emphasis on the fluidity of definitions. By calling technology an art, it is possible to see these women as fruits of such a work of art. I guess it comes down to what angle we’re addressing this issue from.

    Also, I think it’s interesting that there’s an emphasis on the idea of being a resource. Isn’t that technically what a lot of workers in cubicles today are referred to as (even if there isn’t nearly as much repression as in The Handmaid’s Tale)?

  3. Hillary permalink
    March 22, 2009

    I agree, I think that the Handmaids are technology, and to a degree you could almost interpret everyone in Gilead is part of a larger “machine” and thusly technology. Every one has very specific jobs that all fit together to keep the world running the way the Eyes want it to. The Marthas, the cleaners, the Guardians, the drivers, the “doctors”, the Aunts, the Commanders, the Wives, everyone. If there is a problem with one little cog in the machine, it could have drastic consequences, and it also needs to get “fixed” (e.g. the threat of becoming an unwoman). So I guess I see Gilead as a huge machine and all the people inside it as little cogs. The entire community is so tightly controlled that I don’t think any one has much choice in what the do, they are all a little cyborgian.

    Maybe this is a little out there, but you could also say our own society is like that, everyone playing there part, but thankfully we have a bit more fluidity in our society. But maybe we are all cyborgs, or cogs in a giant machine that is the world.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Revealed The Latest Technology » Technology : Handmaids as technology | Gender and Technology Spring 2009

Comments are closed.