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Censorship as technology in Handmaid’s Tale

2009 March 21
by Hannah Mueller

Censorship “looks forward to the day when writers will censor themselves and the censor himself can retire”- J.M. Coetzee

I’ve been thinking about censorship a lot lately for a politics class and a possible internship, so of course it occurs to me that technology, gender, and censorship all interact in The Handmaid’s Tale.

We could look at it several different ways:  censorship is a technology, technology is used to censor, or a lack of technology is a tool for censorship.  All these apply to the book depending on what you mean by “technology.”

For me the most interesting reading ties into what one group was saying about the body on Weds, about how the handmaids are receptive channels for state power.  I think that thought was based on both their sexual function and the blinders they wear, giving them “tunnel vision.”  Structuring the oppression this way makes it bi-directional (!):  the state exerts control over the handmaids in lots of ways, including physical/sexual, clothing them, brainwashing them, taking away their families, money, language, etc.  But even though the handmaids are receptive of the oppression in all these ways, they’re also complicit in its creation because their vision, they way they see or construct their environment, is narrow.

This sounds like it’s overly harsh on the handmaids, to say that they are partly responsible for their own situation.  After all, Offred does constantly challenge her conditioning, and she uses the limited gaze she has to look at forbidden things, like the guards and the tourist’s nail polish.  But they all self-censor themselves in that they accept that there are certain things that must not be said.  And ideally, nothing would be said at all.  The most chilling part of the book for me was when Offred sits at the window for hours and thinks about nothing, because her spirit is breaking (291).  It’s when she thinks:  you might say, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” but you might as well think, “Don’t let there be air; or, Don’t be.”  This is the part where “they” finally “got inside her head.”

As the quote above suggests, censorship is far more effective not when it’s imposed from above but when people censor themselves.  In this dystopia, the censor has all but retired, and only the small resistance are the people who fight the censorship.  Censorship is the technology of power that comes from above initially, but from within in its “final” state.

It’s a little creepy, if exaggerated, for the Houston Chronicle to be quoted on the back of my copy of the book:  “Read it while it’s still allowed.”  There’s also an appendix in my copy with an interview with Atwood where she says, “there isn’t anything in the book not based on something that has already happened in history or in another country.”  We all self-censor, both consciously and unconsciously. When is it too much?

I didn’t bring gender into this much, but I’d be interested in what people think about how women self-censor vs. how men self-censor.

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