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“Particicution” and Rape in the Handmaid’s Tale

2009 March 22
by Roisin Foley

I was really fascinated by the scene of the Women’s Salvaging in “Handmaid’s Tale,” and the comments it inspired in the “Historical Notes” section at the end of the book. It is described as

“not only a particularly horrifying and effective way of ridding yourself of subversive elements but that it would also act as a steam valve for the female elements in Gilead. Scapegoats have been notoriously useful throughout history, and it must have been most gratifying for these Handmaids, so rigidly controlled at other times, to be able to tear a man apart with their bare hands every once in a while.”

Those singled out for “particicution” are labelled as rapists, despite the fact that they are generally politically prisoners. It is clear that while the state nominally labels rape as the most heinous crime of all, the fact that Salvagings are used strategically to misdirect the anger of the Handmaidens from their own experiences implies that they realize how violating and deadening “The Ceremony” is (to everyone involved, I do not hesitate to suggest that men involved are being just as violated, for their will has also been stripped by the society, despite the fact that they may have helped to build it.) At another point in the book, Offred remembers a conversation she had with Moira in college:

“What’s your paper on? I just did on on date rape…Date rape, I said. You’re so trendy. It sounds like some kind of dessert. Date rapé.”

I had a hard time figuring out what Atwood was exactly getting at, except to think that she was drawing a parallel between Offred’s previously flippant attitude toward’s her mother’s strident second-wave feminist views on porn etc. and her subsequent sexual slavery. But I also think it’s more complex than that, because obviously Atwood doesn’t think societies which ban pornography and nominally worship femaleness to the point of repression turn out awesome, either.

In any case, what the Salvaging really reminded me of was the witch-hunt aspect of much discourse on sexual violence and exploitation in the mainstream media. Although we don’t engage in state-sponsored public lynchings, extra-judicial punishment is evident in the attitude of shows like “To Catch a Predator” and even some of the actions taken by cops on the show “Law and Order: SVU.” Often, sexual violence on television is shown not through the experiences of victims or through considering the cocktail of sexual politics and gender roles which contribute to the lack of accountability for perpetrators but through a kind of revenge scenario, in which a father/brother/boyfriend/husband takes it upon himself to stage a particictution. Vigilantism of this kind (which I’ve also seen referred to as “country justice” in various news sources) often misdirects anger which could be focused on dealing with systemic issues.

4 Responses
  1. March 23, 2009

    Sadly, this misdirected anger, which happens quite frequently in our culture, is reminding me of our current economic crisis, where our anger is being directed by the media and our politicians at a handful of AIG employees who have received bonuses rather than at the systemic issues–the tax code, the lobby system, etc.–that got us here in the first place.

  2. Hannah Mueller permalink
    March 23, 2009

    Vigilantism is a major theme in Watchmen, so it’s interesting to tie it to the particicution. Rorshach and the Handmaids have in common that they’ve been abused and have the urge to take it out on “scapegoats” who stand in for the real oppressors. In these cases the urge seems really carnal or animal-like, and to encourage it is just one more way to dehumanize.

  3. Baibh Cathba permalink
    March 24, 2009

    It’s a really thought-provoking topic. I also wonder (in a continuation of a class conversation) if it might be a sort of “double rape” if it is demeaning to the man and woman. If it is a “double rape” then what is the definition of “rape”?

    I find that I’m questioning the definition of a lot of words now because of this class. Has anyone seen this article regarding “sex” vs. “rape”? I mean, I think we can all agree that “made love” is definitely not what happens in regards to “rape”, but is “sex” really a term that’s that murky?

    On the topic of misdirected anger, I think the point of books like Watchmen, THT, etc. is that it’s easier to make blanket statements for quick and easy comprehension. Perhaps it is often why sci-fi or fantasy books were used as markers of diametrically opposite positions in the past. I think an interesting thing to note is that comic books have become so cynical and instead of “superman good, octoflyingspacealienofdoom bad”, our comic books have become more political, and our heroes have weaknesses as well as strengths. Perhaps this is why Spiderman is so popular? (Or maybe it’s just revenge of the nerds. Pedantry! My new superpower, in your face peasants!)

    Similar to our conversations regarding utopias, dystopias, and anti-utopias, I think that the idea that someone knows moral right and wrong in absolute and immutable terms is what attracts people towards attempting to create a utopia in the first place. However, since a utopia is not a “space”, being as it is in fact a “no space”, such an ideal is not sustainable in the real world. What I got from the discussion in class was that utopia default to dystopias because they are too constrained, but absolute freedom is also chaos because there would be murderous riots. It’s rather very circular.

    I think it also depends on what is perceived as “moral” as in Watchmen (if you haven’t read it by now, don’t read this: Veidt – morally shady character).

    [NOTE: In regards to a “quick and easy categorization”, I think the article sexism might be an interesting thing to look at.]

  4. Alexandra Funk permalink
    March 25, 2009

    I noticed this post has generated a lot of talk about Watchmen. In thinking of the Salvaging section of Handmaid’s Tale that is what I immediately am drawn to as well.

    One of the reasons I feel Atwood is trying to make a statement about humanity in general (when the book was written, current time, far into the unknown future, etc) is the Particicution scene. For me, the message to be taken from this is that human beings need a scapegoat. There has to be someone/something to blame. It is much the same as one of the arguments of Watchmen (I actually think the film version more pointedly addressed this issue by causing Manhattan to become even more of an outlier . . . maybe making an even more profound statement about what we should do about advancing technology?)

    Just something I’ve been chewing on. Great post and Comments!

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