Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Literary Analogues

In all the commentary on the FLDS, several people have made comparisons to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. This is apt in a lot of ways: both the FLDS and the Republic of Gilead are polygynous, patriarchal religious communities in which access to women is granted only to the high-ranking men in the society, and in which women's only role is to obey and serve these men in varying capacities. (In the FLDS, the leader of the sect gets to decide who gets to marry whom, and a man's wives and children can be "reassigned" to other men if he gets into trouble with the higher-ups. Likewise, in Handmaid's Tale only high-ranking government and military officials get a Wife and Handmaid; poorer men get a single Econowife, and young men are not allowed contact with any woman). Women are also pitted against one another by the social structure --- Wives do not trust Handmaids, since many of the wives are infertile, and Handmaids are of course very fertile, which makes them valuable to men in ways the Wives can never be. Since both Wives and Handmaids are defined wholly in terms of the men to whom they are bound, and their welfare is entirely dependent on his choosing to support them, this means that the Wives will resent the Handmaids and see them as threats to their positions, and the Handmaids will fear the Wives' resentment because the Wives hold legal and social power over them (the hierarchy is Man > Wife > Handmaid). This mutual mistrust among women, and the intense competition between them to be the most valuable to their husband, is exactly the dynamic Carolyn Jessop describes in the quote I posted yesterday. Also, not only do women mistrust and compete against each other in these polygynous religious communities, they are primarily responsible for ensnaring the next generation of girls in the same toxic milieu.

There are even visual similarities between the dress of women on the FLDS compound and in Atwood's imaginary Republic of Gilead: women's dress is strictly regulated, uniform and color-coded. In Handmaid's Tale, the color coding sorts women according to station, with Handmaids in red, Wives in blue, prepubescent Daughters in white, and servant Marthas in green; this picture taken of women and children exiting the FLDS compound seems to show them color-coded by age.

As pervasive as the similarities between the FLDS way of life and Handmaid's Tale are, though, I think there's a better analogue elsewhere in feminist science fiction. In Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, the main character, Stavia, goes on an exploratory mission to try to find other areas of human settlement, and finds a polygynous enclave whose members forcibly abduct her and make her one of their leader's wives. I think this is a truer analogue structurally, because what makes Gilead oppressive is its omnipresence; each household is just a microcosm of the larger totalitarian state, and any woman who managed to escape her household would have to escape detection by the authorities, who in a police state are ubiquitous and practically omniscient. The FLDS patriarchs do not have the backing of an entire government and military; their power comes from their isolation. Women who have spent their entire lives inside the sect are practically helpless to escape it (of course, some do, but the odds are dramatically against them, which is why those who do escape are so noteworthy). They are uneducated, have no skills or prospects to survive on their own, have no friends or family outside the cult, and are kept ignorant of the resources and programs available to help them (FLDS children are taught to run from child-protective agents and other officials, and to lie whenever a stranger asks about where they live or whose child they are). The enclave in Gate to Women's Country is similarly isolated; the sect's members are a single family that has inbred for generations, taking the occasional captive from Women's Country's exploratory teams, but largely undisturbed by outsiders and unaware of any other human settlements existing. If women there wish to escape, they have nowhere to go.

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