Publication to Protests: A Geographical Exploration of Power and Resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale
Guest post by Georgia Silva from the University of Nottingham who won the 2020 dissertation prize.
This dissertation uses Margaret Atwood’s novels The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and The Testaments (2019) alongside Hulu’s television adaptation as sites for geographical research. It explores textual and visual representations of power and resistance within the fictional world of Gilead and within society today. The Republic of Gilead is a totalitarian, theocratic, oppressively patriarchal state which segregates society into social classes subsequently limiting people’s rights, especially those of women who are unable to read, write, work or control their own reproductive functions.
This dissertation opens with the examination of power representations in Gilead at where power becomes capillary; at societal level through social hierarchies and coded public space, at the domestic level through spatial partitioning of the home and relegating women to the domestic sphere and finally at the site of body through violence, clothing and biopolitical forces.
An example of textual analysis is shown here; Gilead’s public space is thoroughly imbued with power relations.By assigning citizens to particular places and limiting access to public spaces Gilead supervises its citizen’s mobility an converts place into extensions of authority. for example, the socio-political exclusion of Gileadean women is reflected by the spatial restrictions of their mobility through overtly masculine public space. This can be understood through analysing the Handmaid’s daily walk to the shops: ‘We smile and move off, in tandem, travelling smoothly along our daily track…A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere as long as it stays inside the maze.’ (Atwood, 1985: 165, emphasis added). Firstly, ‘in tandem’ recognises how Handmaids are assigned ‘walking partners’ as they are disallowed to travel ‘except in twos’ (Atwood, 1985: 19). This incarcerates Handmaids into the surveillance state as ‘she is my spy, as I am hers’ (Atwood, 1985: 19) creating a system of ultimate control and isolation. Additionally, the fact the Handmaids are walking represents their lowly status as ‘you don’t see Commanders’ Wives on the sidewalks, only in cars’ (Atwood, 1985: 24). This reveals the intersectional, tiered nature of female hierarchies as the ability to get somewhere quickly is associated with exclusivity (Creswell, 2010). Secondly, ‘daily track’ recognises this movement as a habitual spatial behaviour, somewhat of a ‘time-space routine’ or ‘body ballet’ (Seamon, 1980: 158) timetabled into Handmaids’ everyday routine as a form of control. This is epitomised by the metaphor ‘rat in a maze’, rendering Handmaids immobile as their movement is watched, scheduled and routed in a ‘tunnelling effect’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001: 201).
An example of visual analysis is shown here; The role of the wings as restrictive ‘blinkers’ (Atwood, 1985: 30), physically impeding Handmaid’s vision is depicted in Figure 1 where a ‘reverse-angle shot’ (Rose, 2016: 75) utilises ‘logics of perception’ to reflect the Handmaid’s limited and controlled perspective, or ‘way of seeing’ (Carter and McCormack, 2006: 232). Furthermore, Offred comments, ‘I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object’ (Atwood: 1985: 73). By metaphorically reducing her sense of self to a cloud Offred dissociates herself from her body, revealing her internalisation of the dominant ‘docile bodies’ ideology, confirming how clothing can act as a ‘technology of self’ (Foucault, 1988b).
After examining representations of power and resistance, this dissertation shifted focus, making use of data mining methodologies to reflect upon how The Handmaid’s Tale has interacted with recent politics, at the intersection of the ‘literary world’ and the ‘real world’. The Handmaid’s Tale is remarkable in the twenty-first century for how successfully it has been mobilised to disturb the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’. Audiences from across the globe have taken Atwood’s story from publication to protests, using The Handmaid’s Tale as a cultural vehicle with which to conceptualize, and formulate a resistance to social change, with public protesters dressing up as Handmaids buoyed by viral notions of hashtag activism. The Handmaid’s Tale, then, has clearly been a direct inspiration for real-world protests today as the handmaid has been successfully appropriated as a feminist symbol (Kraft, 2010). Figure 2 shows images of numerous protests utilising The Handmaid’s Tale, the majority protesting abortion laws.
This dissertation concludes the importance of geographical explorations of representations from imaginative sources because of the profound impact they have on the material world. Crucially, while fictive and film geographies have considered at length the content of imaginary representations, the ‘geographies of reception’ that result have often been overlooked (Rupke,1999: 226). This research ultimately fills a gap in the literature by providing a valuable contribution that considers the interplay between fictional texts, visual content, existing social realities and real-world attempts to overcome those realities.
In the current political climate, where protests of women clad in red and hooded in white proliferate, we should not underestimate the possibility of finding real-world commentary, possibly even real-world solutions, in the imaginary world. This dissertation offers a starting point for such endeavours.
Atwood, M. (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale. London: Penguin Random House.
Atwood, M. (2019). The Testaments. London: Penguin Random House.
Creswell, T. (2010). Towards a Politics of Mobility. Environment and Planning D Society and Space, 28, pp.19.
Foucault, M. and Martin, L.L. (1988b). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock, pp.16-49.
Graham, S. and Marvin, S. (2001). Splintering Urbanism: networked infrastructures, technological mobilities and the urban condition. London and New York: Routledge.
Kraft, P. (2010). Architectural movements, utopian movements: (in)coherent renderings of the Hundertwasser-Haus, Vienna. Geografiska Annaler, Series B: Human Geography, 92, 327-345.
Rupke, N. (1999). A geography of Enlightenment: the critical reception of Alexander von Humboldt’s Mexico work. In: Livingstone, D. and Withers, C (eds.). Geography and Enlightenment, pp.231-94.
Rose, G. (2016). Visual methodologies (4th edition). London: Sage Publications.
Academia in Covid-19 times: Reflections on practice
As a group of feminist researchers we thought it pertinent to provide our reflections on how our current practices are being impacted by Covid-19 and the uncertainties surrounding the new conditions in which we find ourselves. The views posted below are individual reflections on one’s own circumstances. In publishing these, we hope to create a sense of solidarity around the struggles that some researchers are finding themselves immersed in.
Should you wish to present your own story/ reflection for inclusion on the website please email our web coordinator, Lucy Jackson, at Lucy.Jackson@Sheffield.ac.uk
“The middle of March was the last time I went to the swimming pool, it was independent study week and it was my 27th week being pregnant. It was about that time that the government in the country of the satellite campus I work for decided to implement distance learning for all education institutions. That early decision in comparison to what was happening in the UK instilled me with a sense of confidence that I would be looked after. Of course, it was a struggle to get online distance learning up and running at such short notice, but I suppose I quite enjoyed it. The students appeared to take it in their stride and all was good.
Then the home campus extended deadlines by two weeks, and this meant that I could not take my leave as I had been previously planning (I should point out that I had meticulously planned conception so that if all was well the baby would arrive after term), as who would do my marking? I, of course, stressed this, but everybody appeared to have their own issues that needed dealing with, and the lack of support was quite obvious to me but not to anyone else. Borders were closed everywhere and I had to find a new doctor. The water birth I had planned went out the window due to new policies, and I began to get incredibly homesick watching friends have their families visit in weird and wonderfully social distanced ways to see their newborns.
I knew that having a baby would be difficult to juggle with academic life, I knew it would be hard to do away from friends and families, in a place where the health care is great but not always logical to me, but I didn’t know it would be this hard. I want to go home, I want to go on leave, I want to go to prenatal Pilates, antenatal classes with my partner, I want a water birth without a mask… When you read the birthing books it appears that giving birth should make you feel empowered, I don’t and I am not sure any of us do in amongst this pandemic”. (Anonymous)
Barriers for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students During COVID-19
By: Sawyer Phinney
PhD Student, Department of Geography, University of Manchester
The COVID 19 pandemic has disrupted lives around the world, including those of many marginalized people, who unexpectedly face added burdens and vulnerabilities. The impact of COVID 19 is particularly challenging for transgender and gender non-conforming communities.
In the middle of my PhD at the University of Manchester, I decided that I wanted to start hormones and begin my transition after internalizing and suffering from gender dysphoria for most of my life. I was nervous, anxious and utterly afraid to do this during my studies as I was unaware how staff and other students might react and if it could jeopardize my safety, and my career in academia because of it. When I looked through my university’s website, I was disappointed but not surprised to find very little resources for trans and gender non-conforming PhD students.
I first visited my GP in June 2019 to consult about my gender dysphoria and starting hormones. My GP explained the process to begin my journey and that I would need to be referred to an NHS Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) that would take several appointments with gender-specialized therapists that would deem me ‘fit’ enough to begin testosterone. My GP also mentioned the waitlist for the initial consultation was now over three years, and it could be nearly four until I could start hormone therapy. Dysphoria is not easy to deal with, and especially to finally muster the courage to openly discuss it with your GP, only to be told that my transition would have to wait many years.
Trans and gender non-conforming people face difficult barriers to access healthcare, from GP and medical professionals lack of training and in some cases, discrimination and refusal of care, to gatekeeping protocols to funding cuts. Due to decades of Tory government austerity and transphobic health care practices, funding has been cut to Gender Identity Clinics (GICs) and nearly half have closed down over the last few years.
As other trans and gender non-conforming folks in the UK, many of us have been forced to seek hormones and gender-affirming care in private clinics or the black market, paying out of our own pocket and going into debt because of it. In the UK, hormones can cost £100 per month through a private clinic. So, in other words, if you have some money, you can bypass the barriers of GIC clinics. This has created a two-tier system of those who can afford to pay to seek care from private gender clinics and those who cannot.
As a PhD student living on near poverty wages and working precariously, this has posed serious financial challenges that have only been exacerbated by COVID 19. The threat of job losses, hours, and the reduction of teaching assistant positions announced by UK universities places many trans and gender non-conforming students, like me, at risk who heavily rely on teaching and/or research assistant income to pay for hormones and gender-affirming care, such as medical surgeries. Other folks have had their surgeries or gender-affirming care delayed or postponed due to the virus, or because of loss of income, have had to reschedule for a later date. Statistics show that 90 percent of transgender people do not have access to a formal job and the assistance measures taken by many countries support unemployed people. Therefore, many LGBTQ people who are not part of the formal economy, are left out of government employment aid without the possibility to earn income. Moreover, some trans and gender non-conforming students may not be able to access health care and hormones at all due to closure of clinics and medical providers prioritizing COVID-related care. This can pose serious challenges to mental health contributing to increasing gender dysphoria and can be particularly stressful for gender non-conforming and trans PhD students who are forced to pause their hormone therapy or cannot access needed medical and psychological care.
The UKRI recently published an equalities impact assessment for PhD funding extensions in light of COVID 19. The impact for trans students (who they list as ‘gender reassignment’) is reported as ‘unlikely’ because trans and gender non-conforming students ‘schedule to transition’ upon the completion of their PhD. This assumes trans health care is readily made accessible in the UK and it is overtly obvious that they failed to consult or speak to a single trans or gender non-conforming student for this assessment or they would have been privy to the reality that transitioning does not happen on a scheduled date and in a vacuum.
Part of my transition will involve top surgery. I was lucky to find a surgeon through a private clinic in Germany to do this at an affordable rate (still costing me thousands of dollars), arranged to take place in September 2020. Although I have been saving funds from the wages that I was making as a teaching assistant over the last year and a half, my university recently announced that teaching assistant positions and hours will be reduced significantly next fall in light of COVID 19, and as many other PGR students transitioning, I am uncertain if I will be able to meet the costs to pay for my surgery.
I call on all universities and research funding bodies to assess the unequal impact of COVID 19 on trans and gender non-conforming PGR students who cannot access or afford care and provide needed support through funding and additional extension during these times.
We have been told repeatedly that this virus is a great leveller, that it does not discriminate; but it does. The death rate from the disease is twice as high for men as women, Black men in the UK are 4.2 times as likely to be killed by the disease than white men of the same age, Black women 4.3 times as likely as white women. Disable and chronically ill people are not only at higher risk of death from the virus itself, but also as a result of the institutionalised ableism in health care policy and medical ethics. COVID-19 has hit the most deprived neighbourhoods and the most deprived people hardest. Inequality has shaped the pandemic, its course through the country and responses to it.
Our ability to adjust to the pandemic, to protect ourselves or to find a ‘new normal’ is unequal too. Women and young people have been most likely to lose paid work, low-paid workers in personal services most likely to have to continue working, in close contact with others, often without adequate protection. People with the highest incomes (disproportionately white men) are the most likely to be able to work from home and to have the space and equipment to do so. Staying home is not the same for a household with a big house and garden as it is for a large family in a small flat. COVID-19 and the social response to the pandemic have caused population-level anxiety, which is being experienced variable ant the individual level. We are perhaps in the same storm but different in boats. In the UK domestic abuse helpline have risen by 49 per cent and charities assisting vulnerable families have seen an exponential surge in demand for their services. In India the ‘world’s most dangerous country for women’, the scale of domestic violence has escalated to such an extent that the National Commission for Women (NCW) has launched a Whatsapp service in addition to supporting online complaints. These examples show the need to examine and understand how the geopolitical dimensions of the pandemic are impacting individual’ homelife and how homelife is also characterising individual experiences of the pandemic (see Brickell 2012). For some this will be a period of deep trauma and we may only learn the extent of what people have suffered over the years to come.
For academics these inequalities have been felt in the threat of job losses and cut hours for casualized staff, PhD students coming to the end of their studies face bleak prospects for employment in universities, or elsewhere, while staff and students with caring responsibilities have seen demands on their time multiply. Unsurprisingly, women are doing the majority of the increased childcare and housework that lockdown has brought, with domestic pressures even greater for parents of disable children with complex care needs, who have lost access to respite and other support services. The effects of this are measurable in a reduced ability to do research, to write and to publish – the things that ‘count’ for promotions and job security. Around the world, as universities move their teaching online, existing inequalities are being strengthened and social and gender divides between students are widening.
This virus is not an equaliser, it does discriminate. We call on universities and other actors in Higher Education to monitor and ameliorate this discrimination. Covid-19 could undo decades of work towards equality within the academy, we must not let this happen. Instead, we can use this opportunity to imagine a new future, where the value of caring is recognised, work is flexible and the environmental gains of our new ways of working continued. We could embrace an ethic of care within academia, redefine what is important, and build an academic world that is sustainable, caring, and respectful to all.
(Paper) Academia in the Time of COVID-19: Towards an Ethics of Care
Esteve Corbera, Isabelle Anguelovski, Jordi Honey-Rosés, &Isabel Ruiz-Mallén (2020)
The global COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people’s work-life balance across the world. For academics, confinement policies enacted by most countries have implied a sudden switch to home-work, a transition to online teaching and mentoring, and an adjustment of research activities. In this article we discuss how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting our profession and how it may change it in the future. We argue that academia must foster a culture of care, help us refocus on what is most important, and redefine excellence in teaching and research. Such re-orientation can make academic practice more respectful and sustainable, now during confinement but also once the pandemic has passed. We conclude providing practical suggestions on how to renew our practice, which inevitably entails re-assessing the social-psychological, political, and environmental implications of academic activities and our value systems.
Jess Bostock is a member of ‘Misogyny IS Hate’, a student led activist group working with Greater Manchester Citizens to improve the lived experience of women in the city through legislative equality. Jess presented her research on Misogyny hate crime in Greater Manchester in the GFGRG session ‘New and emerging research in gender and feminist geographies’ at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2019.
Twitter link for the campaign: https://twitter.com/misogynyishate?lang=en
Words by Jess Bostock
Research on women’s experiences of misogyny in Greater Manchester
In a survey I conducted in 2019, with 520 respondents from within Greater Manchester (GM) and a further 232 nationally, 75% of respondents stated that they had been groped, 65% had been followed, and 83% had been harassed in a public place. The data also highlighted the intersectionality of misogyny as the experiences of BAME women, visibly religious women and older women were often rooted in their identity as women, as well as their race, religion or age. These results highlight the severity of misogyny with Greater Manchester and indicate how normalised misogyny is, considering its widespread nature. Respondents also highlighted key spaces and temporalities in which misogynistic instances occur. The most common spaces were workplaces and on public transport, often at night-time.
The proliferation of such lived experiences for women, and the lasting impacts these can have on their wellbeing, mental health and use of public spaces, highlights the need for Misogyny Hate Crime in Greater Manchester. In fact, 90% of survey respondents stated that they believe such a policy should be implemented.
Contributions of the research to national and local action
Through the ‘Misogyny IS Hate’ campaign I have had the opportunity to give a national voice to the experiences of the women who participated in my research; first at the Manchester Law Commission of England and Wales hearing of Hate Crime (Figure 1) and now through the inclusion of my research within the Citizen’s UK National Hate Crime report. However, whilst the national strategy awaits the Law Commission’s recommendation, we continue to strive for local change.
The research was presented to Supt. Rick Jackson Head of Hate Crime within Greater Manchester Police (Figure 2), to enable him to garner internal support for the legislation. In late 2019 Greater Manchester Combined Authority released a public consultation on Hate Crime, with the first question asking whether GM authorities should recognise hate against women and girls. At the GM Hate Crime Awareness Week Launch in February 2020 (Figure 3) the overwhelming support for the inclusion of this category was announced. This gives Greater Manchester authorities and the Chief Constable a unique opportunity to take the transformative step of recognising women are disportionately targeted due to their gender.
Misogyny is a complex issue, rooted in patriarchy, Othering and the systemic oppression of women and minority groups. Hate crime legislation is a key progression in a wider picture of tackling gender inequality. Criado-Perez (2019) argues that ‘whether unthinkingly or not, we just aren’t prioritising women’ and therefore live alongside an ‘endemic of sexual violence’ towards women in a ‘Misogynation’ (Bates, 2018). I argue that recognising the disproportionate threat and violence that women face, through the implementation of misogyny hate crime, is the first key step in tackling gender inequality of the 21st century.
As a campaign group, we hope to continue working closely with GM authorities to see Manchester take the lead on such an important issue for women once again, as the Suffragette City.
Bates, L. (2018) Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism. London: Simon and Schuster.
Citizens UK (2019) Making misogyny a hate crime. Available at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rW8jCOuuXWQ (Accessed: 9 February 2020)
Criado-Perez, Caroline (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. London: Chatto & Windus.
Mullany, L and Tricket, L. (2018) Misogyny hate crime: new research reveals true scale of issue – and how the public are united against it. Available at: https://theconversation.com/misogyny-hate-crime-new-research-reveals-true-scale-of-issue-and-how-the-public-are-united-against-it-100265 (Accessed: 9 February 2020)
 The draft proposal of findings is due to be published in early 2020