Gilead: An Antiporn Utopia
In a recent article for Feminist Current, Gail Dines draws parallels between two TV series currently causing a stir: Netflix’s Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On (HGWTO) and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. While the two series may appear different — The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the fictional totalitarian theocracy of Gilead, whereas HGWTO is a documentary series looking “behind the scenes” of the U.S. pornography industry — Dines argues that they have one essential similarity: the co-opting and “water[ing] down” of the feminist movement by neoliberal ideology. Her outrage is palpable. She laments the “fact” that the sex industry has now been “rebranded” as female empowerment, concluding, darkly, that “our movement [has] been colonised and hijacked to the point that it is now the handmaiden of patriarchy.” The article’s message is clear: we must listen to the warning signs of feminists like Dines and repent from our sluttish ways, from our willful collusion with the men who would objectify and pornify our bodies. If not, Gilead beckons.
There is a glib neatness to the argument Dines creates, but it does raise the question: has she even read The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel on which the Hulu series is based? Is she aware that Atwood explicitly frames a certain type of anti-porn feminism as being crucial to the establishment of the Republic of Gilead? Atwood wrote the novel in 1984 at the height of the “Sex Wars,” an era where the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon positioned porn as violence against women, not as metaphor, not as speech, but as actual violence. On the basis of this conflation, and with the support of Christian conservatives and some feminists, Dworkin and MacKinnon drafted and briefly passed into law an ordinance that would ban pornography as a civil rights violation. The Handmaid’s Tale reflects this America, one where the conservative backlash against pornography had found anti-porn feminists aligned with Christian fundamentalists.
While they may make for strange bedfellows, many writers have commented on the parallels between religious and feminist brands of anti-sexuality. Sci-fi author Norman Spinrad describes Gilead as “the damnedest hybrid of far-right born-again Christian patriarchy and radical feminist separatism,” and suggests that the Aunts (those who train other women in how to become handmaids at Gilead’s re-education center) are partly made up of 1980s-era anti-porn second-wave feminists who had gained some modicum of power by assimilating the Republic’s fundamentalist beliefs.
The Aunts’ party line is that heterosexual sex is rape, and that women need the very system which ends up oppressing them (Gilead) in order to protect them from men’s baser, animalistic natures. In this sense the Aunts are attempting to engineer a more matriarchal society by giving women control over reproduction — even if, in the wives’ case, it isn’t their own reproductive capability they have dominion over. Spinrad believes that the Aunts’ endgame is a more gender-equal (if rigidly class and caste bound) society, dominated by women. The Aunts are, in fact, very much like Offred’s own mother — the woman who took her young daughter to a park to burn porn magazines (the good sort of book burning). “Mother,” thinks Offred, “you wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one.”
Is this the women’s culture Dines wants? She is certainly not interested in the culture HGWTO offers glimpses of, one where women attempt to harness and explore their own sexuality. Dines is deeply scathing of a scene in HGWTO where Monica, a woman who has never taken part in porn before, agrees to participate in a scene that builds on one of her sexual fantasies, directed by feminist porn maker Erika Lust. Aghast at the way Monica is then “plucked, shaved, and worked on by makeup artists and hairdressers” who “erase her identity and individuality,” turning her into “a generic looking hypersexualised porn performer,” Dines sees the scene as akin to Offred’s ritualistic bathing and rape at the hands of her master.
It is less clear what Atwood’s Offred would think of Monica’s performance, however. After all, Offred hungers for the smell of nail polish, and recalls the process of “plucking, shaving,” and dressing up with an almost erotic nostalgia. A character who thinks of her cinematic heroines — Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn — as “women on their own, making up their minds. They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We [all] seemed to be able to choose, then.”
Just as anti-porn feminists have trivialized and dismissed “choice feminism” as not being “the right kind of feminism,” the forces of Gilead reframe the notion of choice, turning it from a promise into a menace: “we were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.”
It may be Monica’s choice to take part in Lust’s film, but according to the likes of Dines, this can never be a feminist choice. It may have been Offred’s choice to paint her nails and put on high heeled shoes in the pre-Gilead America, but this could never be a feminist choice either. How fortunate that she was saved and protected from those choices, from her own false consciousness. Abortion is also a crime in Gilead — doctors who perform terminations, even historically, are executed, their bodies strung up along the city walls emblazoned with a crude drawing of a dead fetus. Perhaps not surprising, given that anti-choice and anti-pornography legislation have gone hand in hand for centuries, a legacy highlighted by Atwood.
To be sure, choices within a white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist economy are restricted and partially determined by that economy. Yet agency within this economy — choices made according to our own careful, informed, and conscious navigation of that very economy — are also possible. We make these “choices” every day no matter what work we do, what relationships we maintain, or how we fashion our bodies. It seems wherever women turn we are told our choices are wrong, are bad, are not ours to make — from shaving our legs to ending an unwanted pregnancy.
Dines slams Lust for making porn that purports to be feminist while producing movies that “serve the male gaze,” a gaze that Aunt Lydia has advice on how to avoid: “modesty is invisibility … to be seen is to be penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable.” Yet for all their modesty, Offred and her fellow handmaids are far from impenetrable, as Dines acknowledges when she claims that “both shows have a common underlying theme: that women’s true role is to be fucked.”
This is a crucial misunderstanding of both pornography and The Handmaid’s Tale. That The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel and the television show, is concertedly not about fucking should be plain to any reader or viewer. Dines uses a neat bit of equivocation to cover up this bad faith effort, stating, “women are fucked to make babies.” Yes, it is true that intercourse is necessary to make babies, but fucking? This is the stuff of pornography, not Gilead. In Gilead, citizens engage in intercourse with handmaids who are sometimes forced at gunpoint to participate.
Female bodies are used for their fertility and then disposed of. Eyes are even burned out and bodies bruised, sex appeal is so unimportant. In the majority of pornography, fertility is of no consequence. Indeed, Ellen Willis describes pornography as “a protest against the repression of non-marital, non-procreative sex,” arguing that enjoying porn is “a form of resistance to a culture that would allow no sexual pleasure at all.” More importantly, the men and women of porn perform sexual labor for financial remuneration; ideally, they discuss dos and don’ts before the scene and sign a model release consenting to distribution of the images. This difference, and the danger of ignoring such a difference, cannot be overstated.
In Gilead, women are indeed passively fucked; in pornography, women perform a variety of sex acts. Moreover, the language of “fucked” and “fucking” adopted by Dines assumes a disturbingly patriarchal understanding of sex. Is enveloping something in an orifice getting fucked? For Dines it appears so. In her world, due to our biology we have no option outside of getting fucked. While Dines decries the “biological determinism” of the women of Gilead and porn, she fails to see the manner in which it is she who ensures this destiny.
The world of Dworkin and Dines is the world of Gilead — everything must be black or white, woman or Unwoman, invisible or seen — there is no space for creativity, for choice, for the in-betweens. Yet Atwood is an artist who writes in beautifully complex shades of grey, and The Handmaid’s Tale is no exception. The salvaging scene — where the handmaids kill an alleged rapist with their hands and fists and teeth — provides an acute awareness of femaleness, of womanly corporeality, of its vulnerabilities, of its potentials — both good and bad, pleasure and pain, both to harm and to be harmed. The book has the power to both move and terrify. It moved and terrified us as adolescents. It inspired our feminism. It is for this reason that Dines’ clumsy co-opting of the novel (and the television show that retains so much of Atwood’s poetry) for her own ideological crusade feels so painful.
Dines asserts that in both shows “it is women who, in the name of sisterhood, do the dirty work of the men by playing the role of taskmasters to control the lives of other women,” seemingly unaware of the irony given her own attempts at controlling women’s behavior.
By making the world black or white, she narrows the spectrum for us, as feminists, to find common ground. For Dines, all pornographic representation is antithetical to feminism and harmful to women and men. In turn, porn critical feminists are, to Dines, pro-porn at best, the enigmatic “pimp lobby” secretly working for the capitalist pornographers at worst. There are ways to critique industries, sexual representations, and media that allow for nuance, the complexities of agency in capitalist society, and (most importantly) the humanity of sex workers. Dines refuses this approach and brands anyone who dares to deviate from her position supporters of patriarchy, either traitors to our gender or not a feminist at all — an Unfeminist. Such dogmatism would go down well with the guardians of Gilead.
Laura Helen Marks is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Tulane University in New Orleans. She earned her Ph.D. in English from Louisiana State University. Her work on pornographic genre, adaptation, and neo-Victorian studies has appeared in Sexualities, Phoebe, Paracinema, Salon, Gambit, and From Porno Chic to the Sex Wars, and is forthcoming in Porn Studies and Menstruation Now. Marks is also a contributor to the adult film oral history podcast, The Rialto Report. She is currently completing a book manuscript, Porning the Victorians: Erotic Adaptations and Gothic Desire.