Gendered Sexual Shame: The Jezebel Club in the Handmaid’s Tale-2018

This essay aims to explore the gendered nature of sexual shame. I argue that female sexuality is a direct threat to patriarchal values and that as a result of that threat women are sexually shamed more so than men. I will be using the ‘Jezebel Club’ as an object of reference to highlight my argument. I will begin with a brief description of the Jezebel Club which will be followed by a discussion around oppression of women and how that impacts the sex work industry. Next I take a look at the basis for patriarchal systems and briefly analyse the notion of nature and biology as the explanation behind patriarchy. In this section biology is also discussed in regards to gendered sexuality. The importance of women’s reproductive role is also vital to the discussion in regards to male power. I also investigate the significance of religion and the male gaze over history and how that has impacted our cultural understandings of gender. The final parts of the essay will focus on the value of different forms of capital and who has access to this capital as well as a discussion around shame and the link between shame and the body.

In The Handmaids Tale, all women are repressed or oppressed no matter where they sit within the Gilead hierarchical society. While the Handmaids tale was written in the 1980’s it seems more than relevant to certain contexts within our globalised contemporary society. Foucault warns that repressing desire actually results in a production of it (Taylor, 2009, pg. 21), and religion has long been an institution of repression not only of desire but of sexuality as a whole. At the core of Gilead society is an ultra conservative Christian understanding of the world, in which sex is a tool for reproduction and not a site for pleasure or desire. While discussing sex trafficking in Asia, Brown proposes that the more repressed and male-dominated a society is, the higher the levels of prostitution, trafficking and abuse, specifically of vulnerable women. “There is a beautifully neat symmetry: strict sexual codes and rigorously male-dominated societies are mirrored by widespread systems of sexual slavery” (Brown, 2000, pg. 25). We can see a perfect example of this in the Jezebel Club in the Handmaids Tale. The vulnerable, otherwise untouchable, women who have deviated from the strict gender roles assigned to them have the ‘choice’ of ‘working’ in the Jezebel Club, or to be cast away to the colonies (and ultimately to their death).

An explanation behind this ‘neat symmetry’ is that patriarchy involves male domination not only over women, but over each other. To show any sort of vulnerabilities would be a sign of weakness and therefore result in being ‘less’ of a man which then leads to insecurities surrounding their status among other men. By having access over an objectified ‘whore’ creates the fantasy for these insecure men about their ability to dominate within society. While this explanation works for the real world, it’s not so clear in Gilead. It is quite apparent that patriarchy is operating within the Gilead society, but the level at which that patriarchy is operating is not highlighted in either the TV show or the book. Rather, Atwood focuses on the roles of women within this dystopian society.

One of the key things to note here is that the women who ‘work’ in the Jezebel Club have not really chosen that line of work. While the women did make a choice, they were choosing between their death (the colonies) or to be repeatedly raped but remain alive (Jezebel). Instead of receiving payment for their services, these women are paid in their survival. The Jezebel club symbolises the ultimate paradox of the Gilead society highlighting the gendered sexual double-standards between the sexes. The justification of such a place within a totalitarian society comes down to the argument of ‘nature’. The commander declares:
“Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, its part of the pro-creational strategy. It’s nature’s plan. Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes in the old days? To trick men into thinking they were several different women. A new one for each day.”
-The Commander (Attwood, 1985, pg. 237)
While this essay focuses on the social side of things we may also note that biology does have a role to play in this. Brown argues that
“[Domination over women and other men] is a biologically driven need and its goal is to enhance reproductive success. This need makes power, domination and sex inextricably linked” (Brown, 2000, pg. 129)
When Brown discusses biology she is referring to the contentious notion that sexual interactions are supposed to increase a person’s capacity to continue their genetic lineage onto their offspring. While men have been encouraged to ‘spread their seed’; Brown suggests that biologically speaking, women are vying for a mate who can provide protection for both herself and her offspring while also possessing ‘an enticing gene bank’ (Brown, 2000, pg. 128). From a biological perspective then, it actually doesn’t make much sense for either of these gender roles to perpetuate; men do not have the capacity to care for the amount of children he is capable of producing, and the ideal mate for a woman may not embody all of the attributes to produce idyllic children for women. This biological debate completely ignores women’s sexuality and agency. If nature only intended for men to enjoy sexual pleasure why would women have an organ such as the clitoris? As discussed a little later a woman in control of her sexuality is a threat to patriarchy and we can see many examples throughout history of sexual oppression of women, such as the ‘hysterical woman’ and religious head coverings. But the biological debate continues, and I argue that the cultural understanding of these biological gender roles have been key to ingraining these gender norms.

While gender is socially constructed, we cannot deny there are biological differences between men and women. Sexuality is quite controversial when analysing the nature vs. nurture debate and it is still unclear as to whether sexuality is a naturally occurring biological function or if our socialisation is the key to our sexualities. Regardless, attempting to repress something as prominent as sexuality is bound to have consequences. The repression of female sexuality in particular certainly isn’t a new trend; women are child-bearers, they provide life. In order for men to hold complete power they must also hold the power of reproduction: women. In the context of Gilead fertile women are a rarity, and Attwood proposes that “.. ruling classes always make sure they get the best and rarest of desirable goods and services..” (Atwood, 2012). In Gilead this means the Handmaids are property in which the ruling class get to ‘own’ the women, which I argue is just the amplified version of the reproductive rights debate happening in many places around the world. Religion is central to the reproductive rights debate and is key to understanding how Gilead came into power. In an interview with Attwood in regards to her novel she states that in order for the coup of the United States to occur (which resulted in the take-over by the Gilead elite) the ruling class had to use religion as the premise of their take over. Had they used socialism or communism the US would’ve outright rejected it. Instead they had to base their claim on already existing ideas from the 17th century, prior to the Enlightenment period when there was still a heavy bias against women and before the separation of church and state. She also stated that restricting sexual freedoms also impacted the rise of the conservative powers (Atwood cited in Mead, 2017).

The role of religion in current society is less influential than previously throughout history, but it has impacted Western culture a great deal. One of the things religion has perpetuated over time is the binary understanding of femininity between the virgin/whore. This dichotomy of femininity not only exists within the Christian faith, but many religions resulting in this as a cultural understanding of women. The understanding of women as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of their sexuality and/or sexual history still continues today which directly influences gendered understandings of shame surrounding sex and sexuality. Foucault suggests that the Christian approach to sex is one that attempts to eliminate pleasure and/or desire; “Acts have to become something neutral; you have to act only to produce children, or to fulfil your conjugal duty” (Foucault cited in Taylor, 2009, pg. 22). Women who fulfil their ‘role’ as childbearer/mother are seen as ‘good’ women; women who have deviated from this ‘good woman’ role are seen as ‘bad’ and stigma is then attached to these women. Ignoring pleasure and desire, as well as individual agency, makes shaming women for their sexuality easier. If sex only has one purpose (to procreate) then any deviancy outside of that is wrong and immoral and women should be ashamed. The importance of religion reinforces patriarchal understandings, as Christ states: “Patriarchy is an integral system of interlocking oppressions, enforced through violence, and legitimated by religions” (Christ, 2016, pg. 223). Therefore women who attempt to control their own sexuality are directly threatening the patriarchal system.

In the case of the Handmaids Tale the only place where we see sex and sexuality functioning outside of procreation is within the Jezebel Club. It highlights the dichotomy of the virgin/whore role of women even within the most conservative societies, as discussed previously. Prior to marriage, women were ‘their own property’ and could have sex with whomever they chose resulting in children being born with no absolute confirmation of who was the father. The concept of marriage was created so that men would know who their offspring were, so that they could pass on their property and wealth to their own progeny. Marriage not only provided a guarantee (should the woman remain faithful) of genetic lineage the woman also became the property of the man. Hence why the term for a married woman is ‘Mrs’ or ‘Mr(‘)s’, as in she is the property of Mr. In the context of The Handmaids Tale, women as property is extremely evident as the main character’s name is Ofred, literally ‘Of Fred’ named after her ‘owner’. Not only are the handmaids considered property but all women are the property of men including the wives and the girls in the Jezebel club.

Through different forms of art over time we can see that historically women have been represented through the lens of heterosexual men as sexual objects existing for their pleasure; “the male gaze”. The performance of the male gaze has become so ingrained in our understandings of gender and sexuality that women have been conditioned to internalise certain values as dictated by patriarchy. The impact of the male gaze in a patriarchal society is important because of the cultural implications over history. Evans & Gamman suggested that Colonial Europeans who were viewing other cultures, such as Asian or Arab, could not be seen “as it is, but through their own eyes” (Evans & Gamman, 1995, pg. 17). The same could be applied to our understanding of society through the male perspective. I argue that because history has been dominated by men we all view society from the male standpoint. This has led to internalised misogyny and self-surveillance of women.

In a patriarchal society men hold the ultimate power because of the valued capital they possess. Bourdieu recognises a number of forms of capital which include: economic (property, wealth etc.), cultural (knowledge, artistic taste etc.) and social (social networks and obligations etc.) (Bourdieu, 1986). It appears that sexuality, especially female sexuality has extremely high value, just as those who formed Gilead understood, yet when we speak of capital, even cultural capital; sexuality or reproductive abilities don’t come into the discussion. Much of the historical gendered conditioning has led us to a place where different social positions hold different power in regards to the forms of capital they can and may possess. Bourdieu suggested that “women are not typically capital-accumulating subjects. Rather they are ‘capital bearing objects’ whose value accrues to the primary group to which they belong (eg. her husband, the family)” (Bourdieu cited in Thorpe, 2009, pg. 493). For women who choose to use their bodies to accumulate economic wealth in order to hold more valued capital, threatens the concept of the patriarchal system. It is important to note here that this is not applicable to the women in the Jezebel club as they have limited agency to make the choice of working in the club.

Berger proposes that perspective is based on who holds the most capital suggesting that “It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity” (Berger cited in Evans & Gamman, 1995, pg. 17). As men are the ones who traditionally hold most of the capital their perspective has a higher value. It appears that to capitalise off sexuality is only acceptable when men are profiting. We see this in the Jezebel Club (although not explicitly stated) it is safe to assume that the women in the club are not receiving any compensation for their services aside from allowing the women to live. The commodification of the body, or even of women doesn’t allow much of a differentiation between a wife and a prostitute according to Simone de Beauvoir. In her book ‘The Second Sex’, she has a whole chapter dedicated to ‘Prostitutes and Hetaeras’ where she states: “For both [the prostitute and the wife] the sexual act is a service; the latter is engaged for life by one man, the former has several clients who pay her per item” (de Beauvoir, 1949, pg. 614). This highlights that within a patriarchal society we are all objects exchanging our own capital (in this example emotional labour and sex) in exchange for economic gains. When women attempt to gain their economic freedom through the commodification of their own body’s they are shamed for it. The basis of this shaming stems from the historical and cultural interpretations of patriarchy.

The body as a site of shame (discussed below) is interesting in the context of the Handmaid’s Tale as we can see that women’s bodys have a different value to men. Female bodies in Gilead are seen as ‘national property’ and different women have different roles to play within the hierarchy. The self-surveillance and internalised misogyny mentioned before is exemplified in the role of the ‘Aunt’s’. Their role within Gilead is to brainwash the incoming Handmaid’s (& other women) to conform to their new gender role within the new society. The Aunt’s assist in oppressing female sexuality in several ways including shaming Handmaid Janine for being gang-raped, as well as manipulating the women during the initiation process. As discussed already Christ suggests that violence is used to enforce gender roles and it’s ironic that the Aunt’s are a part of this violence against women “even though the Aunt’s put emphasis on the abuse of the female body in the old time, it is exactly the Aunts that carry out the punishment on their bodies” (Pei-Hsuan Hsieh, 2009, pg. 3). By each woman having their place in society together they form the subordinate part of the society. From the perspective of Foucault the discipline exercised in Gilead “is no longer simply an art of distributing bodies, of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine” (Foucault cited in Peir-Hsuan Hsieh, 2009, pg. 10). The society of Gilead is as a machine that operates through surveillance and power relations to enforce the gender roles expected of the citizens.

Many consider shame to be the central ‘affect’ of the self. Probyn suggests that “the distinct nature of affects provides an optic into the complex combinations that characterize the everyday” (Probyn, 2004, pg. 329). In other words affects help form the habitus, both individually and societally. The affect of shame helps shape our own selfhood through reflexive actions “that also seem to force an experience of inter-subjectivity” (Roberts cited in Stark, 2016). Shame is an affect closely linked to the body, and it is a physical reaction to feeling ‘out of place’ (Probyn, 2004, pg. 328). Sexual shame is very closely linked to religion in many different contexts. In the West, even if you weren’t brought up religiously the Western culture has been influenced by religion, mainly Christianity (although gendered sexual shame is common amongst most common religions). The way in which we are socialised and educated encourages us to feel shame about certain sexual feelings we may have. Our social environments automatically incite shame in certain contexts and more often than not it is women who are subjected to sexual shaming more than men. We can see an example of this in the Jezebel Club, and the character of Moira. We know that prior to the rise of Gilead Moira was a lesbian, which is seen as “non-reproductive, [which] is incompatible with the republic, where compulsory heterosexuality is built into the social structure” (Himberg, 2018, pg. 196). Her failed escape attempt resulted her being placed in the Club, and when Ofred catches up with Moira there you can see the shame and defeat Moira experiences by being in that environment. Her shame is contrasted by all the men around her who all appear to be having the time of their lives experiencing no shame. The men aren’t shamed to be in a place like that because as discussed before it is ‘natural’ for men to pursue many women.

Patriarchal values have a long history borne through the value of private property enforced through violence and perpetuated by religion. From the perspective of the male gaze we have come to understand the world through a patriarchal lens which in contemporary society is increasingly being challenged. Binaries are also important here, whether it be the binary of masculine/feminine, the virgin/whore, or even heterosexual/homosexual. Within Gilead reproductive fertility in women is a rare commodity in which the ruling class has been able to control through violence and fear as women have no autonomy or agency regardless of their hierarchal place. Long-standing conditioning has in turn impacted how we understand gender roles in the current society and we continue to see a lot of self-surveillance of women, as well as the entitlement of men over women’s bodies. The role of the Aunts show us how the effects of internalised misogyny can impact a women and the policing of women of other women is also highlighted here. The entitlement men feel over women’s body is very visible at the current time, and we can see discourse beginning to change around how we report domestic violence and violence against women within greater society.

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