In University I had what I call an existential crisis. It stemmed from reading Unless by Carol Shields and although the feeling of futility lessened, I couldn’t help but feel more strongly about the futility of language and women’s inability to communicate and be understood a few months later when I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In fact, I am still feeling the effects of these novels almost ten years later.
In both novels (wonderful Canadian novels if you haven’t read them yet!), I think that Shields and Atwood are trying to present this idea that if humanity remains silent as women are objectified, then the consequences are unimaginably bleak and horrifying. Yes, Atwood does create a futuristic exaggeration of what happens when people live in blissful and self-imposed ignorance, yet both authors highlight the importance of not only having knowledge of others and the marginalized, but also of acting on that knowledge.
In my experiences of Feminist Theory I have always considered women, especially women from oppressive cultures or religions (like in Unless) to be on the margin and I struggle thinking about how we as a society or as individuals can bring these people into the centre.
After a conversation with some friends, we began talking about this idea of the individual being oppressed and what that looks like. Instead of being on the outside and shoved and pushed out, my friend said something that I had never considered: each oppressed person is shoved and pushed into the centre and is trying to get out in order to be free. The image is of a birdcage.
Article (Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: essays in feminist theory):
THE SYSTEMIC BIRDCAGE OF SEXISM
“It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining
as the solid walls of a dungeon” (Frye).
Instead of pushing and shoving and relegating to the margins to become invisible, I believe that the birdcage is a powerful image of the barriers surrounding a lot of women (myself included). Frye ends her article with these words: “But when you look macroscopically you can see [the cage] –a network of forces and barriers which are systematically related and which conspire to the immobilization, reduction and molding of women and the lives we live” (Frye).
I know I am not yet getting to the novel Wither, but after thinking about cages and freedom and birds I can’t help but think of Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”:
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom. (ll. 27-38)
I think this poem is interesting because the bird has not experienced freedom; it is ‘unknown.’ If taking what Frye writes about the systemic build up of barriers and the connections and relations between these factors, then is anyone truly free?
In her novel Wither, Lauren DeStefano creates a world where women are taken away from freedom and essentially caged in order for the human race to continue (even note the birdcage on the front cover!). Throughout the novel the feelings of anger and helplessness that I felt while reading Unless and The Handmaid’s Tale returned. That feeling of despair and fear of the future. Yet in all of the books there are redeeming moments of hope.
In Wither, the main character Rhine is taken from her home and forced into a marriage with husband who is ignorant about his surroundings and the world his father has created and the household his father controls. In DeStefano’s world, women die at age 20 and men at age 25 because of the effects of genetic engineering, so there is a high priority to continue the human race so that someone, eventually, will find a cure for the virus that kills them. As in most dystopias, it is the women who are made to suffer the most. The women are seen as objects and breeders without personality or a past. Although Linden (the husband) is made out to be an ignorant and obedient son, he never once questions the wives his father picks for him (three new wives after his first dies of the virus) and never once listens to their stories. He is happiest to believe the best and to remain blissfully unaware of the world that happens around him.
There is a direct link to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and also to Shield’s Unless and although parts of this novel irritated me, I could not help but feel a little satisfaction to know that there are teenage girls reading this novel and beginning to think about the consequences of not listening to people’s stories, not allowing women to communicate, not taking the time to understand those who are oppressed, and the consequences of staying unaware of the “network of forces and barriers which are systematically related and which conspire to the immobilization, reduction and molding of women” (Frye).
I leave with a feeling of hope because the more people who make it a priority to listen, to hear, and to remove the bars of the cage, the more likely we are to actually experience freedom.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1