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Angels in America

19 Jan 2017Literature Essays

The alarming trends in contemporary society expedite the reaction against the situation that takes a variety of forms. In literature the most significant form is the dystopia—or anti-utopia—which both parodies and subverts the traditional utopian model as a means of satirizing and warning against the social dangers. With the proliferation of increasingly effective mechanisms for social control, in fact, dystopian fantasy has become in the modern era an expressive of the deep-seated dreams and anticipations of modern society.

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale extrapolates from such apparently disparate starting points as State Socialism and fundamentalist Christianity, arriving at visions of a future society which bear a marked family resemblance. In her dystopia Atwood portrays a society which is regimented and hierarchical—and also one where adherence to the societal ideal is ensured by an almost obsessive concern with surveillance, with the subjection of the inpidual to public scrutiny. The laws of Republic of Gilead are based on biblical propaganda and rigorous imposing of social norms. Those who are unobservant to these societal norms are made to serve as maids and personal servants or expelled to “the colonies”. Conformity is assured, and so too is uniformity—in the most literal sense.

The citizens in The Handmaid's Tale wear uniforms, reinforcing the sense that people are types rather than distinct inpiduals. Atwood makes her uniforms color coded, like electrical wiring, further enhancing the sense that the inpidual is merely part of the social machine. The citizens who do not obey marital law, the abortionists and homosexuals are executed and hung at "The Wall" for public display. The borders between the public and private spheres are blurred and it is nowhere more apparent than in its treatment of sexual relations. Consequently the role of women in Gilead is reduced to mere mechanisms for procreation; they are deprived of their independence without the right to choose what to do, wear, with who communicate: “We learned to whisper almost without sound.

In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way, we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.”(Atwood, Ch. 1.) or even make reproductive choices.

Women are classified into certain categories, and wear the clothes corresponding to their social function, among which there are Wives, Daughters, Widows, Aunts, Marthas, Handmaids, and Econowives as well as two illegitimate functional categories - Unwomen and, secretly, prostitutes, Jezebels. This pision of female society is based on their sexual functions and ability of women to give birth. Thus, Handmaids’ main social function, as far as they are fertile, is to bear children for Wives, who due to some reasons cannot bear children by themselves, but they are married to the Commanders so belong to the top social caste. On the other hand, Jezebels are to satisfy Commanders sexual needs while Unwomen are sterile, feminists or lesbians, or generally those unable to fit within Gilead's gender categories, hence are not regarded as true women what is actually implied by the name of this group.

A universal social norm concerning human sexuality in Gilead claims that sex for pleasure is humiliating to women. Men are presented as constantly desiring sexual pleasure, but must refrain according to religious and social rules. The only occasion when sex is allowed is during the “Ceremony” only for the purposes of reproduction. However the sexual act is occurring in the presence of other women and is truly degrading process thus Offred has to summon up courage before she goes to participate in the Ceremony: “I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born.” (Atwood, Ch. 12) Sex acts which vitiate the Ceremony, like sex for pleasure, are punished with death.

In the novel Atwood seeks to expose the flawed assumptions of stereotypical depiction of traditional images of female sexuality as more ‘natural’ than, and hence subversive of the State's sexual norms. In The Handmaid's Tale the scene, in which Offred sheds her nun-like uniform and puts on make-up, high heels, and a revealing outfit largely comprised of feathers, is designed to illustrate, not the subversive power of ‘natural’ female sexuality, but rather the extent to which such stereotypes are merely the obverse of the male fear of female sexuality which informs Gilead's Puritanism.

While Gilead's stringent moral code is ostensibly designed to protect women from predatory male sexuality, its designers continue to dream of the old stereotypes, and find their sexual outlets at that archetypal locale of male fantasy, the brothel. Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of Offred's trip to the brothel with her Commander is his pathetic belief that the trip is somehow exciting for her. Where Offred defies the State's sexual norms is not in overt displays of male-approved traditional femininity, but in her illicit encounters with the Commander's chauffeur, which take place in the darkness, and which she never really finds words to describe.

The subversiveness of such sexual conduct lies in its privacy—something which her monthly couplings in the Commander's marriage bed signally lacks—yet even so, Offred remains dubious as to just how far this too constitutes a form of compromise with male authority. For Offred, simplistic opposition of ‘natural’ sexuality to official authority is impossible. Having experienced the unequal sexual power relations not only of Gilead, but of the society that preceded it, she cannot help but be aware the sexual arena is one where, while rebellion may be possible, it remains fraught with complicity.

While Atwood describes an imagined, non-existent society that constructed its political order on human sexual properties, Tony Kushner's play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes explores sexuality as a political notion from another point of view and against the background of the American contemporary society. Angels in America puts before its spectators such questions as - What is the relationship between sexuality and power? And is sexuality merely an expression of power? …Is male sexuality always aggressive? What do we make of the phallus? … It bears the issue of reforming the personality to become a socialist subject, starting with the trash that capitalism has made of people. Angels in America mounts an attack against ideologies of inpidualism.

In Angels in America, the tragic hero is Roy Cohn, the one who has internalized a violently homophobic ideology and who, in one of the play's most memorable scenes, denies he is a homosexual insofar as he recognizes that this designation describes as much a political as it does a sexual identity:

Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry? (Kushner, 45)

Cohn's refusal to claim identity is presented as the source of his “tragedy,” and he functions as the play's example of that which must be displaced, the closeted gay man, the man who betrays his class. His adoptive son, meanwhile, Joe Pitt, is similarly insensitive, or blind, as one of the play's dominant metaphors implies, to the contradiction between sexual position and ideology and, like his mentor, neatly takes up a tragic position.

Yet both Roy and Joe remain secondary characters in Angels in America. Although the sources of sardonic comedy and erotic fascination, they are not the spectator's primary point of identification. Rather, the other leading characters, Louis, Prior, Belize, Harper, and Hannah, are far more likely points of interests for the spectator. And with all of these characters, questions of socialization become much more difficult and fraught. Since all of them fall into the category of oppressed persons, because of sexual orientation, HIV status, race, and gender, and most of them indulge in behavior that can be interpreted as self-destructive, they can be said to have internalized oppressive values.

Insistently, in Angels in America, in Cruising, in anti-S/M feminist tracts, and in so many different discourses, internalized oppression gets collapsed into masochism. Because one is blind to oppression one internalizes the hatred that originates from without and desires not to be loved but to be abused. In Angels in America, the relationship between internalized oppression and masochism is particularly complex and particularly revealing of the anxieties circulating in American culture. Throughout Angels in America, subjectivity is produced by a masochistic desire for suffering. The erotogenic component of Roy's masochistic desires is rendered unmistakable in a passage from an early draft of Perestroika:

ROY: I admire your bedside manner. I feel better already. Abuse me some more. BELIZE: You like abuse. ROY: Thrive on it. BELIZE: I'd never have figured you for a bottom. ROY: I'm not into fixed positions. In bed. In life, I'm a top. In bed … BELIZE: I don't want to know. (Kushner, 76)

What Belize doesn't want to know is that Roy's position in bed is the reverse of the one he plays in the political arena. Indeed, it is the secret of his sexuality or, rather, the sexual expression of his internalized oppression. His masochism, his desire for pain and humiliation, is the price he pays for refusing to be a homosexual.

The message is of Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale is that inpidual agency cannot be trusted, even in the most intimate sphere of personal relations; in the end, the overriding interests of the state must prevail. Sexual behavior is malleable. We can adjust our sexual behavior, and thereby our social roles. We can't—not yet—alter reproductive function. Kushner’s Angels in America functions as a work of historical value, and it does so by disclosing the process by which the political, which drives history, intersects with the personal and sexual, which are no more than elements of history.

Works cited list:

  • Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
  • Kushner, Tony. Angels in America New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993.

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