Evil twin?

Poor Gordon - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins. What happens if

Something of an eventful fortnight behind me. The weekend before last I had to pick up the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. This involved flying to Salzburg – cue much head twitching and feeble attempts at self-hypnosis in various bits of Gatwick. Eventually my imagination simply became so exhausted by picturing smiley things and projection screens and giving air gunners encouraging hugs that it could no longer picture my mangled remains dangling from a tree, ready to traumatise a passing rescue worker. At least not clearly enough to prevent me from boarding the plane and then carrying out every single obsessive-compulsive safety ritual I have – along with a few I invented as we bounced along. I’m sure I was a joy to all observers – tapping, nodding, shuddering and humming away like a shouldn’t-ever-be-out-patient.

Salzburg itself is lovely – delightful graveyard. The prize business involved wearing evening dress at most times of day, staring at canapés and being regularly assailed by classical music. All of which was so cultured, civilised and frankly unbelievable that it became pleasant, rather than nerve-wracking. The Austrian Minister for Culture is charming and actually cares about culture and the Austrian Prime Minister gave me cake – while I tried to assure him my own Prime Minister would have taken my cake and told me it would be given to the destitute and cake-needy before sneaking it into the cake trough of a cake-spattered man in a mink cake-eating suit. Poor Gordon, though - perhaps soon to be replaced by one or another Miliband. They’re twins, after all. What happens if we get the evil twin? I’ve watched more than enough Hammer horror films to know this is surely a risk.

Of course, the day after landing back from Salzburg (and being almost delighted enough by my continued existence to stay in the Ibis Euston without feeling nauseous – honestly, a sign in the foyer says it’s all about European values and “the breath of France” – France has serious internal problems if its breath smells of Ibis, that’s all I can say.. sorry that’s far too long a parenthesis and this is simply adding to it) I had to jump into my first preview performance for the Fringe.

And I’ve been running the show ever since – which is what I now choose to call a lovely holiday. I work one hour a day (unless I’m doing some other bit of funny stuff, which might bring that up to a whole hour and a half) and potter for the rest of the time, grinning like a Muppet. Thus far the ladies and gentlemen have been splendid, the venue has been only just hot enough to melt bronze and nothing apocalyptic has happened with any wiring.

I have now passed into that very special state of tiredness that only the Fringe produces – the sort where you can endlessly perform magic tricks on yourself. For example, approximately eight times a day I open my travel wallet with its central panel flipped left instead of right and then wonder pathetically where all my money and cards have gone. My show this year involves a mug of tea which I managed to put in my bag yesterday when I left The Stand. I then opened said bag on the train going home, noticed the tea – still, amazingly, in the mug – lifted it out of my bag and drank it. Which allowed fellow passengers to assume that a) I am unhinged b) I am a bad, beverage-related mime c) I am an unhinged and bad children’s entertainer. Things can only get odder and I can hardly wait.

You can see AL Kennedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.