The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Tate Britain, London SW1 - Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930 – 1980, 27 July–16 September 

Tate Britain explores the capital city through the eyes of some of the most significant names in international photography, from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Eve Arnold. Bringing together 180 classic photographs, Another London explores the city’s rich complexity.

Talk

Raven Row, London E1 – The Real Truth – A World’s Fair, 28 July–19 August

Suzanne Treister’s project at Raven Row is spread over four weekends with speeches from a global futurist, an anarcho-primitivist and a US security agency insider within a specially designed theatre. A World’s Fair also hosts an exhibition including three unique libraries, two video lounges and designs for a virtual world’s fair. On 28 July Robert Rydell, the international expert on the power of world’s fairs to define the modern world, delivers a keynote speech.

Theatre

The Africa Centre, London WC2 – And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, 31 July–18 August

Bilimankhwe Arts and Nanzikambe Theatre present the UK premiere of And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night - the award-winning dissident poet Jack Mapanje’s prison memoir, adapted and directed by Kate Stafford. Mapanje was imprisoned in Malawi’s Mikuyu prison in 1987 without charge and remained there for over three years despite a prolonged international outcry.

Film

BFI Southbank, London SE1 - The Genius of Hitchcock, 1 August–31 October

The BFI stages its biggest project to date - a complete retrospective of the 58 surviving Hitchcock feature films, with on-stage interviews including Tippi Hendren, the ultimate “Hitchcock Blonde”. The project opens on 1 August with two different screenings of Hitchcock’s Blackmail – a rare silent version with live musical accompaniment and a sound version.

Music

Wigmore Hall, London W1 – Ian Bostridge, 28 July

Ian Bostridge concludes his Ancient & Modern series at the Wigmore Hal, a season-long residency which has seen the tenor explore influences, musical visions and period instrumentation. This closing recital concentrates on modernity with works by Benjamin Britten, his contemporary Hans Werner Henze and the American pioneer John Cage alongside Schubert lieder. The Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang joins the evening’s journey through drifting soundscapes.

BFI Southbank launches its Hitchcock retrospective (Photo: Getty)
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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

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

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