Sexuality in Oz and the Handmaid’s Tale

While at first glance, sexuality may seem to be treated entirely differently in the two shows Oz and the Handmaid’s Tale, there are also striking similarities when viewed with an objective eye. This is true despite the fact that Oz centers on men and The Handmaid’s Tale (THT) mostly on women. Sex in Oz is often violent rape whereas in THT, sex is usually coerced. In both universes, sex is forced by one party onto another the majority of the time and both societies are very structured ones within larger, more lawless worlds. The outside world of Oswald State Penitentiary is the fictionalized version of the 1990s-early 2000s law and order justice department of the United States of the time. The outside world of the infant nation of Gilead in THT is Canada, the colonies, and ostensibly the rest of the globe who is steering clear of America’s nuclear civil war.

Sex in Oz is often gay sex which cannot produce children, which is somewhat similar to the futility of “the ceremony” in Gilead of which the rare pregnancies bear a one in five chance of producing a child healthy enough to survive. Sex in both societies reinforces the hierarchy of the society, both of which are ruled by men–in Oz the ultimate rulers are the male warden and mayor and Emerald City director Tim McManus, in Giliead the leaders are the male commanders. One might also say the C.O.s in Oz are “rulers” or even that the heads of the prison gangs are rulers, too, with some justification. In Oz, sex is forbidden, but in the Handmaid’s Tale, sex is a privilege. The C.O.s have the privilege of having sex with the inmates in Officer Howell’s case and in the case of the officers who had sex with Shirley Bellinger, the female death row inmate. While commanders explicitly carry the privilege, the C.O.s in Oz can get away with having sex with those of lower status as well as of their own. Some characters in each show are prohibited from having sex altogether.

The quintessential example of this is the priest, Father Mukada in Oz, however THT has entire classes of people who are forbidden to have sex. These are the Marthas, those sent to the colonies, men who haven’t been assigned wives, and the Aunts who are akin to the C.O.s in Oz in other ways. These characters provide a contrast with the overtly sexual nature of each society. The status of women in each show is somewhat similar. Women are treated as sex objects in both shows–in Oz, all women implicitly are because the men are around women so infrequently, whereas in THT, only fertile women are explicitly sex objects. The treatment of sexual assault however is much different. In the Handmaid’s Tale those who are sexually assaulted are blamed and shamed and the perpetrators put to death, whereas in Oz, it is either a fact of life that is accepted as part of the natural hierarchy or a crime which can lead to punishment of the perpetrator. The purpose of sex, though, is one of the most notable differences in between sexuality in the two shows.

The function of sex is completely opposite in each show. Sex in Oz is about dominance and or pleasure whereas in THT, sex is supposed to be a duty and purely for procreation. Gay sex is forbidden in Gilead, as is sodomy, both of which are commonplace in Oz. Both shows put their characters in extremely structured societies with clear rules about sex. Emerald City is a prison within a prison–consequences of sexual impropriety are swift and heavy yet don’t lead to death sentences. Gilead is a post-apocalyptic nation governed by religious extremists and the consequence of having illicit sex could be death. In both series’, consensual heterosexual sex is rare where the drama is centered and often clandestine when it occurs. The natural consequence of heterosexual intercourse is treated very differently in each show–in THT it is supposed to be a miracle and a blessing, but in Oz, procreation is either not allowed in the case of prisoner Busmalis, or an accidental inconvenience in the case of Officer Howell’s pregnancy.

Both shows depict sex as restricted and complex in the confines of the highly structured society, one governed by religion and the other by justice. In each show the people are not truly free so sex is a privilege. Hierarchical societies create boundaries around sex and obliterate other boundaries. Both shows are critical of the idea that sex should be restricted for some people and argue that doing so causes more problems than it solves.

 

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s Kindred tells the story of a young, 1970s African-American writer, Dana, who is miraculously transported back in time periodically to the 19th century to aid her white ancestor, Rufus, and save him from harm. The purpose of this miracle seems to be to allow Dana to live through the trials and misfortunes of her ancestors and gain a new appreciation for freedom and a level of social equity. She struggled against the institution of slavery and all of the disturbing situations and choices it created. The horrific beatings and whippings turned out to be the least of horrors when children were torn from their mothers, women were raped, and lynchings were commonplace. Dana tried to preserve her dignity and 20th century sensibilities, but ultimately is forced to make a life-changing decision that will follow her forever. The book interrogates the deranged relationships which occur under slavery in which both master and slave are dependent upon one another, while the master’s desire to control and dominate the slave makes even the most strained cooperation maddening or impossible. The novel illustrates how devastating social hierarchies are, not only for the social inferior, but also the social superior. Dana oscillated between submission and defiance, trying to find the path of least resistance and least ethical compromise. In the end, the novel granted Dana self-determination as she seized the morsel of power she had to save herself and return to her present day a changed woman. The novel is a worthy read and a fascinating look at the psyche of slave and master.