I am a man. I state this because my perspective on what it means to be a woman within our society is limited in some ways. However, from the outside looking in, it’s been my observation that most women are forced to walk a very narrow balance when it comes to public perceptions, which is fundamentally unfair and contributes to some of the glass ceilings.
For example, in almost all respects of life, confidence and strength are character traits people respond to—whether it’s a leader outlining a plan of action, or someone trying to sell their attraction in order to get a date. But for women, show too much strength and get called a bitch, or act too nice and be regarded as weak. People start talking about the right ways to talk and laugh—with no way to please the usually male judges of proper enunciation and chuckling—or deem the style of a woman’s hair as being more important than the substance of the words coming out of her mouth. Of course, we’re also a society that values a pretty face and uses images of women in various states of undress to sell almost everything. Anyone who doesn’t fit the ideal gets comments about their “cankles” in order to devalue and demean. But don’t show too much skin, or be too sexual, otherwise risk being criticized as a slut or a whore.
All of these slights and indignities are meant to keep a segment of the population in what’s thought to be their proper place. As a wise man once said, some of the most destructive weapons are just thoughts, attitudes, and prejudices which have a fallout all of their own. And God help us if those thoughts are ever considered a “normal” position, because things only get worse from there. Sort of like how xenophobia and scapegoating leads to more people expressing how they really feel about minorities, with anger and ugliness rationalized as more and more acceptable.
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a world in the not-so-distant future where the United States has fallen—and what’s replaced it is a country where women are relegated to non-persons. In our current new iteration of America where the president talks about what he’s gonna grab, a vice president who once backed a law requiring women to hold funerals for miscarried and aborted fetuses, and is too afraid to have dinner with any woman not his wife—presumably because either he or his dinner date would somehow be unable to control themselves—Atwood’s story has been seen as taking on new relevance, with Trump supporters complaining the new adaptation by Hulu is an attack on the current administration.
“From each according to her ability, to each according to his need.”
—A corruption of Karl Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” used by the Republic of Gilead
The Handmaid’s Tale follows the life of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in the Republic of Gilead. Offred once had a husband, a daughter, a job, an Uber, and her real name. All of that was stripped away by the new government of Gilead, a theocratic dictatorship within the former United States that controls at least parts of New England and the Eastern seaboard. The Republic of Gilead came into being after a series of environmental disasters and decreasing fertility rates led to an increase in fundamentalist extremism and misogyny toward women. It ultimately results in a violent purge of the federal government and the institution of martial law, with the new Republic of Gilead reshaping society around a strict interpretation of Old Testament scripture.
Women in this new country are slaves to their male masters, with Offred being one of the few fertile women forced into being handmaids. The title of handmaid is a pretty way of saying sexual slave purposed to be “two-legged wombs,” since in this new world women are not even allowed to read or exhibit a personality beyond being a reflection of male needs.
The very name of “Offred” identifies the character as property, in this case of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). She serves his household, running errands and doing menial tasks as a non-person. But her most important job is the “ceremony” where she is ritualistically raped by the commander and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), in a process to produce a child inspired by the story of Rachel and Bilhah. If Offred should fail in these tasks, or be anything other than a placid vessel, she will be sent to “The Colonies” to die a miserable death and someone else will become Offred.
The reason Atwood’s story took root in the collective consciousness and has remained an effective cautionary tale is because the misogyny at the core of the story is right here with us in the real world. Every single day. It’s just that most people who hold those views keep them hidden under the usual niceties—and the fear of what might happen if they expressed how they really feel.
But what would happen if those barriers fell away?
As much as people are cautioned against getting into hysterics over slippery slopes and the paranoia induced by hypotheticals, there is a vigilance that’s needed to keep the barbarians at the gates. Societies usually don’t shift by freedoms and liberties being stolen like a thief coming in the night. The normalcy of life is taken gradually by a thousand cuts, when the impossible and repugnant are given credence and not taken seriously until one day things are different. The way people think becomes different.
Before the fall, Offred’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) tries to comfort her by saying: “We’ll figure it out. This can’t last.” However, it’s already become a world where a barista feels comfortable calling her and her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), “sluts” for the sin of wearing yoga pants in public.
We all like to think people will listen to reason, and that people will choose the light if offered it. But sometimes they don’t. This story of our reality is not a fairy tale. Sometimes common sense and decency do not carry the day. No matter how much one wants to believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice, sometimes it needs some forceful shoves to remain on track.
During a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Ashburn, Virginia on Tuesday, a school-aged boy shouted “take the bitch down” in an apparent reference to Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton.
Responding to a group of reporters sitting nearby, the child’s mother, who identified herself as Pam Kohler, defended her child’s “right to speak what he wants to,” noting that “he’s a minor so he can’t be interviewed.” When asked about his behavior, Kohler blamed “Democratic schools” for her child’s lewd language, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Adapted by Bruce Miller, the first three episodes directed by Reed Morano remain faithful to Atwood’s novel while expanding on it (Atwood is a consulting producer on the series). However, since this is being set up as a continuing series, divergences are bound to happen.
Moss, best known for her role as Peggy on Mad Men, relays the beleaguered thoughts of someone who remembers the old world and living in a constant fear of the new one. Offred’s only companion in this hell is Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), a handmaid who’s secretly a lesbian, a state which the new regime regards as being a “Gender Traitor.” We see how women are re-educated to accept this new normal, with Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) using a combo of shame, cattle prods, and regular beatings to instill subservience. Both Lydia and Strahovski’s Joy are women who’ve decided to collaborate, if only to retain some scraps of power.
And there’s a truth in that too. How many women support candidates who don’t believe they should be trusted to control their own bodies?
The world of Gilead attempts to exhibit a fake quaintness with Rockwellian sentimentality. But it’s a wholesomeness built on a foundation of fear, violence, and exploitation—sort of like if someone tried to make America great again in the worst possible way. And therein lies one of the problems with policy fixated on nostalgia and based in frustrations of what people believe they’re owed, if only some immigrant or some mouthy woman knew to behave. For many of those who long for an imagined past, they have no idea what it’s like to watch someone they care about be treated as less than a person. Because the power they seek—the greatness and all of the jobs and bullshit which will be given form if we only ignore some fundamental truths and go backwards—will only come at the expense of others.
- Speculative fiction: Even though it won the first Arthur C. Clarke Award, Atwood has in the past argued The Handmaid’s Tale is not science fiction, since “science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” However, in more recent years, she’s been more open to the label.
There was a little kerfuffle at the Tribeca Film Festival about whether it’s a feminist reading. And you call it an alternative future. It’s not sci-fi?
Atwood: It’s not sci-fi in a galaxy far, far away and in another time. It’s SF on this planet here, now, shortly. More like “1984” and less like “Star Wars.”
- Trump supporters freak out: When the novel was originally published, it came at a time when the Iranian Revolution had seen a turn towards fundamentalism and severely affected the lives of women in the country. It was also the time of the Moral Majority and Reagan’s America, where arguments about whether or not a woman’s place was in the home being barefoot and pregnant were still at the forefront of American civil discourse. So it’s either a sad or hysterical reflection of the current state of the culture that after the trailer for Hulu’s adaptation premiered, many Trump fans took to YouTube to criticize the series as an attack against the orange menace, not realizing the novel was written more than 30 years ago.
- One of the most challenged books: The Handmaid’s Tale has become a staple in many high school English classes, especially the advanced placement ones. However, the book has also been on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently banned books for the past two decades. But in the wake of the presidential election and Donald Trump’s inauguration, The Handmaid’s Tale joined George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here atop best seller lists.
Lisa Reid and Cathy Barnette presented the Guilford County [North Carolina] school board with more than 2,300 signatures, all representing people who support a stricter grip on what their kids are reading.
A book that upset both Reid and Barnette is Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood describes a futuristic, totalitarian, Christian theocracy and includes many vivid descriptions of sex, suicidal thoughts, and an extreme view of the Christian religion. “We would like to see standards change so that sexually explicit pornographic reading material will not be assigned to our children in high school. It’s just not appropriate for teens,” Barnette said.
Reid said she felt Christian students are bullied in society, made to feel uncomfortable about their beliefs by non-believers. She said including books like The Handmaid’s Tale contributes to that discomfort, because of its negative view on religion and its anti-biblical attitudes toward sex.
One significant change from the novel: In Atwood’s book, the Republic of Gilead is not only misogynistic, but also an explicitly racist regime. Blacks —called the Children of Ham by the Gilead government— are resettled. Although, this resettlement is in all probability transfer to concentration camps and extermination. Likewise, Jews are offered the choice of converting to Christianity or being shipped off to Israel. However, many of the ships to Israel are
not so strangely lost at sea and never make it to their destination. In Hulu’s adaptation, the decision was made to drop this aspect of the story.
It wasn’t only that Miller did not want to make an all-white television show — he felt that adding white supremacy would simply be too much for the story to bear: a narrative about authoritarianism, surveillance, and their intersection with race would have many more layers now than it would have in 1985. “When you’re dealing with politics and power and religion and misogyny at this kind of level, to throw in race relations seems like a little too much to chew off in one narrative setting,” he said. “Fertility trumps everything. I’m making that decision for them, but it seems like a logical decision they would make.”
- Is it a feminist story?: As alluded to above, the cast of the series caused a bit of controversy last Friday when many of them denied the series is a feminist show at the Tribeca Film Festival. Echoing one of Hillary Clinton’s most memorable lines, Elisabeth Moss stated: “For me it’s not a feminist story—it’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights.” Atwood has taken a similar position in the past, seeming to imply that labeling the story “feminist” is limiting in some respects, and responded to Moss’ statement by saying she would rephrase it as: “It’s not only a feminist story, it’s also a human story.”
From an interview with Time published April 12, where Moss and Atwood shared an exchange:
Atwood: When we use that word, feminism, I always want to know: What do you mean by it? What are we talking about? If the person can describe what they mean by the word, then we can talk about whether I am one of those or not.
Moss: I find myself getting slightly tripped up because I am a feminist, and I’m not ashamed of it. But that’s not why I chose this role. I did it because it’s a complex character.
Atwood: If it were only a feminist book, you would think, in that case, all the women are over here on the low side, and all the men are over here on the high side. But it’s more like the way human societies actually arrange themselves, which means some powerful people at the top. The women connected to those people have more power than the men connected to the bottom rank.