The Handmaid’s Tale portrays a dystopian future in which women are mistreated. How well would women be treated in the utopia imagined by contemporary feminism?
The Handmaid’s Tale, a new Hulu miniseries based on a 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, is being hailed as an apt portrayal of the regressive, anti-woman, dystopian endgame of Donald Trump’s and Mike Pence’s America. In the story, a group of fundamentalist Christians gain power and turn the ruins of the United States into the oppressive Republic of Gilead. Certain fertile women, dubbed “handmaids,” are forced into sex slavery as “breeders,” and anyone who resists is damned to a gruesome early death, cleaning up toxic waste. Years of women’s advancement is brutally undone.
Some early think-pieces have drawn laughably strong parallels between the dystopia and the contemporary United States. The Washington Post review called it “timely”. The New York Times review claimed it has “an unexpected relevance in Trump’s America.” Rebecca Nicholson wrote in the Guardian that the miniseries “has reignited the interest of readers, who have been drawing fresh parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America. The novel topped the Amazon bestsellers list around the same time that signs at the global Women’s Marches asked to ‘Make Margaret Atwood fiction again’”.
Atwood herself concurred with the parallels on April 19, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times: “The election happened, and the cast woke up in the morning and thought, we’re no longer making fiction—we’re making a documentary.” A documentary.
The subtle, light-handed, realistic themes of the new Hulu series inspired me to write my own equally subtle, light-handed commentary on the sexual politics and treatment of women in American society – from my own perspective as a woman in that society.
It is the year 2017. A mother in her thirties pushes a stroller carrying a baby, flanked by two tripping toddlers. She is pregnant with her fourth. Onlookers in her middle class suburb eye her with suspicion. Someone mutters something about carbon footprint. Another woman, a neighbour, chats with the mother, asking whether she really choose that lifestyle, or whether her husband had insisted she support her career.
It’s a commonplace in this society that staying at home with one’s children is not a choice a woman could freely make. It is, instead, the duty of husbands to shield their wives from the disgrace of stretch marks and the trauma of childcare, by making sure, with kind words, that they keep themselves infertile and earn the second salary without which no couple is truly free.
Women are only free so long as they stay in their place: the dance floor, the cafe, the open-plan office.
A woman in her twenties visits the gynaecologist to ask about her menstrual irregularities and be checked for any underlying problems. The gynaecologist asks what birth control she uses. None, she replies. She is a virgin. The gynaecologist stares at her as if she has two heads. Oh, but you will be sexually active soon, the gynaecologist assures her. You never know when it might happen, so you should be prepared.
The woman responds that she is a virgin because she is unmarried and believes sex is meant to be a meaningful physical and psychological bond between a husband and wife with the potential to create new human beings. So, in fact, she will know when “it” will “happen,” and she will have ample time to prepare beforehand.
With liturgical rhythm we intone: sex is right when we consent enthusiastically, and protect ourselves from children. There is nothing more to be said; and nothing more may be said.
The gynaecologist raises her brows sceptically. This woman doesn’t know her own mind; she must be incapable of independent thought. She must not yet be truly free.
Women in this society are told that these categories exhaust the logical space of possible attitudes toward sex. If you are not “sex positive,” then you are “sex negative.” If you try to augment or refine the definition of “moral sex” in the liturgy, you are sex negative. You are not celebrating your freedom.
“Sex negative” also encompasses an older iteration of feminists, those abjured by the free women. These deviant predecessors thought all sex with men is rape. They thought they were profound. The free women realize the slogan is trivial: a mere miscommunication suffices to turn right sex into rape. It is known that even sober women are too fragile to say no; most rape can be eradicated through training in how to say and understand the word “yes.”
A man stands accused of raping a woman. There were no witnesses, and the circumstantial evidence is woefully unhelpful. Under the Patriarchy, he could have tried to defend himself by claiming that she didn’t resist. Now we are free, he defends himself by claiming that she consented ‘enthusiastically’. The woman maintains that she did not consent. The jury finds the new legal definition of consent useless in helping them reach a decision.
The accused’s mother suspects, with grief, that her son was at least capable of rape. The father wasn’t around much when her son was growing up. The parents had never married, and the mother had had to work a full-time job, to stay free. She had spent much less time raising her son than she had wanted, because she had chosen to be free.
She might have married. Her friends supported all of her choices, ensuring she kept her freedom instead. Ensuring she could keep choosing.
Choice is a sacred power. For one, it confers meaning—the meaning of one’s clothing, for instance. The garb of free women can be loose pants and tennis shoes, because they aren’t dressing for men. However, if they choose to wear something “sexy,” it is only for themselves. Unless they choose to wear it for a particular man, or woman. And then it is only for the man or men, or woman or women, they have chosen. Outwardly, the same high heels and dress may look the same, but free women can change what the clothing communicates at will, and to whom it communicates. If an outsider’s interpretation diverges from her own, that person does not respect her choice, and threatens her freedom.
The paradox of the power of a woman’s choice, and the fragility of her freedom, is a sacred mystery, and the faithful will understand it only by embracing it. A free woman can transform her clothes from empowering to submissive by her choices – she can even transform tissue into a person by choosing to destroy or care for it. But her agency can vanish for the night if she chooses a drink; or for the rest of her life if she makes a promise to a man.
The Handmaid’s Tale: 11 episodes, created by Bruce Miller and based on the novel by Margaret Atwood.
Celina Durgin is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to The Quad.