If you haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale, I highly recommend that you do. It’s rivetingly horrifying. I read the book back when it was first published, and I thought the original movie was a decent rendition of the storyline. But the current remake with Elisabeth Moss is something different. Extending the original from words on a page to an extrapolated version with infinitiely greater character development has only made it more horrifying.
Because it could happen.
Because it has happened.
Because it is happening.
To spare my husband, I watch The Handmaids Tale alone
The dystopian drama, with its vision of female sex slaves, is making women angry. Somewhere in the world, these things really happen ~ Janice Turner – June 19 2017, 12:01am – The Times
Why am I watching The Handmaid’s Tale? I ask this after every episode leaves me trembling with rage. Why plunge into the dystopian republic of Gilead in which women are wives, domestic workers (Marthas) or reproductive vessels (Handmaids); forbidden to work or even read; tortured, ritually raped and executed; their illicit desires punished with FGM? I should stop, but some odd feminist masochism drives me on.
Friends report rows with male partners, especially over the scene when modern America flips to evangelical totalitarianism. Suddenly all women are sacked at gunpoint and find their credit cards don’t work because their money has been transferred to their menfolk. “It’s OK, I’ll look after you,” consoles the husband of our heroine Offred (the brilliant Elisabeth Moss). And she is furious: he’s enjoying his new power a little. “You just don’t get it!” women viewers yell at their men and the telly. “It could happen! It is happening now somewhere in the world.”
I’ve been watching Handmaid alone. Mainly to spare my own husband from unspooling Sunday evening rants that would encompass the Iranian revolution stealing women’s liberty overnight, Saudi guardianship rules and US Republicans asserting a foetus’s “personhood”. I am transfixed because rather than foretelling a horrific yet improbable future, Handmaid describes what for millions of women is a real and terrible present.
It is 30 years since I read Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. Revisiting my Virago paperback, I was struck by how much more shocking I find it. Then, it felt as if Atwood was extrapolating wildly from the big-haired evangelical Christian preachers on American TV, with their anti-choice views. Their literalist interpretation of the Bible seemed archaic, marginal, ridiculous; the Tea Party movement had not yet gathered force. The fantasy that they would conquer America was thrillingly awful but rather far-fetched.
Now Christian fundamentalists have not, as in Atwood’s vision, machinegunned Congress and suspended democracy, but they are sitting in the White House. The vice-president, Mike Pence, tried to pass a law forcing women to have funerals for aborted or miscarried foetuses. Such ceremonies occur in The Handmaid’s Tale. Trump’s all-male health team meets to limit women’s access to contraception, like a gathering of Gilead Commanders. In Atwood’s fictional world gays and abortion doctors are hanged. Trump’s Republican Party merely believes gay marriages are an abomination; it shuts down abortion clinics.
When the book was first published western readers seldom considered women living in Gilead already. The stories of those in traditional societies, forcibly married off, killed if they were infertile, the powerless chattels of men, went unheard. Or we held the cultural relativist view that our standards should not apply to their lives. I recall a huge argument with a friend bound for Afghanistan. I was horrified that women there were shrouded, illiterate, ground down under the Taliban. She chided me for racist arrogance. Their society was different, who were we to judge? Just as the Gilead wives discount their handmaids’ humiliations: “They don’t have the same feelings we do.”
Now the world is more connected, we feel for women whose recently acquired freedoms — to learn, work, travel, love — are imperilled by the sweeping global conquest of conservative Islam. In Atwood’s fantasy, the handmaids are childbearing women assigned to households where the wives are — through some eco-catastrophe — infertile. The Gilead regime justifies this ritualised rape with biblical precedents, via the story of Jacob and his two barren wives, Rachel and Leah, who used their handmaids to produce children they claimed as their own.
Islamic State fighters used similar religious justification for enslaving the Yazidi women, Boko Haram for its abduction of 200 girls from Chibok, Nigeria. According to their Koranic interpretation, slaves are the rightful spoils of war. While Gilead’s handmaids are forced to have sex on fertile days after a Bible-reading ceremony, Yazidi girls report that Islamists would pray before and after they raped them.
The modesty dress code of the Gilead women — long thick dresses, bonnets covering the hair, clumpy shoes, no make-up — was borrowed by Atwood from the Puritans. She imagined a US regime nostalgic for Founding Father principles. And the Vermeeresque beauty of the figures swishing through the streets and in the incongruously elegant Shaker houses leavens the horror. Yet these costumes render the women anonymous, interchangeable. The white bonnet, like a set of blinkers, stops women seeing or communicating with the outside world. It is impossible not to think too of the niqab imposed on Muslim women: isolated, suffocated, erased.
Indeed The Handmaid’s Tale is as timeless as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: both remind us of the methodology that totalitarian regimes of all colours and eras share. Most impose a crackdown first on female citizens — because if men police their wives, sisters and daughters, half the population is already subdued. From Hitler’s Lebensborn programme to create more Aryan citizens for the Reich to recent edicts by India’s Hindu nationalists that mothers should have ten children each to outbreed Muslims, wombs are weapons of war, too powerful for women to control.
Because when they do, they gain too many other powers. Only unharnessed from their relentless fertility can girls learn and earn — but then, of course, there is the danger that they may leave. An expert in global family planning told me African women use injectable contraceptive implants secretly without telling their men. Just as the book-mad working-class heroine of Educating Rita hides the Pill from her husband because she wants a college degree, while he wants motherhoodto stop her fancy ideas.
In societies where women are given reproductive choice via contraception they always have fewer children. Populations of Italy and Japan are plunging below replacement, causing societal anxiety. (Even India’s birthrate is down to 2.1.) What if — as in the fictional Gilead — babies are not born at all? You wonder if birthrates plummeted, how soon political initiatives to encourage motherhood would turn from nudge to shove.
When Offred is befriended by her Commander over games of Scrabble he argues that the modern world was counter to women’s nature. “Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone,” he says, “they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they are protected. They can fulfil their biological destinies in peace.” It is a point made still by religious conservatives: sexual freedom doesn’t bring happiness, just lives damaged by flaky absent fathers and women who, pursuing hedonism, end up alone, too late to have a child.
And today many such women are resorting to handmaids of sorts: buying eggs from desperate women in poorer countries or employing surrogates. In India’s notorious “baby factory” clinics, fertile slum girls are instructed to keep healthy, not smoke or drink alcohol, as in Gilead. The baby is removed from them quickly after birth, claimed by the rich wife. It is a moral quagmire; the only difference is this handmaid is paid.
In the book’s birth scene, Atwood has the handmaids gathered around the labouring woman, chanting, the whole business a social event. And lately, baby-making has turned from a banal, private happiness to a public performance, with baby showers, birth plans, celebrity pregnancies constantly discussed. In our age of low fertility, birth is a sacrament, children are deified as household gods.
Atwood’s central theme is freedom. There is more than one kind, says the handmaids’ enforcer, Aunt Lydia: “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
It is the argument of Islamic conservatism: why be like the uncovered western girls, perved at by predatory men, having unsuitable relationships, sexual diseases, when you could enjoy the order and protection of religious rules? “We were a society dying”, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.”
The Handmaid’s Tale explores what it would be like in that alternative universe, when “freedom to” is lost. I keep watching, I suppose, because I think of the Yazidis, the Chibok girls, the Saudi women unable to leave the house without male permission. And I long for Offred to escape, for all the handmaids of the world.
It’s not often I promote a television show. But this one is worth watching, for so many reasons.
It’s worth thinking about.