In today’s world, dystopia weighs heavy on the minds of many. The Women’s March on Washington had an unexpectedly high turnout despite inclement weather. Civil rights activists around the world are standing up to say “no” to the establishment. These activists fear that the new American president will undo all of the progress we’ve made in basic human rights. It’s terrifying, but the whole ordeal sounds like something straight out of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.
The incredible feminist novel is now going to be a television series, now streaming on Hulu. The series’ star Elisabeth Moss told EW that “we never wanted the show to be this relevant.” But now, there couldn’t be a better time for the series as women and minorities fight for their rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak prophecy of what we could become.
A New Ordinary
The Handmaid’s Tale feels all too real to anyone who has lived in a puritanical region of the U.S. The novel takes place in what was formerly Cambridge, Massachusetts. Home to Harvard University, this place of knowledge and independent thought becomes a totalitarian religious state. After a terrible third world war that started in the Middle East, part of the United States becomes the Republic of Gilead. Gilead is a place with strict rules and harsh punishments. Pollutants and radiation in the air make many women infertile, and many children are born malformed.
To combat this, women who can bear children and are not “unwomen” (more on that in a second) are trained as Handmaids. Their only job is to bear children for the rich and powerful. Their names are stripped from them, and they are given a new name that depicts a man’s ownership over them. The novel’s protagonist, Offred, is actually “Of Fred”. Women become so powerless in The Handmaid’s Tale that they aren’t even allowed the dignity of their own names.
While it’s easy to say that we would fight against this kind of treatment, how likely would you be to really fight? Offred is a survivor, an educated woman, the daughter of a second-wave feminist. She once marched in the streets to protest against this kind of tyranny, but eventually, even she did what she had to for survival. Early in the novel, one of the Aunts, who serve as handlers for the Handmaids, tells the frightened women about their new normal.
“Ordinary,” said Aunt Lydia, “is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”
Just as we have adjusted to changes in politics, technology, and the environment, so too could we adjust to totalitarianism. It’s easy to see a dystopia from the outside, but from within, people are just trying to endure. Could fake news, fallacious propaganda, and a return to a rigid, racist patriarchy become our new normal?
Xenophobia as a “Cure”
While the Hulu series has chosen to remove some of the racial elements of the novel, they are still integral to the story. In the new Republic of Gilead, anyone who doesn’t fit the particular puritanical mold is banished. Unless you’re white, straight, and willing to submit to the theocracy, you get shipped off to the completely apocalyptic west. (That’s right, Nebraska gone Mad Max.) As the world changes and fear sets in, those in power choose to eliminate anyone that’s different from them. It’s easy to unite a people if they’re all the same, after all. Women of color, openly gay women, and women who give birth to repeat mutations are “unwomen”, essentially the very bottom of the food chain.
The infertility problem and concept of ultimate xenophobia was portrayed brilliantly in the 2006 film Children of Men. Children of Men, however, was a British film and the racism was limited to “fugees”, refugees of other nations. America is a country founded by refugees. We imported slaves from Africa by the millions. We accepted immigrants from all around the world to help us build our cities, railroads, and infrastructure. America isn’t homogenous, cannot be homogenous, and that’s part of the brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale. It tells the story of white Protestants who have been in power for so long that they’ll do anything to cling to it.
Faith as a Tool of Oppression
To further their ideology, those in power in Gilead use the Bible as reference and rule. Religion is used as a tool to keep power. It’s not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination, but Atwood’s theocracy is deeply American. Gilead is based in our Puritan roots, steeped in misogyny and sexual repression. In The Handmaid’s Tale, sex is a sacred act, only used for making children.
It’s not difficult to imagine a world where Christian beliefs are used to deny freedoms to anyone who believes differently. Look at Texas’ new abortion laws requiring the burial of the fetus, or Indiana laws that allow people to refuse service to customers based on sexual orientation. Puritan Christian culture is deeply embedded in our nation, and Atwood’s dystopia just takes it a step further.
In Gilead, the government builds a massive wall surrounding their territory. They hang criminals from the wall as a way to dissuade anyone from acting out. This kind of punishment has been around since the Romans and their rampant crucifixions. Instead of simply silencing those who strike back, the government makes an example of them.
Strength Through Unity
What are we to do then, if this novel from 30 years ago seems to have so accurately foretold our future? We look to the failings and strengths of the characters in the novel, and soon the series. One of the greatest problems besetting the women in The Handmaid’s Tale is that they have been pitted against one another:
“She doesn’t turn her head. She doesn’t acknowledge my presence in any way, although she knows I’m there. I can tell she knows… It’s not the husbands you have to look out for, said Aunt Lydia, it’s the wives. You should always try to imagine what they must be feeling. Of course they will resent you.”
As women begin to lose their rights in The Handmaid’s Tale, they find their relationships with men challenged. When the government transfers all money from women’s bank accounts to those of their closest male relative, Offred tries to get her husband to understand her fears. He cannot, as he has nothing to fear himself.
We cannot allow those in power to divide us. Allies must seek to truly understand the fears of minority groups they do not belong to. We must all try to understand that every single one of us is just trying to survive. We all want a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and our freedoms protected. It is only through unity, love, and understanding that we can turn this horror story into something else.
Let’s change the story, and never let the bastards grind us down.