Post By Suren Najaryan
The Handmaid’s Tale is an original Hulu series based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name. The show is speculative fiction that explores themes of female autonomy and systematic misogyny. Set in the newly formed country of Gilead, formerly America, the totalitarian government struggles with falling birth rates due to widespread infertility. Established following a coup by Christian fundamentalists, Gilead seeks to exert control over American women, specifically fertile women, in order to restore Christian doctrine to what they consider a godless country. In this new order, several classes are established. The men who had instrumental roles in the founding of Gilead are given high status, the title of commander. Commanders, as elite, are allotted wives, many of whom are presumed to be infertile. Each is additionally assigned a handmaid, a fertile woman who serves as a vessel for child bearing. The show follows Offred, as in “Of Fred.” Her name, derived from her commander, signifies her status as his property.
The commodification of women as baby incubators, against their own wills, is not such a far-fetched idea, though it may seem extreme to many of us. The reality is, as Margaret Atwood put it, The Handmaid’s Tale is not a work of science fiction, but that of speculative fiction: fiction, because the events in the book have not happened, and speculative, because in some ways, they have. The distinction as speculative rather than science fiction is an important one to make, particularly because the world described in the book is not entirely a product of Margaret Atwood’s imagination, but, rather, an amalgamation of the many occasions of female subjugation throughout history. Some sects of Mormonism and Old Testament Christianity continue similar practices to this day. The Order, for example, a polygamist Mormon cult that operates in Salt Lake City, Utah, dictates that male leaders have multiple wives while young men without position are powerless to secure even one. Paul Kingston, the current leader, is noted to sleep with a different wife every night, “in accordance to their ovulation cycles.” Furthermore, the Order has strict rules in place for the average member but leaders are often excused from such formalities. Another Christian Fundamentalist society located throughout the U.S., Quiverfull, likewise believes children are a blessing and that “birth control is evil.” Atwood’s world is a direct reflection of such communities: the commanders live opulent lives, with both wives and handmaids (assets, really), but the average man is to serve as a soldier. If he’s lucky, he may find an econowife – a woman of low status who serves as wife and handmaid simultaneously. And similar to the Order, the commander is expected to only copulate with a handmaid once a month in the fertility ritual, when she is ovulating. But most importantly, what these groups share is the common belief that the sole purpose of woman is to birth and serve her husband, a decree from God.
Not only is there a historical basis for the reality of the handmaids, but there is a continuing push for a return to the fundamental ways of the Bible. Now, more than ever, The Handmaid’s Tale seems relevant –especially in America, where Donald Trump was recently elected to the highest office in the country. Trump began his presidency by selecting an overwhelmingly anti-abortion cabinet, threatening to defund Planned Parenthood for providing abortions, cutting the Affordable Care Act, and rescinding federal protections for the LGBT community in the workplace and, more expressly, transgender persons. These changes come at a pivotal moment in the U.S.: racial tensions are high and white, and Christian America is scrambling for control. And without a doubt, the persecution of women who receive abortions and the cuts to healthcare and LGBT protections disproportionally affect women and people of color. In the show, the government began its reign by targeting women’s rights and queer people, or gender traitors – their classification in Gilead. Those found to be gender traitors or abortion providers were hanged in public as a warning. Most notably though, the government froze the assets of women, in the single, swift click of a button. The digitization of money, through credit and banking, allowed the government to effectively disable all of its female population within mere hours of taking control. It’s a frightening thought. And our reality.
While in the U.S. women are not so blatantly commodified and left without rights, the attitudes and the means for creating Gilead are there. And the sobering truth is that Trump only brought out these subsurface convictions; he didn’t create them. It is exactly these parallels that make the world presented in The Handmaid’s Tale so compelling. As with all great dystopian fiction, comes the realization that this dystopia is not too far from our own world.