Moral Dystopia

The Handmaid’s Tale, extrapolating, as befits a dystopian novel, on the then-current trends in society when written in 1985, is even more a part of political discourse today than in the Reagan era. With the election of Donald Trump, feminists, many of whom were not even born when the novel was published, appeared at the internationally coordinated March on Washington held on Inauguration Day waving signs that read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again.” At a recent hearing in the Texas legislature in which an anti-abortion bill was being considered, female protesters appeared wearing the Handmaids’ head-to-foot robes with veils covering up their hair.

To further emphasize the point that “it can happen here and now and will under Trump,” a new Hulu adaption of the novel shows a pre-Gilead past—the name of the theocratic regime that takes over America in the novel—replete with ATM cards, the Internet, and cell phones, features not yet invented or distributed to the populace when the novel was composed 33 years ago.

One of the striking things about the feminist protests today are their overlapping issues. As to be expected, the feminist marchers make much of Trump’s supposed intentions to roll back what they call “reproductive rights.” On the campaign trail Trump stoked these fears by declaring his pro-life views (which was a repudiation of his pro-choice beliefs, jettisoned [perhaps tellingly] when he began to consider a run for the White House as far back as 2011), and asserted that there had to be “some form of punishment” for women who had abortions—a comment he quickly and, given his usual refusals to correct and/or apologize for controversial statements, uncharacteristically walked back. Later he claimed he meant that women who had abortions “were punishing themselves.”

In addition, they attack his opposition to equal pay for women and family leave. They locate these stances not to any religious beliefs of Trump, which are slippery at best, inauthentic at worst, but to an overall view of women as trophies. It is an unfortunate reality that many of the president’s own public statements feed the perception of dismissal of women as chattel.

In many ways these groups are astute to bring The Handmaid’s Tale back into discourse. For many of its themes, even those of a nonreligious variety, are today issues of concern. Whatever one thinks of the validity of the environmental movement, a toxic environment caused by nuclear waste and hairsprays and general pollution causes sterility among men in the novel and thus paves the way for the Gilead regime, which views women as little more than baby-making machines.

Such is the environmental destruction in the scenario painted by the novel that those who won’t comply with the dictates of the new regime, and those handmaids who fail to produce a viable baby (after three two-year attempts) use it as a punishment tool; rebels, widows, the old and infertile and failed birth mothers are shipped off to a slow, agonizing death in the “Colonies” resulting from their duties to clean up radioactive waste.

Indeed, the linchpin for women’s cooperation with the theocratic regime isn’t just being tortured or hung (in effigy on Harvard Wall, along with homosexuals—labeled “gender criminals”—Catholic priests, nuns who won’t marry and produce children, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baptists) but out of fears of being shipped off to the “Colonies.” Hence, the old and infertile women—the kiss of death otherwise in the regime’s obsession with producing healthy babies—are more than willing to volunteer as “aunts,” who indoctrinate and police their own gender in the form of the potentially fertile “handmaids.” Others who are infertile use their domestic skills to escape this fate. Even “the Jezebels,” secret prostitutes who service the leaders of Gilead, named commanders, will be shipped off once they become old and unattractive.

The means by which Gilead takes over the government are even more plausible today than in 1985. The type of machine-guns and canned-goods militia movements present today (usually, but not always in the back-country South) cause the coup; in this case, the fundamentalist citizen militia, the Sons of Jacob, who assassinate the president and most of Congress and then blame the murders on Islamic terrorists.

Although their views toward women are Old Testament, the Sons of Jacob’s methods to take away their rights are modern. Women’s ATM accounts are frozen, and without financial power they’re vulnerable for what comes next: the ban on holding property, reading, writing, voting, and their value determined solely on whether they can produce healthy babies or not. Offred believes “If there had still been portable money, [the coup] would have been more difficult.”

Now rounded up, women such as Offred are indoctrinated by the aunts into being submissive females. But, surprisingly, the propaganda is by and large secular in nature; the tried-and-true argument of giving up individual rights in exchange for security is used. This message of democracy being synonymous with danger to females is pounded home by use of films depicting graphic violence on females (one example shows a woman being slowly cut to pieces). From there the aunts contrast how much safer women are under the new regime.

Cherry-picking from the Old Testament, the aunts also cull from the arguably sexually tormented Paul of the New Testament by placing the exclusive blame on women when men bed them down. In a ceremony known as “Testifying,” in which Offred and other women sit in a circle, even gang-rape is blamed on women:

“It was my fault,” says the gang-raped Janine, after being browbeaten by the women in the circle who chant the same accusation and force her to kneel, hands behind her back. “I led them on. I deserved the pain.”

And in the words of Aunt Lydia, men are left off the hook because they can’t help being “sex machines,” for it’s “God’s device.” But for a society steeped in a charicatured Old Testament “family values,” of men being dominant over passive women, Lydia’s advice is also secular, and has a note of treason in it when she informs her audience that they do possess power:

“You must learn to manipulate them, for your own good. Lead them around by the nose.”

For a regime that supposedly brings women together, the policies of the theocracy cause hatred among them. The wives of commanders hate the handmaids because they have sex with their husbands in the wife’s presence, with the “vessel” lying on top of them (as prescribed in Genesis, when Jacob bedded his infertile wife’s handmaid to produce children); afterward, rather than following the procedure of allowing the handmaid to lay down for 10 minutes, the wife hisses, “Get up and get out.” The Marthas hate the handmaids because of their fertility. The aunts hate lesbians, in the form of Offred’s rebellious friend Moira, as well as single women who allowed men to sleep with them. Even a ceremony providing the women a chance to blow off repressed anger, in which they are allowed to tear apart a captive male prisoner, doesn’t alleviate the anger they feel toward one another. As with the society that preceded Gilead, women hate those who can have babies.

What is equally striking is that no one in power wants to follow the Old Testament rules imposed on the rest of the populace. The wife of the commander, a former fundamentalist televangelist (whose caked makeup and crying-on-cue performances recall Tammy Faye Bakker) smokes black-market cigarettes and steers Offred into having illegal sex with the commander’s chauffeur Nick.

The commander himself allows Offred to read in his room, and frequents a government-run secret brothel composed of cheerleader and school-girl-uniform-wearing prostitutes.

Nor is anyone happy. It is a given that Offred isn’t; but the commander and his wife aren’t either. He hates the mechanical sex-without-affection ceremony. Serena Joy hates watching him do it, and frequently gets drunk. Having dictated that women should lose their rights and stay in the home (but not, thanks to the environment, barefoot and pregnant), Serena Joy misses her job as a televangelist.

And unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a battered and indoctrinated Winston Smith is purged of such old-fashioned values as love and tenderness, Atwood’s protagonists still desire such notions in ways that are deemed politically incorrect by some of today’s feminists. Offred craves being touched by her murdered husband, and satisfies this craving by appearing at her new lover’s door, the chauffeur Nick, every night. She is even “happier” toward her rapist/commander when he treats her as a human being in his study. The commander also craves some type of affection, asking Offred in these meetings to “kiss me as if you meant it.” After several meetings with her, in which they play Scrabble and he allows her to read (a forbidden fashion magazine from the 1970s—the kind of magazine hard-core feminists hate, but Offred devours), he almost slips up during the next ceremony by touching Offred’s face. The wife, although rarely talking to her husband, is so alarmed by this gesture that she steers Offred to Nick as a means to getting her pregnant and out of her house.

Along with Aldous Huxley’s jarring account of mass possession in sixteenth-century France, The Devils of Loudon (1952), in which the probably faked possession episodes among the nuns was cynically used by the church-state government to murder a rebellious priest, The Handmaid’s Tale is the ultimate warning against a theocracy. It is a call to arms for women—and men—to follow Thomas Jefferson’s dictum to monitor and halt government’s power grabs before it’s too late. As Offred puts it: “When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up; when they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up either.” Women like Offred, college-educated, employed, are targeted quickly not only because of those factors but because she married a divorced man and had a child with him. According to their fundamentalist laws, divorce is illegal, and hence Luke is still married to his first wife, Offred is an adulterous “slut,” and their daughter a “bastard.” With such religious “sanction,” the government can do whatever they want to her—taking her daughter away from her because Offred is, in the common parlance of today, “an unfit mother.”

And there are indeed plenty of warning signs for today in the novel. One doesn’t have to be a liberal to be alarmed by some stances taken today by far rightists that are echoed in the novel. In conjunction with the commander’s denouncement of “universal day care” as “filth,” several on the outer reaches of social conservatism attempt to block such policies because they believe it encourages women to work outside their biblically assigned domain. In an example of life imitating art, an Oklahoma congressman named Justin Humphrey echoed the Gilead view of women as simply “walking wombs” during his championship of a bill that would require “the written consent of the father” for a woman to obtain an abortion, by calling women “hosts.”

But the novel isn’t completely hospitable to hard-core feminists and the far left today. As mentioned previously, women such as Offred crave the touch of a man. Offred also craves the products, such as hand lotion and makeup, condemned by some feminists today as merely a means to please a man. More alarming are the assertions by supposed “liberals” like Rosie O’Donnell and Sarah Silverman that Trump’s presidency demands a military coup to remove him; and as, with Gilead, they urge “the temporary” suspension of the Constitution to achieve this.

Other far leftists such as Nation columnist Natasha Lennard have argued that liberals should abandon entirely the Constitution and its free speech protections for supposed “fascists,” who, it is easy to see, are those who disagree with her. In the form of a masked terrorist group Antifa (ironically dressed like the male versions of the handmaids), leftists use violence to silence the freedom of expression of their opponents.

Such anti-libertarian views are expressed in the novel courtesy of Offred’s old shoe feminist mother, who fervently supports censorship. In a mirror image moment of Gilead, her mother helps pave the way for the takeover by orchestrating book burnings of the same pornographic books banned by Gilead. Atwood affirms this kinship when she has Aunt Lydia state that not all of the feminists’ views were wrong.

Thus The Handmaid’s Tale is indeed applicable to our age. Whatever religious views President Trump holds, it is apparent that he has fundamentalist backing, not only from some key advisors but also from the same White working-class Southerners of NASCAR and back-country revivals that once clustered around Sarah Palin. Whatever one thinks of reproductive rights or, as some call it, abortion rights, it is apparent that there is the possibility that at the very least, those more interested in curtailing women’s rights at the risk of losing an election will try to curtail them.

But it is also applicable to an equally ugly turn of events in the Trump era. Today it is not the far right of a Gilead that openly desires a military takeover of the government and the suspension of the Constitution; it is the far left, some of whom were present that day at the Women’s March on Washington—the same protest that bore signs of stopping Atwood’s prophecy. Not all repressive “religions” are of the Gilead variety; some can be secular in nature, and, if put into policy, can be as totalitarian toward anyone not of their leftist persuasion as anything Atwood dreamed up 33 years ago.


Article Author: ​Ron Capshaw

Ron Capshaw is a journalist and freelance writer in Midlothian, Virginia.