It is the compliance of the masses that perpetuates and sanctions government control.
By Laura Beans
When Janine, a young woman from the Republic of Gilead, testifies to being gang-raped at 14 and forced to have a subsequent abortion, an accusing finger raises its ghostly visage. “But whose fault was it?” demands Aunt Helena, a self-righteous authority figure in charge of indoctrinating the Handmaids. “Her fault, her fault, her fault,” a chorus of women responds. “Who led them on?” Aunt Helena prompts again, and the chorus resounds: “She did. She did. She did.”
I describe of course, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which sets its now-iconic stage in the fundamentalist Christian, gender segregated, and class-obsessed Republic of Gilead.
Gilead is a fictional, faraway land tucked into the cockles of our bleakest imaginings, but it’s also a chilling blueprint, a kind of literary prophecy for the not-so-future state of women in America here and now, in the land we call brave and free.‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ feels like a chilling blueprint for the future state of women in America. Click To Tweet
Is Gilead so different than say, Steubenville, Ohio in 2013, when two high school football players were convicted of raping a young girl while she was unconscious at a party? After posting images and videos of their unconscionable acts on several social media platforms, the young men were arrested, and the small town — and the nation writ large — quickly became polarized. Some allegations placed the blame squarely on the young woman’s shoulders, touting the antiquated, if classic, allegation that “she was asking for it.” Meanwhile TV anchors and hosts lamented the fact that these star athletes’ futures were ruined, and the victim was ostracized by her community. She even received death threats for speaking out about the horrors wrought on her unconscious body.
It was a case study in victim blaming.
A similarly horrific narrative — one that, again, reads like pulp fiction — played out more recently in the case of Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who, though convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, received a prison sentence of only six months. The judge who sentenced him was worried a longer sentence would have “a severe impact” on Turner and his future; he ended up only serving three.
Turner’s victim, as in Steubenville, was excoriated — both by the public and even in court by Turner’s lawyer — for her choices to party and consume alcohol as if she, too, were to blame for her own assault. The role of the female victims in sexual assault cases is almost always raised as if some deviation from the idealized female standard are conscionable grounds for such attacks.Deviation from the idealized female standard are offered as conscionable grounds for sexual assault. Click To Tweet
In Turner’s case, the fact that he had consumed too much alcohol in collegiate overzealousness was excuse enough for the judge to more-than-justify his conduct, but for his female victim — who did the exact same thing — her intoxication served as an indictment of her character. It was in fact, such a potent indictment that the judge dismissed questions about consent.
America’s rape culture is a stark and ubiquitous double-standard, revealing an insidious extension of our patriarchal society. When women are posited as “asking for it” — shouldered with the responsibility of vigilantly countering an ever-present bodily threat — and men are universally excused for predatory violent behavior on the bastardized gender notion that “boys will be boys,” we render our society no better than the sadistic dystopia Atwood envisioned more than 30 years ago.
Gileadian government reigns with a heavy hand; it is a totalitarian Christian theocracy which predicates its power on the systematic subjugation of women. In an era of dwindling birth rates and impotence from infertility among whites due to environmental pollution and STDs, women’s rank within the female sphere is based solely on their fertility.
The worst-off among them — the “Handmaids” — are women who have become a potent commodity; they serve no purpose but to reproduce in a world that caters to the whims of men. Stripped of all autonomy, the Handmaids are “owned” by a Commander and his Wife and are required to pass on their children to the couple for the “greater good” of future generations. In addition to being glorified sex slaves, Handmaids are often forbidden to read, write, or speak to the men of Gilead. In fact, their names themselves are synonymous with subordination; all Handmaids carry the literal prefix “Of-,” proclaiming them property of the Commanders they belong to — Ofwarren, Ofglen, Offred.
Atwood went to great lengths to explain that The Handmaid’s Tale was not science fiction but speculative fiction; it was imperative to her that readers understood she believed this world could come to pass.
The novel isn’t simply a vehicle for private expression — it also exists for social examination. Click To Tweet
“This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. I believe as the Victorian novelists did, that a novel isn’t simply a vehicle for private expression, but that it also exists for social examination. I firmly believe this. The society in The Handmaid’s Tale is a throwback to the early Puritans whom I studied extensively at Harvard under Perry Miller, to whom the book is dedicated. The early Puritans came to America not for religious freedom, as we were taught in grade school, but to set up a society that would be a theocracy (like Iran) ruled by religious leaders, and monolithic, that is, a society that would not tolerate dissent within itself.”
While certain progress toward gender equality has undoubtedly been made — everything from women being allowed to fight in ground combat to the continued advocacy for equal pay to women being more likely than men to earn college degrees — the current state of American womanhood remains a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation.
Look no further than the current election cycle to see the sort of misogynistic tropes that led Atwood all the way to Gilead. Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — throughout her 40-year career — has endured blatant discrimination and sexist contempt, reminding us that regardless of power and stature, women will be openly disrespected. It’s arguable that with said power, the discrimination only becomes more pointed; women in power feel like a fundamental threat to our very fabric of our society.
When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made her “feminist pronouncement” in support of Clinton’s run, she admonished the younger generation, saying,“There is a special place in hell for women who do not support other women.” She was instantly met by angry, disheartened young women appalled by her accusation that they should blindly support a candidate on the sole basis of her gender; she subsequently published a mea culpa on the New York Times.
And so it goes.
The setting for Atwood’s now cultishly cited book is a dark but not distant reality — in truth it is but a shadow of our own world. Perhaps that’s why it’s sold millions of copies, been adapted into plays, film, and an opera. The modern classic will make its debut as a Hulu series next year.
Atwood emphasized again in The Guardian in 2012 that she wanted her novel take aim at our own society; The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t designed to be an an alternative reality, but a parallel to our own, rooted in the very Puritanical foundation America is built upon.
The Handmaid’s Tale’ is parallel to our own reality, rooted in America’s own Puritanical foundation. Click To Tweet
“I made a rule for myself. I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the ‘Christian’ tradition, itself.”
The Ayes Have It
With no male accountability, the women of Gilead are held liable for the downfall of society — it’s a neo-Adam and Eve tale that posits women as the hybrid of a villain and a child; they are to be punished, controlled, and protected. Protection of course is not manifested by a freedom to choose, but by stripping away choice altogether.
For the women in Gilead, the options are few, and Handmaid-ship can seem far superior to a future in The Colonies, labor camp-style detention centers meant for infertile women (“the Unwomen”), so many accept their mandated fate for fear of a worse one. The brainwashing is powerful and omnipresent — many women believe themselves to be the problem; they believe they need protection from their own selves.
While Gilead’s methodology — obstructive bonnets designed to prohibit women from seeing as well as being seen — is a far cry from the hyper-sexualized, ideal female body proffered to modern young women, the hefty prison of scripted womanhood is almost identical.
The Long Arm Of The Law
In addition to Atwood’s harrowing vision of societally-sanctioned misogyny, her visions of xenophobia and jingoism ring eerily familiar as well. She writes:
“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time. Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control. I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen? That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on. . .”
It is the compliance of the masses that perpetuates and sanctions the government’s control. The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary one that reminds us of the danger of apathy, of resigning ourselves to the erosion of our liberties. “There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, of whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped.”It is the compliance of the masses that perpetuates and sanctions government control. Click To Tweet
And with millions of the U.S. population — including the Republican Presidential nominee himself, who calls for a ban on Muslims entering the country — perpetuating anti-Islamic attitudes and continuous, unwarranted attacks on Muslim-Americans, modern-day America could be this imagined past, a time of casual racism teetering on the brink of authoritarianism and blind indoctrination in the name of Greatness.
The Body Politic
There has been an almost constant effort to scale back people’s rights to obtain abortions. Even 40 years after the Supreme Court affirmed women discretion over their own bodies, legal challenges as well as gory, propaganda campaigns — such as the series of videos released by the Center for Medical Progress alleging that Planned Parenthood profited off the fetal tissue obtained during abortions — have sought to undermine theoretically protected health services. Even though investigations carried out by nearly a dozen states proved the accusations false, lawmakers and other special interest parties jump on the Planned Parenthood crusade, resulting in defunding action in numerous states.
And this is to say nothing of the numerous studies which proven time and again that safe access to abortion is not only a basic human right, but beneficial to mental health.
In many ways, the utter absence of bodily autonomy in Gilead is not far off. Echoes of its warnings can be heard all around us from dangerous individuals like Robert Lewis Dear, who believe themselves to be “warriors for the babies,” to the politicians who refuse people abortions even when the babies born to them will be severely deformed.
The Gileadians really only have themselves to blame, however; they acquiesced to gradual, societal shifts until eventually, their Constitution was suspended and the democratic government ousted.
“What will Ofwarren give birth to? A baby, we all hope?” Offred wonders in The Handmaid’s Tale. “Or something else, an Unbaby, with a pinhead or a snout like a dog’s, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart or no arms, or webbed hands and feet? There’s no telling. They could tell once, with machines, but that is now outlawed. What would be the point of knowing anyway? You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to full term.”
Instead of seeming further from the truth, the novel’s warnings only seem to echo louder in recent years. Atwood’s analysis of her own twisted kingdom headily describes our own reality here in America; we proffer a rhetoric of freedom even as we strip our people of rights, jail the innocent, violently invade other countries, clandestinely collect private data, and feverishly support an openly bigoted real estate tycoon as a viable leader for our nation:
America proffers a rhetoric of freedom even as we feverishly support a blatant bigot as our leader. Click To Tweet
“Gilead has utopian idealism flowing through its veins, coupled with a high-minded principle, its ever-present shadow, sublegal opportunism, and the propensity of the powerful to indulge in behind-the-scenes sensual delights forbidden to everyone else. But such locked-door escapades must remain hidden, for the regime floats as its raison d’être the notion that it is improving the conditions of life, both physical and moral; and like all such regimes, it depends on its true believers.”
The epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale takes readers to an academic symposium held by the Gileadian Research Association centuries in the perceived future, where a scholar on the period is giving a lecture on the authenticity of the preceding pages — now one of the few relics left of that darkly misogynistic time. The unnamed professor’s ends his lecture with, “Are there any questions?” reminding us that we’ve just borne witness to how easily our collective ennui could render us monstrous.
Atwood doesn’t leave us with instructions of how to avoid such a fate, but she does leave us with fear; we must fight against oppression or else succumb to its weight and our burial beneath it.
This article was produced in collaboration with The Alignist — a site dedicated to bringing works of literature into conversation with current events.