Commentary Media

There’s Little Balm in Comparing Ourselves to Gilead

Sarah Seltzer

Just how close is today’s reality to Margaret Atwood’s fictional misogynist dystopia, Gilead, the setting of "The Handmaid's Tale"?

It’s a daily onslaught: one after another at record pace, draconian laws are being passed restricting women’s rights. Meanwhile, providers of women’s health care are increasingly unsafe, even after one of them was brutally assassinated. And we all spent much of this past week wondering with (somewhat) bated breath whether the Federal Government would actually be brought to a complete and total standstill over the funding of women’s preventive health care and birth control. It feels like a perfect storm. And so for those of us familiar with its parameters, it’s been hard to avoid the comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s fictional misogynist dystopia, Gilead, the society that backgrounds “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” was written by Atwood 25 years ago. It is a sophisticated literary novel exploring the psychological havoc of misogyny and totalitarianism on one woman’s existence, and at the same time it’s a Swiftian “modest proposal” written to show us the logical extension of religious extremist, anti-sex, anti-woman thinking that was nascent in the 1980s (and remains alive and well). Gilead is not a futuristic society. It’s an alternate version of what would happen in America in the case of a cultural and religious shock doctrine.

Two things occurred to create Atwood’s Gilead: one was mass sterility due to environmental and social catastrophe (including, quite eerily “exploding atomic power plants, along the San Andreas fault, nobodys fault, during the earthquakes”) and the other was the subsequent rise of an armed Christianist movement which was already strong, but took advantage of panic and instability to take over the government and corral its citizens into regimented gender roles. For women these include “Marthas”–sterile woman who are domestic servants, “wives,” who perform the social duties of marriage, “jezebels” or prostitues, “aunts” who are brutal enforcers, and “handmaids,” who exist solely to reproduce. Everyone else is an “unwoman” and doomed.

But in the novel, the advent of this cataclysmic change was more subtle and slow than one might think. Atwood’s conflicted narrator, Offred, acknowledges that fact, explaining before the final takeover things were getting worse and worse for women–but the well-off among them were ignoring it:

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“Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

It’s that sort of creeping fascism that’s happening as we speak. The proliferation of “Handmaids Tale” jokes and references in the past six months in the face of an unprecedented “war on women” as well as my own increased use of Gileadean metaphors led me to find myself poring over the pages of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which I’d already read twice, seeking explicit parallels between this world and today’s. Here’s what I discovered in Gilead:

Sanctioned murder of abortion providers, as the recent proposed law in South Dakota would have tacitly encouraged and as the neglect of clinic safety rules presages. Atwood’s language directly overlaps the rhetoric from today’s anti-choice extremists and their violent footsoldiers as she describes the public execution of former abortion providers:

“The men wear white coats, like those worn by doctors… each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human fetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal…these men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities and must be made into examples, for the rest.”

Men’s “natural tendencies” as justification for the mistreatment of women. Evolutionary psychologists, take note. In Atwood’s novel, “The Commander” who is charged with impregnating Offred, tells her why there are secretly-sanctioned brothels for men like him: “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” The Commander also uses men’s needs to explain why they created Gilead to begin with and eliminated freedom for women:

“The problem wasn’t only with the women… the problem was with the men. The sex was too easy… there was nothing to work for, to fight for.”

God as the provider of an excuse to regulate women’s reproduction. Atwood is quite subtle in this, but the Commander’s use of “nature” to explain why men get more sexual privileges, while the Aunt’s use of Biblical standards of purity to teach women their new place, illustrates the double-standards that are in place today. Misogynists demand that men submit to their “natural” sex drive while women deny it and stay “pure” vessels for God’s gifts. In Atwoood’s world, women who can’t or won’t provide children because they’ve had their tubes tied are called “unwomen” and sent to their certain deaths in “the colonies.”

“’How could they’, said Aunt Lydia, ‘oh how could they have done such a thing? Jezebels! Scorning God’s gifts…’ ‘They said there was no sense in breeding.’ Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: ‘such wickedness. They were lazy women,’ she says. ‘They were sluts.’”

This contrast of lazy, slutty women, and men ruled by nature leads us to the next parallel, the positioning rape as women’s fault. We see this constantly today, from the “forcible rape” provision in the H.R. 3 bill to the rape apology coming from law-enforcement in Toronto. Few who’ve read Atwood’s novel can forget the following scene, during which the women are being “reconditioned” by giving testimonials of their former lives:

“It’s Janine, telling about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion… But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.  Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison. Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us. She did. She did. She did.  Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

In Gilead, the only thing that can redeem women from their fallen state, of course, is procreation: pregnancy is seen as as “saving” sexually active women and providing their most crucial role in society. Offred describes shopping and running into another handmaid who is pregnant: “one of them is vastly pregnant…she’s a magic presence to us, an object of envy and desire. We covet her. She’s a flag on a hilltop, showing us what can be done; we too can be saved.” This, of course is an echo of both the political currents which oppose birth control, and the twinned social obsessions with “baby bumps” and “sainted motherhood” which we experience in culture today. 

In the reproductive justice community, it’s commonly understood that behind the drive against abortion is a drive against birth control, women’s agency, and sex for its own sake. In Gilead, Offred’s experience with sex, at first, reflects these new rules which eliminate pleasure from sex and reduce it to its biological basics:

“What’s going on in this room.. has nothing to do with passion or love or romance or any of those other notions that we used to titillate ourselves with… it seems odd that women once spent such time and energy reading abut such things, thinking about them, worrying about them, writing about them. They are so obviously recreational.”

Readers of the book know that this lack of passion ends up affecting Offred’s choices even more than her lack of freedom does.

But this lack of personal freedom and passion doesn’t just hit enlightened women like Offred–it affects its own architects. In light of Bachmann and Palin-mania, another aspect of Gilead to remember is the fate of conservative women who made money telling other women to stay at home.  Atwood’s memorable character Serena Joy was modeled perhaps on Phyllis Schlafly, but who knew that a new generation of Schlaflys would gain even more power? Still, imagine what it would be like for Palin or Bachmann if they were bound by their own rules:

“Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all…she doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”

It’s a chilling fate, even for one’s ideological opponents.

Of course, not every aspect of Atwood’s vision in “The Handmaid’s Tale” was prophetic or relevant to what’s happening right now, and her culture-warriors aren’t perfect extensions of today’s. It’s fiction, after all. But just as Orwell, Huxley’s and others dystopian visions allow us to measure how far our world has spun off the axis of rationality, so is Atwood’s vision an appropriate yardstick for measuring entrenched government misogyny. And sadly, the world she created with logic, imagination and writerly brilliance still has frightening resonance–not just to a world that could be, but to the world that we live in at this very moment.

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