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The Handmaid's Tale: Exalting Fertility Not Feminism

[Spoiler alert - no major plot twists revealed but I quote from the book. I haven’t seen the show] My wife cautioned me when I picked it up. “It’s really feminist.” She told me a couple times. I hadn’t read a Margaret Atwood book yet but heard she was an amazing writer and the TV show was getting press. 

The Handmaid’s Tale is a great novel. It accomplishes exactly what dystopian fiction is meant to do - to imagine contemporary culture, twisted in one particular way so that its corresponding ripple effect reverberates throughout every aspect of society. The prose is brilliant, the images evocative, but most of all, it’s haunting. There’s a sense of dread that accompanies the main character, Offred, throughout the story. The narrative is told solely from Offred’s perspective, as if you’re reading her diary. There are moments when the storm clouds of dread momentarily clear and rays of light peek through. The tension keeps ratcheting up, with brief episodes of dissipation. Almost everything is poised on uncertainty and the only certainty is something will likely take a turn for the worst but exactly how is a mystery.

Every dystopian novel addresses a simple question: “What if our current society was shaped by one drastic change?” In George Orwell’s 1984, it is the surveilling eye of the state. In The Circle, the book by David Eggers and the movie by the same name, it’s not the state that watches but the surveilling eye of the crowd. Both visions are terrifying. 

In Atwood’s book, the question is “What if one constructed a totalitarian state around fertility?” The United States has experienced a military coup and a new government, the Republic of Gilead, has replaced the old. Fertility has dropped off a cliff due to some type of chemical warfare. Birth defects abound and babies born with them are disposed of (“Shredders”). Men and women are sterile, though only women are publicly labeled as such. The Republic of Gilead worships fertility by perversely interpreting the Genesis narratives. The term "Handmaid" a reference to Hagar, Bilhah, and Zilpah - the female servants of Sarah, Rachel, and Leah, respectively who become the concubines of patriarchs Abraham and Jacob. The children born to the concubines belong to the wife. Likewise in this story, Offred, a Handmaid, is assigned to a Commander, the ruling class of Gilead. Her assignment is bear children who will belong to the Commander’s Wife because the Wife is sterile (or possibly the Commander). Handmaids wear red and Wives blue. 

The most haunting image of the book centers around The Ceremony. There’s a household scripture reading and then later, intercourse between Commander and Handmaid, with the Wife physically present and close enough so that it’s meant to simulate the Commander having sex with his Wife not the Handmaid. Readers might describe this scene as rape but the Offred explicitly does not. Her words during the scene:
"I do not say making love, because that’s not what he's doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose. "
I thought it strange that in a purportedly feminist novel, during arguably the most oppressive scene, the narrator refuses to describe it as rape and instead, acknowledges her agency. In addition, Offred also notes the man's notable absence of pleasure:
"This is not recreation, even for the Commander. This is serious business. The Commander, too, is doing his duty."
And then to conclude the scene, Offred asks of her and the Commander’s Wife: 
"Before I turn away I see her straighten her blue skirt, clench her legs together, gazing up at the canopy above her, stiff and straight as an effigy. Which of us it worse for, her or me?"
Fertility is the overriding objective of this totalitarian regime. And the book goes to great lengths to demonstrate how everyone suffers under this tyranny. Certainly women and children suffer the worst. But isn’t this true for most regimes? China exercised strict control over fertility from 1978 to 2013 through its one child policy, now relaxed. Girls suffered the most with the high rates of infanticide and abandonment.

The hand of the state is mostly invisible in this narrative. Men aren’t the enemy as they’re mostly portrayed one-dimensionally. This is appropriate because they’re puppets of the state. They act on behalf of the state and like the women, occasionally rebel. Rather, the face of the antagonist is a woman's. The Aunts are some of the highest-ranking women in Gilead, who oversee public executions and the indoctrination of Handmaids. The Aunts are the iron fist of the state. Atwood may be indicating feminism’s biggest obstacle is other women but I see it rather as tyranny’s strategy of turning a group against itself.

The book isn’t primarily about repressive regimes against women around the world. I’m certainly not convinced it’s about the Trump administration either. It’s about how tyranny exposes and critiques our core values. Part of this story’s power is Offred straddles the gap between the former society (ours today) and the Gilead regime. She lived in both times and both worlds. Atwood can then compare the former culture with the dystopian one from the narrator’s perspective. After all, a society’s values are best critiqued through the lens of another. The more extreme the difference, the more absurd each society looks from the vantage point of the other.  This is where Atwood is at her best. Here’s Offred, reminiscing about her former society, which is ours today: 
"Falling in love, I said. Falling into it, we all did then, one way or another. How could he have made such light of it? Sneered even. As if it was trivial for us, a frill, a whim. It was, on the contrary, heavy going. It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space. Everyone knew that.

Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man besides us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh."
Atwood published this book in 1985. Over thirty years ago, she was spot-on in diagnosing our culture's worship of salvific romance.  Even though there’s signs of rebellion against this idea, we still cling to love as salvation, as this twice-divorcee’s TED talk encourages any woman to look in the mirror and make a lifelong vow to romance herself. No man can save, not even Jesus, but love can.

After finishing the book, I wondered if this could be considered a feminist novel, at least in the progressive sense: an attack on the patriarchy and an exaltation of female victimhood at the expense of agency. I thought the author’s perspective, over thirty years later, might be instructive. Here are her words
"First, is “The Handmaid’s Tale” a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.

Why interesting and important? Because women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. Without women capable of giving birth, human populations would die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population. Kill their babies and replace their babies with yours, as cats do; make women have babies they can’t afford to raise, or babies you will then remove from them for your own purposes, steal babies — it’s been a widespread, age-old motif. The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet."
Suspicion confirmed. Atwood’s definition of feminism here is much broader than some might desire to infer. Her intent is clearly not to glorify victimhood and attack patriarchy. Her intent is to demonstrate how control of fertility is a requisite feature of totalitarian regimes. 

I wondered if she had more to say about tyranny. Her article's closing words: 
"In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can. Will their message be suppressed and hidden?"
Note she targets both ends of the political spectrum. It’s not just Trump and the Alt-Right that deal in alternative facts and shut down constructive dialogue. But the most important sentences are the latter ones. The Handmaid’s Tale belongs to the literary genre of witness literature. And she’s saying there are witnesses today. And this means we may be witnessing, in our society right now, a tyranny of a different sort and it may not be solely connected to POTUS. Here’s another reflection from Offred on our culture:
"It’s strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were to shape and re-shape forever the ever-expanding perimeter of our lives. I was like that too, I did that too. Luke was not the first man for me, and he might not have been the last."
In the West, we love our individual freedom. This is undeniably expressed in our sexuality. A bumper sticker reads "Your body may be a temple but mine is an amusement park”. Contraception allowed fertility to take a back seat to our whims and preferences. Today there’s a well-documented decline in fertility rates in first-world countries, the US being no exception. Not only do we prefer having dogs over children but the marriage rate is also declining. There’s a worldwide increase in male sterility. Reproductive technology assists women in having children outside their natural window because the prime childbearing years are for personal fulfillment - education, career, travel, and of course, sexual freedom. Fertility is optional as children impinge on one's infinite life horizon. 

One could argue the course of human history shifts from the hands of one tyrant to another. Each tyrant is an overreaction to the excesses of the previous reign. The Handmaid’s Tale is not just about the oppressiveness of the state but a musing on the oppressive power of certain ideas. Our culture’s devaluing of fertility may be sowing seeds for the next totalitarian regime. One that, like the Republic of Gilead, overcompensates for our casual disregard for fertility by exalting it.

The worship of individual freedom, victimhood, and salvific romance may be a gentler master than a totalitarian regime but it is a tyrant nonetheless.  

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