Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a harrowing near-future story that serves as a cautionary tale. We are like frogs slowly boiling in the water, what will it take to finally make moves to fight back? However, this warning seems to serve a very specific brand of woman. Ghouls discuss the impact of the book but also the negative effects of having such an important piece of literature that lacks intersectionality. Gabe unpacks the messaging of the book while Kat discusses real-world horrors that have inspired and should have inspired the work.
Book Synopsis: 6:00 - 22:26 (skip to avoid storyline spoilers).
Sources in this Episode: Race, Intersectionality, and the End of the World: The Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale Feminism Must Be Intersectional or It's Just an Arm of White Supremacy N. Carolina Bill Proposing Women Who Get Abortions Be Executed Sparks Fury Why Comparing 'Roe v Wade' Overturn to Handmaid's Tale is Problematic Bodies and Sexuality in Gilead: A Queer Ecofeminist Reading of the Handmaid’s Tale The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret Yes, Women Could Vote After The 19th Amendment — But Not All Women. Or Men
Further Reading on Handmaid's Tale: For black women, The Handmaid's Tale's dystopia is real—and telling - Macleans.ca What can The Handmaid’s Tale teach us about intersectionality in institutional life? 'The Handmaid’s Tale' and the History & Future of Queer Oppression Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump
Media from this week's episode:
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Set in a near-future New England, in a strongly patriarchal, totalitarian theonomic state, known as the Republic of Gilead, which has overthrown the United States government. The central character and narrator is a woman named Offred, one of the "handmaids" — a group of women who are forcibly assigned to produce children for the "commanders" — the ruling class of men in Gilead.
The Handmaid's Tale: Why We All Lose When We Don't Include us All by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a near future America where a religious fundamentalist radical group known as the “Sons of Jacob” have assassinated the president and most of congress, and have enacted a coup/insurrection to install their own ideal theocracy. This world, inspired by reality and much in the vein of Atwood’s favorite themes, is one plagued by ecological disaster. Due to nuclear weapons, pollution, and our other dirty habits, the Earth has become infertile, and so have humans. There is a decline in birth rates (though the government, again much like our own, cares for one type of baby in particular) have dropped. Babies that are born are at great risk of deformity or other illness (tabling the ableism for moment). (Remember H1N1 and how it affected births?)
The end of the novel explains how we ended up here and even touches, ever so slightly, on political and racial issues, The reasons for this decline are not altogether clear to us. Some of the failure to reproduce can undoubtedly be traced to the widespread availability of birth control of various kinds, including abortion, in the immediate pre-Gilead period. Some infertility, then, was willed, which may account for the differing statistics among Caucasians and non-Caucasians; but the rest was not. Need I remind you that this was the age of the R-strain syphilis and also of the infamous AIDS epidemic, which, once they spread to the population at large, eliminated many young sexually active people from the reproductive pool? Stillbirths, miscarriages, and genetic deformities were widespread and on the increase, and this trend has been linked to the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage that characterized the period, as well as to leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites, of which there were many thousands, both legal and illegal—in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system—and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays.
The new world, Gilead, places white, Christian, CISmen at places of power. In Gilead, women are categorized. They are not allowed to read, write, or do much of anything. They don’t have jobs (with the exception of the serving-class, Marthas). They cannot have their own money. Stripped of their rights and privileges, they live only to serve the men.
Our protagonist, Offred/June, is a Handmaid. Women that were divorced, never married, and fertile. Some, even, are labeled gender-traitors for being queer. These women are forced to serve the men in power. Their names are that of the household’s patriarch, “Of Fred.” These women have one purpose, to bear children for these powerful and important men. As Offred explains, “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” Once a month, the handmaids are forced to participate in a cult practice of state-sanctioned rape mirroring the biblical story of Rachel who gifted her husband her handmaid, Bilhah, to use as a wife and bear children. “And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife; and Jacob went in unto her.” (Genesis 30: 3-5) Handmaids wear red dresses and white bonnets.
There are the Commander’s wives who wear blue. They have some semblance of power, being married to the controllers of the country but have failed at their womanly duties, unable to give birth. They don’t have many rights and are also traumatized by this new world but like white feminists today, these wives have worked to uphold the powers of men. They’re not allowed to read, are reduced to the mundane task of knitting (Offred explains this practice could be pointless, suggesting the knitted pieces are later unraveled so that the yarn could be used again), and worst of all, they also participate in the state-sanctioned rape of the Handmaids by their own husband.
Marthas, as mentioned are the servants of Gilead. Either too old or for other reasons, barren. Still, they are of use and made into maids and cooks for the houses. They wear green.
The Aunts are older women who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids. They believe in the future and see it as their purpose to explain the importance of Handmaids, to protect them and brainwash them. Their power reminiscent of certain social experiments in prisons. As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove. “When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting,” the “scholars” in the end say about the Aunts.
There are also the Econowives, wearing red, blue and green stripes. They are the wives of the lower-ranking, less important men who are expected to fulfill all the roles of the women listed above in their household.
The novel is Offred’s tale. She explains, in pieces, her experience of now and how we arrived in this world. She is in her third assignment, the fear of being labeled an unwoman for being unable to bear a child, sits heavily on her conscience. Unwomen are sent to the colonies, forced to clean up the toxic waste humanity has left behind. We learn later that Offred’s activist mother has been sent here. Women unable to have children, gender-traitors who are infertile, and other problematic women are sent here - it is in essence a death sentence, death by work camp. We learn of the small ways the world changed around Offred. Her baby stolen, her rights slowly stripped away, and more. There were many warning signs but no one made moves to stop it. “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
The Commander, Fred, asks to see Offred outside of the ceremony. This is something illegal and dangerous but they do it nonetheless. Meeting in the library late at night, they play Scrabble and talk. Offred is given small favors and is expected to serve the Commander outside of her role of Handmaid. He asks her to kiss him like she means it and he shares information about his unhappy relationship with his wife, Serena Joy. He gives her lingerie and lipstick, and brings her to a government-run brothel called, Jezebels. It’s here that Offred sees her friend Moira once again. Moira was also in the Handmaid’s training facility but broke out. Moira is a gender-traitor, a lesbian and therefore condemned to this life.
Thinking her husband infertile, Serena Joy suggests Offred sleep with Nick, the house’s servant. Later, the two continue the affair on their own. Giving Offred some semblance of sexual control and control of her life, period. She believes herself to be pregnant.
Serena Joy learns of Offred and the Commander’s relationship. Later, the secret police known as the Eyes arrive to take Offred away. Nick tells her to trust him and go with them, that they are Mayday, a resistant group. Not knowing if Nick is also an Eye or a member of the Mayday resistance, she reluctantly goes. Leaving readers unaware of her fate.
Lack of Intersectionality [Race & Trans Issues]
Let’s unpack some things in this story and where it may fail. The world of Gilead is truly terrifying and awful. The real horror however, is that none of it is impossible or made up. It’s all based on real things that occurred/and continue to occur in the world. Atwood said herself, “nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time. The reason I made that rule is that I didn't want anybody saying, 'You certainly have an evil imagination, you made up all these bad things. ' “I didn't make them up.” The thing about The Handmaid’s Tale and Gilead, is that though its not new, it is a world in which these horrible tragedies are happening to a specific demographic of women. Though we don’t live in Gilead now, many of the experiences and traumas shown in the novel are experienced every day and historically by women of color, differently abled folk, and the queer population.
It’s important to note that Atwood set out to tell a story about a specific experience, that of the white woman. In the novel, Offred hears a TV News report that explains how the “Children of Ham,” (a term from biblical precedent that tried to justify slavery), were being shipped out to “Homelands” in the West. This was because Atwood aimed to explore not only a patriarchal hellscape but one that was founded in white supremacy. It’s an important choice. It certainly leaves one wanting, as I’d like to have heard from someone other than Offred about these experiences but then it wouldn’t be the “Handmaid’s” tale, would it?
As explained in our last episode, Atwood works hard to shy away from speaking on narratives and experiences that she herself doesn’t understand or experience. This is why instead of including trans or BIPOC experiences explictly in the story, these communities are written away. Either as gender-traitors sent to the colonies or BIPOC women sent to the west. This allows her to explore the horrible world of Gilead from the safe POV of a white woman. It acknowledges the white supremacy without ever actually addressing it completely.
In the show, the executive producer, Bruce Miller, worked hard to intentionally add BIPOC actors to the cast. Which sounds good in theory, his reasoning he explained was that, “I made the decision that fertility trumped everything,” Miller goes on to say, “Also, honestly, what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering [the story of handmaid Offred], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?”
He felt the answer to that question was to simply have colorblind casting. Casting Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley as Offred’s best friend, Moira. As well as changing Offred’s family into a mixed race one, her husband a black man and her daughter, mixed. However, the answer I think makes the most sense would be to not remove the white supremacist thread entirely but instead to do exactly as he suggested, tell the story of people of color who got sent off to Nebraska. By including a black Moira, who is now the sassy black best friend stereotype, but not acknowledging the affects a black Handmaid would experience is ignorant. Would a black handmaid be as desired as a white one in Gilead? Furthermore, how would Offred’s husband be treated in a world like Gilead? A land where he also doesn’t have power. Reduced to a time in which America had been great, so great that he wouldn’t have property, autonomy, or rights.
This attempted modernization of the world fails to acknowledge the true horrors of our actual reality. It ignores the America we already have, built upon the bodies of black and indigenous people. The show dismisses our racist systems, reducing the problems purely to that of gender. For a world so heavily influenced by eugenics, it is completely missing some of those core concepts. Eugenics was founded here, in America, and mostly used as an excuse to harm black and brown bodies. In our episode where we interviewed the director of Belly of the Beast, we discuss the forced steralization of black and brown women in our incarceration systems. We already live in Gilead, it just doesn’t look like you think. We are all frogs, softly boiling in the pot. The book wants us to wake up before that reality affects the white women too.
The decision to send the black folks away, is intentional. It is a deliberate act that seems incredibly plausible. In a Nerds of Color article by Shannon Gibney titled, Race, Intersectionality, and the End of the World: The Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale, they explain, the “Children of Ham” discussion in chapter 14 of the novel can be understood as a reviva of the American Colonization Society dream: the idea, warmly supported by white abolitionist luminaries from Thomas Jefferson to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Abraham Lincoln, that the best way to “deal with” black people (when you hate slavery only a little more than you hate slaves, to paraphrase Toni Morrison), is to ship them back to any random place on the continent of Africa or perhaps to a Caribbean island.
Ultimately, one of the biggest issues I have with this book and Atwood’s lens is how insular it feels. After reading something as complex as Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Series, it is hard to imagine this finite, minimal experience of a white woman in a white man’s world. For all the research and inspiration Atwood did for this book, we as readers are denied the full picture of her dystopia. It ignores the real world tragedies that BIPOC women, differently abled, and queer folx experience right now.
Offred is not a hero nor is she a feminist
We discussed last week how Margaret Atwood was hesitant to label her work as being feminist. Even the show’s star Elizabeth Moss refused to acknowledge the show as feminist. That’s because the word feminist is seen as a dirty word. It’s misunderstood and changed into something viscous and hateful. It is equated with misandry. Moss’ Offred is a bit feminist, though reluctantly like the actress. She has more attitude and power, refusing to let the bastards keep her down. But the novel’s Offred, is very much already down. She finds solace in small moments of her own, smearing butter on her skin after the ceremony or telling her story to someone, because when we tell stories we’re telling someone after all. We’re not just speaking to ourselves. But Offred is simply a survivor, not a fighter. Which, to be clear, is totally acceptable. Life is really hard, especially in Gilead and simply surviving is good enough sometimes. But as a protagonist, it leaves much to be desired. She is given multiple opportunities to flee or fight and yet she remains stagnant. She is lousy with privilege. But with history, we are sometimes left with unremarkable stories.
There’s also the difference in how she reacts to her friend, Moira coming out to her in the novel versus how Offred reacts to Ofglen coming out in the show, that labels her as less than an ally. At first, she is uncomfortable. Assuming Moira must be in love with her and not until Moira confirms this is not the case does she ease back into her friendship. She also explicitly defines Moira’s sexuality as a choice. Which is grossly inaccurate but Offred is a product of her time.
Never did I feel empowered by or enraged for Offred in the novel. I was disgusted by the world around her but I could frankly not care less about her specifically. Which is why I appreciate the show which allows us to step outside her small world. We get to know the other Handmaids, the wives, and those in power. I’d just have also liked to see those places out west.
Why We Lose When We Don’t Include us All
And though I believe the decision by Atwood to not speak on the experiences of women or people outside of her own lens, I can also see the negative impact this can have on the effect of the story. By lacking an intersectional approach, we are uplifting and placing value on a specific type of women and feminist. With this tale, we are told that the world hasn’t gone bad until it has reached these women. It ignores the complexities of feminist issues.
In an article on An Injustice magazine by Julia Marsiglio, Feminism Must Be Intersectional or It's Just an Arm of White Supremacy they go on to say, In summary, when we are centring the concerns of women, by definition that is intersectional, otherwise we are simply centring the concerns of a group of women. We can certainly talk about the unique concerns certain women may have, such as disabled women or Indigenous women. But the idea that we can first elevate white women and then worry about “other” women is simply an arm of white supremacy and has led to untold atrocities. This attitude is dangerous and needs to be left in the twentieth century.
So, despite it’s incredible impact on our current conversations around women’s rights, The Handmaid’s Tale, is lacking. Without the intersectional perspective, we are robbed of the whole story. It isn’t enough to say, these women and people were sent away. We need to explore more of why. Atwood, as brave and brazen as she is, should be able to look white supremacy and the patriarchy in the face and call it out for what it is, the true villain. As a white woman feminist, she has the ability to do that. As an ally, she should. You wield such power with that pen, to call out the oppressive forces by name. Imagine what we could do with that, the people we could rally. Even now, with white women showing up to congress in full Handmaid’s garb, would be significantly more powerful if they knew who they should be fighting. And if they knew that they should’ve been fighting all this time. The last quote in the book is this, As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day. But we can, if we as a collective voice share those stories. The past is full of echoes and luckily, we have the ability to shine a light into the darkness to reveal them, to combat them head-on. But to do that, we have to acknowledge them and fight them, together.
This Dystopia is Now: We Already Live in Gilead by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
So there are many things that come to mind when thinking of the Handmaid’s Tale. It has in many ways become the face of white feminism. It presents a very specific view of oppression that ignores or glazes over BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ experiences entirely. It’s also something that is called upon by white feminists in their understanding of modern events. We actually covered the show version a few years back - before we really got the hang of finding ourselves and our voices in media analysis. I don’t know if we did a bad job, but I think we’ve evolved a lot since then in our perspectives and understanding of the world. The infatuation and fear surrounding the Handmaid’s Tale is often called upon by white feminists, and unfortunately is usually done in a thoughtless way. For Example, I was today years old when I learned that Kylie Jenner had a Handmaid Tale themed birthday party… Gabe sent me a picture of someone who had a Handmaid’s Tale wedding… There have been countless white women who made their profile picture handmaid's robes, go to protests dressed in handmaid’s clothing, among other things whenever there is a government attack on their rights. It’s a collective missing of the point, and unfortunately just another opportunity to center themselves in a movement that impacts more than just them. The problem with invoking the Handmaid's Tale to understand what’s happening now is that many of the people doing so are only now reacting because it’s finally become a problem for white women. That the bad was tolerable before it got to white women. They raise the Handmaid’s Tale, the tale of a white woman, like it’s the only feminist story that matters.
And to be honest, the lack of representation in the Handmaid’s Tale book is not surprising, in that it’s honest about the future White cishet men would want, or rather the future that they’re so desperate to return to - a future in which white women are forced to produce more white babies to uphold white supremacy but this time with a twist of not explicitly naming white supremacy as the cause. A future that mimics yet minimizes the past historical context and abuse that has been done to BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ humans. While the book acknowledges that anyone who doesn’t fit the white cis-het mold would be enslaved, murdered and abused, just as they have been before, it doesn’t unpack that at all. The show pretends that it doesn’t even exist. Where Handmaid’s Tale fails compared to something like Parable is that it doesn’t really provide any hope, or more importantly next steps. There is no framework, suggestions on ways to prevent it, fight it. What the book and show miss, even if not surprising, is that in erasing those stories, by disregarding them entirely they are playing into the hands of the oppressor. Many of the people invoking Handmaid’s tale today, do so in the same way as the show has done, disregarding the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ experiences in a quest to save themselves.
In an article titled, Why Comparing 'Roe v Wade' Overturn to Handmaid's Tale is Problematic By: Ritu Maria Johny they speak to this further “Atwood’s novel has been denounced as a White feminist dystopia which erases the actual slavery and sexual violence endured by minorities and is only referred to in passing as exiled “Children of Ham.” While some argue that this plotline is a depiction of White supremacy, the appropriation of Black women’s slavery is still problematic. Women of colour are lashing out at references to the Handmaid’s tale, when their ancestors have lived through the same ‘fiction’, which has been dismissed and forgotten. The reproductive freedom of women, especially women of colour have been regulated throughout history.”
In fact - much of white reproductive autonomy has been maintained through the commodification of BIPOC bodies with wombs capable of reproduction- through medical exploitation and experimentation. “According to a 2016 HuffPost report, over 60,000 people in 32 US states were sterilized for ‘eugenics’, a scientific “racial improvement” to breed more White people. Between 1997 and 2013, more than 1400 women prisoners (primarily non-white) in California unknowingly underwent sterilisations, as per an exposé by Erika Cohn’s documentary ‘Belly of the Beast’.” If interested in learning more about that - we’ve actually covered the Belly of the Beast documentary in one of our previous episodes.
So why did we end up with this story? Why does it choose to focus on what it does? It can be understood further when looking critically at Margaret Atwood’s lens in writing this story. In an article on Environmental History Now titled, Bodies and Sexuality in Gilead: A Queer Ecofeminist Reading of the Handmaid’s Tale by Asmae Ourkiya - they describe Margaret Atwood’s inspiration for the Handmaid’s Tale as “Margaret Atwood took inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale from two major events: the rise of the Christian right in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979.“ As a cis-white woman, Atwoods lens is already skewed by default. If their inspiration came from those two events - the perspective they’re pulling from doesn’t prioritize the long history of sterilization, eugenics, and slavery that existed long before the 1970s. It’s a lens that is much more focused on where we’re going and how that could impact white cis-women, instead of where we’ve been and how that has impacted BIPOC and LGBTQIA bodies. The world Atwood presents is not one that is new, but one that has already been done, and tested on BIPOC bodies. What’s new is how it would specifically impact white women. A friend of the Ghouls, JacqConMusic215 speaks on this on their tiktok channel. That to cis-het white men, cis-white women are nothing more than breeders, and that they’ll gain none of the perks that they’ve been promised in their alignment with white supremacy. That while this abortion ban will disporportionately hurt BIPOC communities, it was done as a means to increase white births.
I mentioned this in previous episodes, but the decision to overturn Roe v.Wade and the active assault on women’s rights/bodies is all motivated by a similar desire for a specific type of child. Of white children. Of Christian, white children. White supremacist believe their “culture” and future are under attack, that they are at risk of being erased and made the minority. To combat this, they need to force women to have children. This idea doesn’t come from nowhere. All we need to do is look to history. Think of the creation of birth control and it’s muddied, abusive past in Puerto Rico (covered in our Population Control episode).
In an article on Vice, The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret by Bethy Squires, they explain the decision by the creators of birth control to experiment on bodies they deemed expendable, The team began to have difficulty getting clinical trials off the ground in America, partially because contraception was still illegal in most states and partially because of the high drop out rate from their smaller studies. So Pincus and Rock looked to Puerto Rico, where concerns about overpopulation fueled in part by the eugenics movement meant there were no birth control restrictions and abortion was legal on the island. In fact, many Puerto Rican women were sterilized without their consent or knowledge in a procedure that was colloquially known as "La Operacion" in the 1950s and 60s. Pincus and Rock assumed that they would find a large, compliant population of test subjects. They believed that if poor, uneducated Puerto Rican women could use the pill, anyone could.
Later, when Puerto Rican women began to complain about the side effects and dropped out of the studies, the team took to crueller methods to continue their trials. "Women in Puerto Rico dropped out of the study, too, and so they started looking for women they could force to participate, both at home and in Puerto Rico'" writes Ann Friedman in The New Republic. "Women locked up at a Massachusetts mental asylum were signed up. Women enrolled in medical school in San Juan were told they had to take part in the medical test or face expulsion." Again, these women weren't told what the pill was for; instead, they were supposed to shut up, take their medicine, and submit to frequent, invasive medical exams. When even this wasn’t enough, the team decided to tell the women it was a form of birth control but neglected to explain the side effects or that it was a trial and experiment.Three women died during the study and were never autopsied to see if their participation led to their deaths. Dr. Rice-Wray concluded that the pill, at least in the form and dosage it was given to Puerto Rican women, had "too many side reactions to be generally acceptable."
Alice Wolfson, leader of the Women's Liberation collective, later said of the experiments at the hearings, "It must be admitted that women make superb guinea pigs. They don't cost anything, they feed themselves, they clean their own cages, pay for their own pills, and remunerate the clinical observer. We will no longer tolerate intimidation by white-coated gods antiseptically directing our lives."
The issues go beyond just that of gender. It is, at the heart, racist and founded in eugenics. The founder of Planned Parenthood, an American feminist named Margaret Sanger was an advocate of forced steralization. In the An Injustice magazine article by Julia Marsiglio, Feminism Must Be Intersectional or It's Just an Arm of White Supremacy they explain this notion of Eugenic Feminism that was foundational to first wave/early feminism and inherently linked to the suffragette movement. Explaining that Sanger advocated strongly not only for the forced sterilization of some 15–20 million Americans whom she considered “undesirables” but also for their segregation into concentration camps. Her idea of undesirables expands to racialized Americans as well, as demonstrated by this quote from her private correspondence: “We don’t want the word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” — Margaret Sanger, 1939. It is also historically relevant that white women intentionally betrayed Black women in the suffragette movement in attaining the right to vote in the 1920s. The result made it so many Black women were not allowed to vote until 1965. In the face of racist opposition, white suffragists betrayed the Black women who had also long fought for the right to vote, says Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. "We have to acknowledge," Weiss says, "that [white suffragists] used as one of their politically expedient arguments, 'You know, there are more white women who will be voting than Black women. So don't worry. White supremacy is not going to be endangered.'" White feminism has a long historical precedent of aligning itself with white supremacy to elevate their own position. This history just adds even more context to why white feminism being placed above intersectional feminism is so dangerous, and rooted very much in upholding white supremacy and racism.
In that same Nerds of Color article that Gabe speaks to, Gibney shares how these horrors in Handmaid’s Tale are very much already happening, just not to the people portrayed. At least not yet. As Glosswitch explains in The New Statesman, it is already happening: “Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.” And further than the discussion of race, there is a class issue as well. Women of lower income families are even now finding themselves faced with a similar choice of Offred’s. “I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, ‘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.’ In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, ‘Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don’t need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?’” So the dystopian future of this book isn’t dystopian or future- it exists now, and has existed.
As stated previously, Atwood was inspired by the rise of the Chrisitan right in the United States during the 1970s and 80s, as well as the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. I wanna specify that it’s less a problem with Atwood herself and more with how that inspiration and call to Iran specifically can be problematic as it’s often done in an islamaphobic way, and is often without the context of what actually led to that revolution. It’s also something that’s often done by islamaphobic people when they try to detach the US and Britain from the actual cause of that revolution. What’s not often acknowledged about this is that the revolution in Iran was a revolution puppeted by British and United States oil interests. The article mentioned previously written by Asmae Ourkiya gives some historical context to the Iran revolution - they say “Before the revolution, homosexuality and same-sex encounters were practiced widely in Iran and were rarely perceived as taboo or sinful. In the wake of the revolution, thousands of LGBTQIA+ people have been prosecuted for their lifestyle, continuing to this day. The link between the profit generated from oil businesses and the exploitation of women and oppression of queer people can be traced back to the Shah Pahlavi’s refusal to sell oil to Britain and the U.S., and his desire to nationalise it…The interconnection between bringing foreign oil firms or nationalizing the Iranian industry, and the freeing of women and sexuality or oppressing both cannot be disregarded: When earth is being violated and used for profit, so are women. And so is their sexuality.” They go into further historical context, of how colonialism and the exploitation of Iran by Britain and the United States has led to where they are now. So the same Christian countries that demonize Iran and how they treat women, are the ones that made that treatment possible - because they wanted oil.
I’ve seen tiktoks that play into this, in they approach people and read them verses of the Bible, and people assume they’re reading the Quran, and are like wow that’s so horrible, that’s not my religion, and then are told they’re reading the bible instead and they’re like oh I gotta go. The Christian right manipulates religion to oppress people all the time. Using the bible and white supremacy to validate the exploitation that they’ve built their empire upon - their manifest destiny. My last big point is my problem with Atwood’s use of the rise of the Christian right as inspiration. When the rise of the Christain right implies that at any point they fell. The Christian right is not new, they were the founding fathers. The constitution is their manifesto. There’s a reason that other countries teach about the United States as being a radical far right country. The things that people are so scared of within Gilead literally already existed, and exist now. Funded and managed by our government.
This perspective of a rising far right is multifaceted in that republicans being religious was a new thing in the 1970s. Where they used the bible instead of just racism and capitalism as the reason for being awful. The result of the shifting of public opinion to damning the racist and bigot instead of applauding them (at least in some spaces). It’s why so many white Americans shout “Make America Great Again”, make America white again, unapologetically and without consequence, guilt or critique. They wanna genocide, and exploitation but they don’t wanna feel bad about it. They want to be able to be racist without people telling them it’s wrong. They want the power white supremacy has promised them. Much like white women have historically done in this country, allying themselves with the oppressor in hopes that they will reap some benefits. To quote the book - “As the architects of Gilead knew, to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove…When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting.” The reason white women at large haven’t fought for intersectional feminism is cause they want that scarce power. They don’t mind sacrificing others to get it. It’s the environment that facilitated January 6th, it’s the environment that facilitated the civil war. The north has just had more practice being racist quietly. We are in the kind of environment that allows for a Parable of the Sower America, a Gilead America. And in a lot of ways we’re kind of already there, have been there, and the ones who benefit really want that back. To provide some additional historical context, that’s actually one of the main things that led to the success of Nazi Germany. Following World War I, many Germans needed to be proud of being German again, and were willing to sacrifice the Jewish people to achieve that end. It was the desire to feel German nationalism again after great economic disenfranchisement by foreign powers, a period of social reform and progressivism that required unwanted self reflection and shame- that facilitated totalitarian genocide. They actually used the United States’ eugenics and sterilization work as well as American slavery as a framework for their policy creation in Nazi Germany too.
So to close out, I’ll once again quote the article by Asmae Ourkiya that outlines Gilead, and I don’t see much of a difference between Gilead and America. One pillar of Gilead was The push for extreme binary gender roles and compulsery heterosexuality. People are separated based on their genitals. Our country already does this. Our medical system, legislation, schooling systems, social structures all do this. We have gender reveal parties, gendered clothing, gendered toys, gendered bathrooms, from the moment of conception rooms full of adults are obsessed with the genitals of babies. Obsessed with the genitals of other adults. Obsessed with sexuality. As a reminder - Gay marriage was not federally legal until June 26th 2015. Same-sex sexual activity wasn’t legal until 2003 nationwide.There are bills everyday attacking trans Americans. Another pillar of Gilead was The commodification of bodies with wombs capable of reproduction - which we do already, either removing capacity for reproduction of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ humans, or by forcing reproduction of white humans. Or creating economic systems that force the necessity for BIPOC surrogacy. The commodification of bodies with wombs capable of reproduction is something the government continues to do in the legislation they push, and the violence they profit from. The perception of the rise of the Christian right is more a product of the shifting public opinion on white supremacy than it is an actual rise. This country is a white supremacist country, its government run by white supremacists, its systems reinforcements of white supremacy. The perception of a rise in the Christian right, ignores that this country is led by the Christian right, was created by and for the Christian right. The final Pillar listed for Gilead is that Freedom and authority are given to white heterosexual men who use this power to kill queer people in the name of God, going as far as hanging their bodies to the wall as a reminder of the punishment for homosexuality. As mentioned previously, they actively pass legislation now that harm LGBTQIA+ people, and especially trans people. While they don’t hang them on walls, they do try to erase their existence. They do push legislation that harms them. And as stated, marital and sexual rights weren’t in existence until the early 2000s. It is also be argued about the freedom and authority given to white heterosexual men us actively used to kill people. They are the majority of our government. They have been 99% of our presidents.
Things that are happening in the world that mimic things that happened in Handmaid’s Tale
In Missouri it’s illegal to get divorced if you’re pregnant.
The right to contraception has been codified in the house and is moving to the senate
Only 8 republicans voted to support this
In 2021 North Carolina - there was a bill 158 that attempted make it legal to murder a pregnant women who you knew was seeking an abortion to “protect the baby”. Specifically saying that to get an abortion was an act of first degree murder punishable by execution and that abortion should be prevented with the use of deadly force. The bill has been brought up recently as if it was just proposed which is a form of misinformation. But it is very concerning that it was proposed at all, even if in 2021 and attempted to be passed at all, even before the overturn of Roe v Wade. It is confirmed that this law has not received the necessary support to pass though.