Margaret Atwood’s 1986 book The Handmaid’s Tale is a story better known for the Hulu television series of the same name. The plot is essentially that the entire world has suffered an infertility crisis. In America, a pseudo-Christian religious cult has taken over the government and forces any fertile woman to serve as a surrogate for wealthy families who cannot have their own children.
Predictably, the show is every bit the brazen, bitter feminist tripe that you would expect. It employs common feminist tropes that will make you rage to watch, but the book displays much more nuance, and the author reveals herself to have very intimate knowledge of the motivations behind conservative ideology. One might even get the (mistaken?) impression that the book is actually pro-Right and pro-Traditionalism, as it displays the protagonist as a feminist caricature—she is obnoxiously self-righteous and ignorantly rebellious, foolishly failing to understand the situation that she’s in, despite the author’s more enlightened narrative.
She is presented as a superficial airhead, a catlady who collects plants and whose mother was in the feminist movement. The theory that the show is just liberal propaganda is only reinforced by the fact that the producers added scenes that were not in the book to hammer home the misogyny factor (they must think it was too ambiguous for their audience), such as the concept that the handmaids were trafficked internationally as sex slaves by their governments as trade for other goods. Or that high ranking officials were sociopaths without sympathy, such as when it shows June (the main character) being beaten and electrocuted during an interrogation about her gay walking partner, who is later shown watching her partner be hung from a crane, and we later learn she is genitally mutilated. And, when Serena Joy (the Wife the protagonist is assigned to) gets pissed and violently throws June onto the floor of her room, screaming at her that she’s not allowed to leave, simply because Serena Joy had believed her to be pregnant and June revealed that she had gotten her period.
The book also has lots of dissimilarities. In fact, I believe that the author of the book is actually deeply sympathetic to traditional values, if not conservative herself, and it is well worth the read.
The infertility crisis in the book is caused by chemical agents used during a war; babies are often born disfigured (whereas in the show there are just many miscarriages). The “Republic of Gilead” is the organization that assassinated the President and Congress, declared a state of emergency and took over the U.S. government. This is certainly something that sounds inevitable to some who believe that the God Emperor failed us and we won’t be able to change anything from within, and many even before the election who believe the system is entirely corrupt and everything we’re shown, like in Gilead, is propaganda.
In the book, this society is white. America becomes an ethnostate. This is fairly accurate of fringe-right ideology, including much of today’s Alt-Right, so why the television show producers decided to keep Gilead diverse is beyond me. Despite its leftist agenda, I suppose they’re still more concerned about ratings than ideological accuracy. You are hit with this diversity in the first episode of the show because the protagonist, June, is shown to be in an interracial marriage with a black man, Luke, that resulted in a mixed-race child. Her best friend, Moira, is also black. Neither of these were the case in the book.
In the book, Moira is a lesbian. This doesn’t come into play very much except to fuel some of the feminist rhetoric you see on screen. It’s cast in a totally understandable (to feminists) light in the show, but in the book, you can tell that June is a conflicted unaware individual who was heavily influenced by her feminist activist mother and her lesbian friend. In fact, the entire book is her waxing poetically about how much she’s struggling and suffering, and how she’s mentally raising a fist against the system. However, it’s transparently obvious that she has it very well, that’s she’s happier in feminine roles and that the people around her care about her and her comfort and happiness. She comes across, in the book, as a whiny and unappreciative feminist caricature (aren’t they all).
Furthermore, she is portrayed as fairly detestable. When she is assigned to Commander Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy, who were the big brains behind the entire concept (thus she has a very luxurious living situation) she can’t help but feel smug about the fact that she’s essentially cucking Serena Joy. June internally monologues about how she hates and is disgusted by the Commander and having to sleep with him, but uses adjectives to describe him that indicate she’s actually attracted to him. In one scene, it is revealed that the previous Handmaiden hung herself, and that the Commander seeks out a forbidden and secret camaraderie with June so as to ensure she doesn’t follow suit. Yet, June feels rather empowered and vindicated about this as though he wants to have an illicit sexual relationship with her.
There is a Latin quote she finds scrawled into the floorboards of her closet by the previous handmaiden, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” which she learns means “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” but the book implies, beyond June’s understanding, that it is not just the rebellious etching of an oppressed woman who eventually committed suicide, but that the woman was possibly in love with the Commander as it was a very personal quote of his that he divulged to her. So, June has a total misinterpretation of her situation.
She is also incredibly callous; in one scene during “the ritual”, she describes how Serena Joy is crying and remarks that she wants to laugh about it. She also has an affair with a man, Nick, who serves as a Guardian for her host family. This is in violation of both her vows to her husband and her station as the Commander’s handmaiden. She’s presented in such a disgustingly degenerate light that it’s really difficult to empathize with her.
But, this isn’t her acting out about a situation in which she feels powerless. In both the book and the show, it’s revealed that her marriage with Luke began as an affair. Luke was married to another woman when he started sleeping with June, “[recalling a dissociative episode she was having while staring at clothes in a cupboard of their first apartment] Maybe they’re clothes belonging to Luke’s wife, whom I’ve also never seen; only pictures and a voice on the phone, late at night, when she was calling us, crying, accusing, before the divorce. But no, they’re my clothes all right.”
June’s dissociative episodes are also a theme within the book. It could be an indication that she really believes she is suffering, except for the fact that the episodes started at least when she began her affair. She was complicit in the society of degeneracy that the “Aunts” at Gilead’s re-education center talk about. She talks about wanting to steal things from her hosts, as some form of passive aggressive, vindictive triumph.
This inner narrative of small victories against the oppressive patriarchy she gets from her mother. June’s mother was portrayed as a feminist activist during the Roe vs Wade era. She would march in protests and come home bloody. However, she was a conflicted individual as June was a “wanted child.” She had her at thirty-seven, and June’s memory recounts her talking about how everyone was trying to dissuade her due to the risk of complications. She recalls arguing with hospital staff over being labeled “Aged Primipara” — “Garbage, I told them, biologically I’m twenty-two, I could run rings around you any day. I could have triplets and walk out of here while you were still trying to get up off the bed.” She is not entirely redeemed from her feminism just because she wanted to have June and was in good health, as she told the father to “bugger off” because she had a good job and could afford daycare, and that she found men to be vacuous, absent and unnecessary.
June recalls her husband Luke being unaffected by her mom’s feminism, “That was the way she talked, even in front of Luke. He didn’t mind, he teased her by pretending to be macho, he’d tell her women were incapable of abstract thought and she’d have another drink and grin at him.” So, Luke sounds a lot like a friendly shitlord.
Luke is portrayed, despite having cheated on his previous wife with June, as being a loving and compassionate husband. Even in the show. When June and Moira are talking with him about what happened when they were fired from their jobs and had their bank accounts frozen, he says to June, “You know I’ll take care of you.” The two women balk and go on to complain about how patronizing him. In the book, this conversation happens between them alone, where he says “You know I’ll always take care of you,” (emphasis mine) and she thinks for a moment that he’s being patronizing, but then writes it off as paranoia and says, “I know. I love you.”
In a few different passages, June reminisces about that time, when she was out of a job, and doing more feminine things around the house, she was happy, and wishes for the old days. “I want Luke here so badly. I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable.”
She even recalls how her mother herself was regretful of her life choices, “Sometimes she would cry. I was so lonely, she’d say. You have no idea how lonely I was. And I had friends, I was a lucky one. But I was lonely anyway.”
One part of both the book and the show that is genuinely emotionally triggering is the fact that June’s daughter was taken away from her (once by a crazed mother whose baby died, and another by the government). She is also not completely irredeemable, in that she has a love for her own child and children in general. In the book, the handmaids are beside themselves with joy whenever one of them has a baby. They can’t help themselves. June describes a ride home from a birth ritual:
“By now I’m wrung out, exhausted. My breasts are painful, they’re leaking a little. Fake milk, it happens this way with some of us. … We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure. Mother, I think. Wherever you may be. Can you hear me? You wanted a women’s culture. Well, now there is one. It isn’t what you meant, but it exists. Be thankful for small mercies.”
So, in some ways, this book seems to illustrate the negotiating concept “Big First Demand” illustrated quite similarly in the “White Sharia” meme… wherein you threaten liberal, anti-natal, immigrant-loving, culture-destroying feminists with something much worse than what will actually happen, in hopes that women will comply with and come to appreciate a more reasonable form of femininity to avoid it. June wishes she could have chosen the feminine role that existed before this authoritarian regime took over and forced her into something worse.
Apart from dissecting the plotline of this novel for what June says she thinks and how she really thinks… A few things indicate that this is actually not an attack on fringe right-wing ideology.
Aunt Lydia is the primary character who leads the handmaids’ re-education, and she is a recurring character throughout the book and the movie. Some quotes from their ideology:
- “Of course, some women believed there would be no future, they thought the world would explode. That was the excuse they used, says Aunt Lydia. They said there was no sense in breeding.”
- “They made mistakes, says Aunt Lydia. We don’t intend to repeat them.”
- “A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. … Think of yourself as pearls.”
- “You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.”
- “Once a week, we had movies … Sometimes the movie she showed would be an old porno film, from the seventies or eighties. Women kneeling, sucking penises or guns, women tied up or chained with dog collars around their necks, women hanging from trees, or upside-down, naked, with their legs held apart, women being raped, beaten up, killed. … Consider the alternatives, said Aunt Lydia. You see what things used to be like? That was what they thought of women, then. Her voice trembled with indignation.”
- “Sometimes, though, the movie would be what Aunt Lydia called an Unwoman documentary. Imagine, said Aunt Lydia, wasting their time like that, when they should have been doing something useful. Back then, the Unwomen were always wasting time. They were encouraged to do it. The government gave them money to do that very thing.”
- “For the generation that come after, Aunt Lydia said, it will be so much better. The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round. There can be bonds of real affection, she said … Women united for a common end! Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task. Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn’t reasonable or humane. Your daughters will have greater freedom. We are working towards the goal of a little garden for each one, each one of you – … – and that’s just one for instance.”
So, this is very familiar to the arguments the Traditionalist Right uses to convince women a return to traditional values would be pleasant and preferable to what we have now.
However, while Gilead’s ideology is based on Christianity and the Gilead officials use lots of Biblical references and Biblically-derived verses, many of these are perverted and corrupted for their message. Women are not allowed to read, so they wouldn’t know that the verses are inaccurate. The most compelling point I can find as evidence for this is a very briefly mentioned point in the book, “Not every Commander has a Handmaid: some of their Wives have children. From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said.” This is obviously a derived Marx quote. No such reference to Gilead being left wing is made again, but this quote is made in a very important chapter, where the author reveals the Aunts at the re-education center to be quite traditionalist and concerned for women’s welfare, along with June’s recollection of her feminist mother. I think this book really drives home a concept similar to the threat of White Sharia. June ends the chapter thusly:
“I admired my mother in some ways, although things between us were never easy. She expected too much from me, I felt. She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms. I didn’t want to be the model offspring, the incarnation of her ideas. We used to fight about that. I am not your justification for existence, I said to her once.
I want her back. I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.”
In the addendum titled “Historical Notes”, the plot is a discussion at a convention taking place a couple hundred years into the future, discussing Gilead as the book is revealed to be a tape-recorded account of June’s experiences. It is revealed that she was among the very first of several generations of handmaids under this regime. They mention that the infertility was among Caucasian American populations, as well as those in Northern Europe:
“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”
The character then goes on to describe the “chemical- and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic-waste disposal sites” and “the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays” as being other reasons. Then he addresses fertility problems we deal with even in real life:
“The need for what I may call birth services was already recognized in the pre-Gilead period, where it was being inadequately met by ‘artificial insemination,’ ‘fertility clinics,’ and the use of ‘surrogate mothers,’ who were hired for the purpose. Gilead outlawed the first two as irreligious but legitimized and enforced the third, which was considered to have Biblical precedents;”
He goes on to mock the intelligence level of American college students, which would seem to imply that the society that moved past this regime. A lot of the very familiar rhetoric in part of the Alt Right is shown in this addendum. Another interesting excerpt:
“Gilead was, although undoubtedly patriarchal in form, occasionally matriarchal in content, like some sectors of the social fabric that gave rise to it. 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.”
Describing the system of the Aunts, “… the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves,” he compares this influence to religious influences of the past (and our current year) wherein women tend to be the more religious and dogmatic gender, enforcing morals in feminine ways to ensure that the men act purely.
The book even mentions the Jews, who were given the option, at Gilead’s onset, to either convert or emigrate to Israel. June says that lots of people were pretending to be Jewish to escape. They left on boats, which was televised. She says:
“You don’t get hanged only for being a Jew though. You get hanged for being a noisy Jew who won’t make the choice. Or for pretending to convert. That’s been on the TV too: raids at night, secret hoards of Jewish things dragged out from under beds, torahs, talliths, Magen Davids. And the owners of them, sullen faced, unrepentant, pushed by the Eyes against the walls of their bedrooms, while the sorrowful voice of the announcer tells us voice-over about their perfidy and ungratefulness.”
Later, in the addendum, it is revealed that the regime had “the idea of privatizing the Jewish repatriation scheme, with the result that more than one boatload of Jews was simply dumped into the Atlantic, to maximize profits.”
So it would seem that the author was very familiar with far right views, up to and including shibbolethic neo-Nazi-esque views on the Jews.
The book ended where the first season of the show ended. However, the show is continuing on. What is to come will undoubtedly be pure liberal propaganda, completely uninspired from the book or its author’s intentions.
-By Adele Weiss
Oh, I'm a good old Rebel, now that's just what I am; For this "Fair Land of Freedom" I do not give a damn! I'm glad I fit against it, I only wish we'd won, And I don't want no pardon for anything I done.