I’m surprised I haven’t written about The Handmaid’s Tale for this blog (in case you’re out of the loop, we just finished season 3). I’m surprised because it has every ingredient one needs to write a timely, theologically-sensitive reflection piece for this site: it’s got politics, it’s got religion, and it’s got a fine dystopian feminist plot. It’s too bad that I haven’t watched more than 30 minutes of the series, and that I despised every one of those minutes.
My reasons are mostly petty. It irks me that the characters can’t seem to walk properly. I want to know why they need to float along in some directionless procession orchestrated by The Patriarchy for me to understand that these women are sad. I want to know why they can’t look anywhere but down.
It’s also those red costumes. They are wearable scarlet tents that gesture awkwardly and inaccurately at both Mormons and menses, in the most forcibly literal manner imaginable. Evidently, we need women to wear something that obvious for audiences to understand we’re watching a story about female oppression. I want to die a faithful feminist—don’t get me wrong—but let it be known I consider those period capes a serious setback for women’s rights.
I could go on about esthetics, but the show has bigger problems, like the problem of appropriation. This was swiftly addressed around the time the show debuted, at least as it pertained to black women’s history of forced reproduction. There are other women who could level similar charges, I think, like women who belong to fundamentalist Christian communities.
I’m going to get sucked back into a critical analysis of the period robe again, but I think my horror at least partially derives from knowing that the average, secular-minded viewer won’t detect its allusion to Mennonite, Amish, or other traditionalist Christian sects. I hate that this garb has been lifted from ultra-conservative cultures to warn more comfortable, politically conservative or politically apathetic liberal women about their complicity with misogyny, as though they were the ones with the most to lose. What if the entirety of womankind ends up living like Amish women, the cape seems to ask. What if we’re forced to be LDS Christians when and if the Republicans get what they want? But I have a better question: what are we going to do to support women who already live, or who already have lived, under the political conditions portrayed in the novel? The entire setting is apparently inspired by 17th-century New England, but we don’t need to go that far back to access the cultural world of extreme puritanism.
And then there are problems pertaining to the show’s public reception. Although unsurprising, it’s too bad that most white viewers have interpreted it as a grand cinematic gesture of resistance to contemporary patriarchy and anti-choice politics. It certainly does challenge these forces, but on the whole, The Handmaid’s Tale is an admonition to white women. It is about the patriarchal past they think they’ve freed themselves from, a past which threatens to reassert itself in every era, as long as they continue to be complicit in reproducing male power logics. It’s a critique of white womanhood itself, maybe even feminism. Literal reproduction is merely the physical manifestation of routine acquiescence to sexist ideology. Gilead is a brutal world, but with the exception of Offred and a few others, the handmaidens are fine with the way things are. They’re comfortable, secure, and well-cared for, which inclines them to submit to (and defend) their existentially impoverished, ascetic lives.
This is why memory plays such an important role for Offred. It’s all she has to work with. The centrality of memory seems like a literary technique to me: it helps her appeal to the past, an awareness of which the Commanders do not want the women to have. This use of the past is certainly not a glitch in The Handmaid’s dystopian story structure. Atwood envisions a future that’s paradoxically symmetrical to women’s patriarchal history. It’s not the masculinist warning that civilization and technology will evolve rapidly and linearly, ultimately becoming untameable and totally consuming. Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale fears that the future—space of open possibility, new opportunity, changes yet to known or imagined—will become regressive and familiar, that traditionalism will dominate and destroy the liberating vastness of tomorrow. The new world becomes populated by old rules from old regimes. It’s a very interesting approach to the genre.
There was an early criticism of the show when it first came out, which was that the whole story wasn’t realistic. As it turns out, Atwood included nothing in the novel that hasn’t already happened. In any case, this is a clueless expectation to impose upon speculative fiction. Still, at some level, this text does invite comparison to reality, because despite its hyperbolic features, it accurately depicts a world that’s pretty close to normal for many women, even at this very moment. And it’s a shame to have cast Moss as Offred, great as she is, because I think the white-woman-turned-patriarchal-defector character is even less believable than the possibility of America becoming a full theocracy. But this is fiction, and fiction is often home to truths that can’t live anywhere else. Here’s hoping that The Handmaid’s Tale discloses a newer and more noble purpose for white women that goes beyond supporting the status quo and claiming other women’s pain.