The Handmaid’s Myth

It began as a novel written by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood and published in 1985. A work of futurist fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale takes us into a specific nation in the near future of this world, not some bright utopia but rather a dystopia, a cruel society of oppression and fear.

However, this is not post-nuclear anarchy infested by hordes of convulsing zombies, nor is it Godzilla’s playground or Jurassic Park after someone left the gates open. It is not childishly sensational, but rather a plausible rational world, planned, ordered and somewhat shabby. The United States has been transformed into a totalitarian society, dominated by patriarchal religious fundamentalism. The nation is called “Gilead”, an Old Testament reference to hill country where fragrant balm or balsam is extracted from trees.

This essay appears in November’s Quadrant.
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Forget the sweet Afro-American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”. There is no healing balm in this puritanical patriarchy. Its symbol is the all-seeing Eye of God. Its oppressive system is geared towards the total control of everyone, particularly women. Its specific goal is more babies at any cost because human fertility has collapsed. It is suggested that nuclear disasters and environmental pollution have rendered most people infertile.

The central character recounts her experiences in minute detail. She once was June, now she is Offred, offspring of Fred. In a compartmentalised hierarchical society, she is one of the handmaids, women deemed to be fertile. The hope of the future rests with these breeders.

They dress in red gowns with red cloaks and wear a linen bonnet that restricts side vision. Living under the strict control of the “aunts”, particularly Aunt Lydia, they are brainwashed and conditioned, directed to one end, to reproduce. But they can be fertilised only by the “commanders”, male rulers in an elite military oligarchy, whose brutal soldiers are called “angels”. The commanders’ infertile wives, who wear blue, claim the babies born of handmaids as their own. Fertilisation and childbirth are enacted as bizarre religious ceremonies. Sins against fertility and illegal sexual relationships can be punished by death.

Atwood has skilfully drawn on many sources to construct her Gilead: ancient Sparta, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Puritan New England, the Third Reich, Soviet and Chinese Communism, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, all blended in a poisonous cocktail of a regime. Her consistent focus is the oppression of women, a society where men crush what today is called “women’s reproductive rights”. At first, Atwood denied that it was a feminist novel. That is not borne out by what has emerged since 1985.

In 1989, Atwood’s book was adapted in a film, adhering mainly to her plot, ending neatly and all over in a couple of harrowing hours. Not so the more recent television series of The Handmaid’s Tale. The original tale has been extended into many subplots, embellished with horror after horror to provide three seasons, with thirty-six episodes already released and a fourth season under production.

Step aside, tendentious Game of Thrones. The Handmaid’s Tale has arrived, moving at an even slower pace. Every episode rams home the dire warning of a coming patriarchy run by ruthless religious fundamentalists, men who force women to have babies.

The state religion of Gilead is based on selective reading of the Old Testament and distortions of the New Testament. However, at first sight the book, film and series do not seem to press an anti-Christian line. Catholics have been driven north into Canada, which is some kind of pluralist society. Priests caught in Gilead are executed. In the book, the Baptists are guerrillas holed up in the hills and Quakers are subversives.

However, one scene in the series is obviously modelled on an image in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will, where ranks of men in steel helmets stand arrayed before soaring swastikas. In The Handmaid’s Tale regiments of handmaids in white bonnets are turned towards an immense white cross. Swastika equals cross, so the old leftist anti-Christian smear lives on.

An unresolved war rages between Gilead and Canada. There are hints that the war may largely be a state propaganda exercise, as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But people are always trying to escape to Canada. Most fail and are seized and executed or sent to languish and die in the toxic “colonies”, which also provide dumping grounds for the under-class and failed handmaids who become “unwomen”.

Gilead has a deteriorating economy with much poverty outside the privileged nomenklatura. It fails according to the three sacred tests of politically correct jargon: it is not sustainable or inclusive or diverse. In its gloomy wasteland we are drawn into much darker places than any medieval fantasy world.

The series is well produced, with talented actors, cleverly focused on the tortured psychology and frustrations of the hero, Offred. So, for some viewers, “it gets you in”. However, this imaginary natalist future is having strange consequences in our unsettled times and the author herself has become part of these developments.

Margaret Atwood was the main consultant for the series and recently she has published a sequel, The Testaments. This less pessimistic work completes her transformation from an imaginative fiction writer into a futurist. She has also set aside her coy feminism of 1985. Now, close to eighty, she frankly accepts the ideological role of providing a potent myth, particularly to arm “pro-choice” feminists amidst current polarised struggles over abortion.

Along with wide market success, the series has gathered a specific cult following as The Handmaid’s Tale becomes an attractive political myth. There seem to be followers of this cult who believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is true. This defies rationality, so my resistant human reason prompts questions.

Surely there is no such place as Gilead? Or is there? Gilead has to exist. Google away and you even find maps of this extensive make-believe nation, even if there are several versions defining the borders of a theocratic republic. This is where Gilead differs from the consistent mapping of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Lewis’s Narnia or even mysterious locations in Harry Potter.

Forget the maps. Gilead has a virtual existence. That is what matters in our post-rational world, when people are conditioned by social media, electronic games and fake news, when daily life is based on guessing, wanting and wishing, on assuming identity and taking offence. What is in my postmodern head, that is what is “real”. After all, I create my own reality.

The delusions indicate why not a few female “Trump haters” act as if The Handmaid’s Tale is true. We see the women of the “Handmaid’s Coalition” turning out at pro-abortion demonstrations in the United States, dressed in Offred’s red gown and cloak and wearing her white linen bonnet.

Each one cries out to us, “I am Offred and I am warning you of the male control of women’s bodies. I warn you of the horrors that giant-Trump is preparing as he leads the US on the road to Gilead.” They can point to the pro-life legislation in the conservative state of Louisiana. Apparently, this is where wicked Gilead is being born. But is that true?

In the real world, as any rational observer knows, there is no possibility of a Gilead emerging. The demonstrable threats to freedom come from the aggressive Left or supine elements on the Right, a mix of cultural Marxists and politically-correct libertarians. Democracy is descending into “authoritarian democracy”, the bland totalitarian ante-room.

Moreover, in Western societies women are free. While some may continue to shout “Me too!” against sexual harassment, many more rightly hold positions of leadership in business, politics, education, culture and religion. Not a sign of hideous Gilead.

The myths of the Left may drift into fantasyland but that does not mean they are not powerful. Lying about the past has long been an effective weapon in the Marxist armoury. Lying about the future can have the same effects in a world where so many people live in the future, where they are disconnected from reality.

The myth of The Handmaid’s Tale is sustained by a social mood of pessimism and fear. People want to believe that disaster is just around the corner. They are easily persuaded, because every day the media bombards them with grim warnings.

Global “warmists” predict apocalyptic horror and environmental collapse. Neo-Malthusians call for population control because too many babies are being born—in certain countries. Some economists seem mysteriously eager to wish for, or to bring on, a recession. In the post-9/11 world terrorism is real, but some divert attention from its main sources, by pointing to homicidal individuals on the “alt-right”. We are also told that the Cold War has returned with a renewed nuclear arms race and that Chinese imperialism looms, backed by corporate communism. So much doom and gloom, a mixture of real and imagined threats.

In that wider context, The Handmaid’s Tale continues what came out of the twentieth century, catastrophist futurism. Pessimistic literature, films and media reflect current moods, at the same time creating a market based on people’s fears. In that genre, The Handmaid’s Tale is superior to the films of Quentin Tarantino that celebrate violence. Atwood is not a nihilist. She tempers catastrophism and horror with ideology because she is giving a sermon.

As sermons go, futurism may convey powerful warnings, for example of a gladiatorial tyranny in The Hunger Games. But this tale of the degradation of sport may also point to the dangerous sub-culture of violent video games and internet pornography. Millions of immature males are captivated by and entangled in a dark virtual world. It all depends on how you read the warnings.

Social and political pessimism emerged in an alternative future based on the familiar speculation, “What if Hitler had won the war?” Ingenious novels described Europe or England after a Nazi conquest. Recently this has gone further in a sophisticated television series, The Man in the High Castle. In the conquered United States, the eastern states are under the swastika and the western states are under the rising sun. Australia is a Japanese colony.

However, we all know it did not happen. History seals off fantasy. Speculation becomes a game and the viewer may enjoy a sense of relief: “Thank God, he didn’t win the war …” Not so with The Handmaid’s Tale, set outside history but plausible enough, given some conditions. Atwood thus proposes an unresolved “what if” as she sets up her menacing “maybe”.

When you look into the content of The Handmaid’s Tale other questions emerge. First of all, does it demean women? A woman recently shared with me her impression that The Handmaid’s Tale demeans and degrades women. She gave up watching the series in disgust. She pointed to the emphasis of its content, particularly the gynaecological and obstetric details, minute, repetitive, insistent, an almost pornographic preoccupation with the female body, not focused on sex but on reproduction. Readers and viewers become voyeurs.

We are also taken back to a feminist preoccupation found, for example, in the oft-published book Our Bodies, Ourselves. This was a key feminist manual fifty years ago. Atwood would be familiar with it because it emerged out of a critical decade in her own life and mine, the 1960s.

More seriously, is The Handmaid’s Tale a fanciful distraction from the real “Gileads”? Right now, in our world, there are societies where women are crushed, gagged and exploited. We think of the horrors inflicted by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, of what is perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan and by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Women are exploited by international sex slavery and trafficking, and in our society by the sex and abortion industries. Here are “Gileads” where women suffer now. Do we hear the old Western feminists like Atwood denouncing them?

A feminism that retreats into delusions, myths and fantasies is imploding. An ideology crumbles when it has to resort to fearsome futurist tales for gullible grownups.

Peter Elliott is a retired Catholic bishop who lives in Melbourne.


7 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Myth

  • Alice Thermopolis says:

    Thank you. An insightful critique.

    The premise itself suggests a feminist retreat into at least one “fake fact”:”…human fertility has collapsed.” because “nuclear disasters and environmental pollution have rendered most people infertile.”

    The phenomenon of fertility decline is real, It is known as “demographic transition” . When developed countries reach a certain level of affluence their birth-rates fall – naturally – below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), never to recover without immigration. One can speculate on why this is so, but it has nothing to do with nuclear disasters or environmental pollution.

    On a global scale, of course, the population is still increasing. According to the latest UN data, it is expected to continue to increase by at least another three billion to ten billion by 2100, presumably assuming no water shortages (ME), ebola pandemic (Africa), failed state conflicts, mega-city pollution, and so on. A ten-fold increase since around 1800.

  • whitelaughter says:

    the core demographic for The Handmaid’s Tale is not women afraid of it being true, but women who’ve had decades of boyfriends ‘not ready for fatherhood’. No, they don’t want it to be true – no more than a guy enjoying a war movie would want to be drafted into the army and sent off to his death – but it does appeal to emotions they can’t otherwise admit to.
    The femicrazies have hurt women badly. Boys get yelled at, told not to regard women as ‘just being breeding stock’ – and cheerfully agree not to, never having had the slightest interest in having children. Then when girlfriends demand children, guys understandably feel betrayed. To be expected to ruin your life for children, when for years you were yelled based on a slander that you wished to use women to produce children, is a particularly nasty blow.

  • Biggles says:

    Dear Alice. Shame on you for believing UN propaganda! Empty Planet by Bricker & Ibbitson, two Canadian researchers makes the opposite case. They also say the minimum ‘replacement rate’ is 3.3 – 3.4 %. Available from Amazon in paperback for $16.60.

  • Salome says:

    Thank you for this piece. Now I don’t have to watch it. (Loved the penultimate paragraph–my thoughts exactly.)

  • Adelagado says:

    That Atwood (in 1985) could imagine the fictional future as a radical Christian nightmare was perhaps understandable. The modern producers of the the TV series should get no similar free passes . The real world Islamic oppression of women goes beyond anything imagined in The Handmaids Tale. The horror can easily be seen daily (if you have the stomach for it). Yet the series producers avoid any offence to Islam. I found the cowardice of the series made it unwatchable even before it become incredibly slow and boring.

  • Alice Thermopolis says:

    Dear Biggles
    Shame on you for believing the propaganda of two Canadian “researchers’ – are they journalists or demographers (?) – in search of a twitter-storm.

    While future fertility rate projections in the developing world have large error bars, that does not mean one can simply assume an outcome that delivers one’s preferred outcome. In the past, it has surprised on the upside, China’s one-child policy in the 1980s was a response to such a surprise. Given demographic momentum, a difference of even 0.50 children per woman has huge implications.. Rates of economic development in the developing world are not keeping pace with its population growth. India in 1950 350 million, today 1,400 million, and so on. Africa is worse.

    Still increasing by roughly 80 million people per year – over three times Australia’s current population – or more than 200,000 per day – our annual immigration intake. Globally, from 7.7 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050, with a peak of at least 11 billion in 2100, with the caveats above. An “empty planet” ? Good luck with that claim.
    BTW “replacement rate” is actually a “total fertility rate” (TFR) of 2.1 children per woman, to allow for child mortality and gender imbalance in a population.

  • Biggles says:

    “…two Canadian “researchers’ – are they journalists or demographers (?) “. Read the book Alice, and find out.

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