What Lies Beneath: The Handmaid’s Tale in Trump’s America

I first came across Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale in my junior year of college, when it was assigned for my feminist theory class. I didn’t know much about the novel, but I remember that the professor emphasized how relevant the book’s message was in 1985, when it was first published; in 1990, when the film version was released; in 2007, when I first read it; and I imagine she would say the same for 2017, when it recently reclaimed a spot at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. On Wednesday, April 26, Hulu will begin airing the first season of a television series based on the book.

The novel tells the story of an alternative future, where a totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist government has taken over the United States and renamed the country the Republic of Gilead. An extreme hierarchical society based on class, race, and gender emerges, transforming Old Testament religious fanaticism into modern forms. Environmental devastation and endless war have caused many women to become infertile (Gilead doesn’t accept that men could be sterile too). The few fertile women, the “Handmaids,” are surrogate wombs for the ruling classes. The narrator, Offred (literally Of-Fred, the name of her owner), has sex with the “Commander,” while his wife, a former TV evangelist (based on the real-life figure of Tammy Faye Bakker) watches. Homosexuals are publicly hanged. Women aren’t allowed to read. African Americans are forcibly relocated to “National Homelands” (similar to the Apartheid homelands in South Africa). Practicing Jews are executed (á la the Spanish Inquisition). Set in New England, most of the state-sanctioned killings occur on the campus of what used to be Harvard University.

Many people have written on the book’s chilling message in relation to our current political times. But if we look carefully, the novel demonstrates that today’s march towards authoritarianism is not an anomaly but rather the surfacing of latent traits in the DNA of our democracy. This idea is reinforced when we consider that the upcoming television series was written and in production before November’s election.

Execution scene in the Huu adaptation of the Handmaid’s Tale.
(Take Five/Hulu)

History in the Novel

The novel’s historical antecedents function on multiple levels. To begin with, the book’s foundation in American history makes it continually relevant to any U.S. reader. In 2012, Atwood wrote a piece for the Guardian in which she detailed the extent to which this country’s historical trajectory influenced her creation of the world Offred and other women inhabited. Atwood didn’t invent the totalitarian regime of The Handmaid’s Tale out of thin air: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already…. The deep foundation of the US — so went my thinking — was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women.” As she wrote this year in the New York Times, the book’s Republic of Gilead “is built on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.”

By building her dystopia upon a core part of our country’s foundation, Atwood created a world that has been and always will be relevant. Trump’s rise is not a sudden attack on democratic principles or women’s rights but rather the culmination of decades, perhaps centuries of authoritarian tendencies. While his government is not particularly wedded to religious ideals, it sees no problems in allying itself with those who are.

Atwood wrote the novel in the years when the religious right had joined forces with the neoliberal ideology of Reagan’s Republican party, when the feminist gains of the 1970s were being scoffed at, when Phyllis Schlafly successfully rallied women against the ERA, and when the Moral Majority was on the rise. Atwood’s depiction of the Aunts — the women who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids — draws directly from the feminist pornography debate of the 1980s. The current onslaught against abortion rights, immigrants, non-Christian religions, and the trans community — to name just a few — are continuations of earlier right-wing efforts to control who has civil rights.

Statues of dictators in Thailand, near the River Kwai. (SB/Flickr)

While The Handmaid’s Tale draws upon the specific Puritanic history of the United States, it also incorporates the histories of oppressive regimes across the globe. In this way, it demonstrates the continuing worldwide relevance of the book. Atwood recalls in the Times the many historical incidents she based the book on: “group executions, sumptuary laws, book burnings, the Lebensborn program of the SS and the child-stealing of the Argentine generals, the history of slavery, the history of American polygamy … the list is long.” Readers who have experienced military dictatorships, forced relocation, or religious persecution will see their experience reflected in the novel.

Part of what seems so relevant about the book is the emphasis the ruling regime places on controlling women’s reproduction. As a historian who studies the politics of reproduction, I was drawn to Atwood’s discussion of the key role women’s reproductive capabilities play in any government policy, not just that of repressive ones. As Atwood wrote in the Guardian, “Who shall have babies, who shall claim and raise those babies, who shall be blamed if anything goes wrong with those babies? These are questions with which human beings have busied themselves for a long time.”

In light of the recent tsunami of legislation to curb women’s abortion and reproductive rights in our country — a wave in which lawmakers describe women as “hosts” for fetuses (much like Handmaids were “hosts” for their owners’ children ) — the theme of reproductive control is perhaps one of the most salient. The recent protest at the Texas state legislature, in which a group of women dressed up as Handmaids to protest a proposed ban on second trimester abortions, highlights how women’s bodies continue to be the literal space on which male power is articulated — and how Atwood’s novel continues to be a space of resistance.

Of course, oppressive governments don’t want to save everyone’s babies. Representative Steve King’s (R-Iowa) recent tweet in which he stated that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” shows that Atwood’s choice to emphasize government control over reproduction remains central to current-day articulations of racial and gender power.

Women and Patriarchy

Atwood has often been asked if the novel is feminist, as it implicates women in the functioning of patriarchal and authoritarian regimes. The Handmaids police each other. The Aunts abuse and indoctrinate the Handmaids in patriarchal ideologies. The Commander’s wife, while no longer allowed to operate in public, uses her class privilege to control Offred’s sexuality. Atwood’s novel demonstrates the importance of depicting women — and men, and people of all genders — in all of their complexity. Is the novel feminist? In the Times, Atwood wrote, “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 [it’s feminist].”

This dedication to the complexity of human nature, and how that interacts with structural limitations, is also tied to our understanding of history. In the novel — as in real life — women were neither innocent victims nor fully in control of their choices. Real life is a negotiation between our actions and the structures that guide them. This gets to the key role women play in the novel in perpetuating patriarchal and racist regimes. Women can easily reinforce patriarchal structures. Class and racial privilege make female misogyny possible. In fact, patriarchal power structures can actually increase women’s participation in sexist acts. As Atwood writes, “Yes, [women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none.”

Phyllis Schafly wearing a “Stop ERA” badge, demonstrating with other women against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House, Washington, D.C. (Leffler/Library of Congress)

Atwood herself has spoken at length on the seemingly anti-feminist conundrum of women’s conscious and unconscious participation in patriarchal and authoritarian regimes. As journalist Rebecca Traister wrote recently in New York Magazine, the implication of women in anti-feminist movements occurred at the exact time Atwood was writing the novel. “Women, as they always have, participated in and sometimes led the cultural repudiation of feminism, either as public crusaders in the mode of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, whose efforts to block the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment had finally succeeded in 1982, or as apathetic eye-rollers eager to differentiate themselves from the now-embarrassing caricature of feminist agitation.” Reportedly, it was hard to find a female lead to play Offred in the 1990 film, as many actresses didn’t want to be associated with such a militant feminist message.

This could also be said of today. The 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump comes to mind. Kellyanne Conway does as well. When power is controlled by the few, it’s often easier to feel satisfied with the small amount we have than to ask to change the structure. As bell hooks says, patriarchy has no gender.

So what lesson can we learn from The Handmaid’s Tale? The end of the book alludes to Offred’s escape, and the last few pages are a transcript from the Twelfth Symposium of Gileadean Studies in 2195, in which two professors discuss Offred’s account. The resistance to the regime that had supposedly helped Offred escape had succeeded. Gilead had long fallen. As Atwood herself tells us, “there are two futures in the book … if the first one comes true, the second one may do so also.” Like those resistors, we won’t go down without a fight.

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