In 1985, Margaret Atwood published a book titled The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of a post-apocalyptic utopian society called Gilead, which is controlled by an ultra-conservative religious group. The story follows the narrative of a Handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose is to bear children for the barren families of power. There are five main groups of women in this society: besides the Handmaids, there are the Wives who are the spouses and companions of the men in power (the Commanders), the Marthas who are in charge of taking care of the household, the Econowives who are the wives of the men who hold lower positions and are meant to fulfill the three roles of the Marthas, Handmaids, and Wives, and lastly, the Unwomen, who are either killed or sent to the colonies to clean up nuclear waste (happy happy, joy joy). There are meant to be no uprisings in Gilead, everyone is expected to comply with what’s enforced and those who rebel are often “sent away” (probably killed).
This story of Gilead has recently been released as a TV show on Hulu (and if you can manage it, I highly recommend watching even if you haven’t read the book). The timely release and revival of this story has been described as anti-Trump propaganda, on both sides. To address the side saying that this was created to be anti-Trump propaganda, the book is 32 years old and Trump has been in office for just over 100-something days so obviously something doesn’t add up. To address the side holding up the imagery and story of this book as fuel for the feminist movement, I think there is a very valid point. However, though I think there many parallels to be drawn between reality and this book, please make no mistake that this book is a work of fiction. Not to say that anything can’t happen, but this book is not our reality.
As I previously mentioned, there are five classifications of women Atwood defines. For the sake of this brief discussion, I’d like to count the Econowives out, since they are a combination of three other groups of women. In her essay Oppression, Marilyn Frye discusses the spheres in which women exist and the “service work” they perform, and how it is often hard to see this oppression from the perspective of a birdcage. According to Frye, women exist in a sphere separate from men, a sphere in which they are expected to serve men’s sexual desires, their personal needs, and their egos. In Gilead, I think a very obvious connection is made to these roles defined by Frye. Handmaids are meant to serve the purposes of sex and procreation (however, no one is “supposed” to enjoy sex in this society, it is only for procreation). Marthas fulfill household duties and are responsible for raising children so that the men can focus on manly things. Wives are meant to be a trophy of sorts for the Commanders, they are meant to be supportive, but never in the spotlight. Finally, there are the Unwomen, the women who are incapable of fulfilling any of these prescribed roles.
While, yes, we are in the 21st century, there are many people today that still seem to think we are not. From politicians to media to even our peers, the enforcing of these seemingly medieval, puritanical roles is very much present in many parts of our modern societies. “Wife her up,” is often used when a woman is able to make food for herself (who knew basic cooking skills for survival could be gendered). The idea that sex is only for procreation is still very much a belief held by many people. Women are supposed to look certain ways, especially when they accompany men. Women are often held up as a trophy or a status symbol. Women are not meant to hold positions of power. Queer women, trans women, infertile women, feminists, female CEOs, female scientists, engineers, teachers, etc..are all “unwomen.” These are all themes reflected in The Handmaid’s Tale.
This type of oppression can be hard to see when examining one instance, or one bar of the bird cage. Well, you're not allowed to do this thing, then go the other direction, take a different path; but there you run into another thing, so you try a different direction. Blocked again. You keep doing this until you realize there is more to oppression than a single instance or barrier. In fact, it looks a lot like a bird cage. You can fly around inside the cage, but when you try to escape, there are a lot of barriers keeping you from doing so, a lot of barriers making sure you stay where you are.
A Call To Action
While there are brief mentions and depictions of rebellion in the book and TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I think the main character, Offred, offers a very important message about taking action in her internal monologue.
“Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
Many of us may find ourselves asleep. I’ve found myself trying to maintain ignorance while the new administration proposes new laws and plans. However, we cannot let ourselves be asleep. We must wake up and we must be willing to fight for the things in which we believe and we must be willing to make our voices heard. We can still protest, we can still have dialogue, we can still go to town halls and speak with our representatives, so why don’t we? Again, not to say that we will become Gilead if we don’t stand up against this administration (to be honest, I think they’re accomplishing failure just fine on their own), but why remain complacent when you can be active?
Entertainment For Knowledge And Inspiration
Lastly, I’d like to give one more promotion for the story. The book was very good and very easy to read, even though the themes are not exactly easy to digest. As a feminist, I felt that this book was inspiring and intellectual and it gave me a lot to think about, especially because it reminded me of a lot of the themes I learned about in a philosophy of feminist thought class. As for the TV show, I don’t have enough words to describe how amazing it is. The character depiction, added dialogue, storyline and detail are amazing. It’s outlandish at times but eerie enough to make it realistic. And if you appreciated the book and Offred’s sass, well she’s a lot sassier in the TV show.
There is more to be said about this story and its themes, however I hope this article has piqued your curiosity and interest enough to go learn more.