Welcome To Gilead
The Handmaid’s Tale has become something of a cultural phenomenon since it made it’s debut on the streaming service Hulu, even though the novel was released in 1985. Folks have sat on the edges of their seats, binge-watching in horror as the story unfolds with women being subjected to rape, abuse, and mutilation over and over again. That’s not the worst part of the show though. The really horrific and downright terrifying part is that for most women, this feels like something that isn’t too far off from real life, especially for those of us watching from Gilead… I mean the United States.
For those who aren’t familiar, Margaret Atwood’s novel is a tale of a dystopian America where women have been stripped of basic human rights, torn from their families, and are now the property of high-ranking government officials, used for the sole purpose of acting as servants or bearing children. In Gilead, Congress and the Constitution no longer exist. Instead, the community is launched backward through time, not just decades, but centuries into the past. They have revived the Puritan roots and belief systems that died out ages ago, or at least became less prominent, and that no longer benefit our society.
During the Handmaids’ training in the Red Center, the women were taught that sexual assault was the fault of the victim, and sadly this is just one of many parallels that reflect the world we live in today. This thought process is alive and well in the United States today, and we can see it every time a woman comes forward to speak out about being assaulted. While some may believe her story and offer compassion, there are just as many (if not more) who place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the victim. We hear the same questions: What was she wearing? Was she drinking? Is she sure she didn’t lead her attacker on? Are you sure she wasn’t asking for it? We are conditioned to slut shame women who have had a multitude of sexual partners. We treat them as dirty, less than, not worthy of compassion or empathy when someone takes advantage of them.
If you aren’t heterosexual and cisgender in Gilead, you’re a gender traitor, and this is punishable by genital mutilation or death. It’s not too far of a reach to imagine this happening in real life. We have businesses that refuse to bake a cake for someone whose sexual orientation they don’t agree with. We deny same sex couples the right to adopt children out of fear of them “turning the child gay.” We deny transgendered folks the option of using the bathroom they feel most comfortable in. To justify this behavior, we begin othering these folks. We contribute to the ideology that they are not “one of us.” They are seen as too different, degenerate, and abomination. Just say it already, be real, you don’t think they’re “normal.”
Those committing atrocities against the women in Atwood’s tale justify their actions with religion. If you’d like to consult your Bible about this, look up the story of Jacob and his two wives. Their names were Rachel and Leah, and don’t forget about the two handmaids that they had. The story tells of Jacob, his wives, the handmaids, and the 12 sons that were bore for them. Not unlike Gilead, the handmaids in the biblical tale had no claim to the children, they were the property of Jacob’s wives. It’s not uncommon to see people in our current society justify the mistreatment of those different from them with religion. Those who are not Christian are seen as being less than holy and are unfortunately treated accordingly. One way that we can see this is by the attempt of our government to ban Muslims from the country, or if we want to look a little further back in history there was an entire genocide we could talk about.
If you’re convicted of crime in Gilead, you are labeled as Unpeople and sent to the Colonies. The Colonies consist of areas of North America that are polluted by radioactive waste. During the time spent in these barren wastelands, women are subjected to hard labor until environmental toxins take their toll and result in death. Most people who are sent to the Colonies don’t survive more than three years, and it is considered a fate worse than death to be sentenced to this place.
Unbabies are also a thing in Gilead. These are children born with developmental delays or deformities. During the series, it is said that the babies don’t keep. While we don’t know yet exactly what happens to these babies, it’s safe to assume that they are disposed of. Although, with these unbabies commonly referred to as shredders, it’s not too hard to imagine how Gilead disposes of them.
Gilead brings forth an extreme version of patriarchy that hasn’t been seen since 19th century American slavery. Women are forbidden from reading, which is punishable by the loss of a finger for a first offense. Women have no control over money. They are not allowed to work outside of the home. They are meant to be weak, obedient, seen but not heard. They are required to dress modestly and address the authoritarian men with respectful tongues. Let’s not kid ourselves, patriarchy is also alive and well in our society, and if “leaders” like our current POTUS have anything to do with it, it won’t be long until women’s rights are revoked. We can see the foreshadowing of this in the fear that is rippling through the country over the possibility of Roe vs. Wade being overturned. It only takes one small ripple to create an avalanche. If they take away one of our rights, what’s to stop them from taking away the rest?
As bleak as life may seem for the women of Gilead, there is still hope in the form of Mayday. This is a resistance group (is any of this sounding familiar yet?) that is dedicated to the downfall of the Republic of Gilead. The members of Mayday act as spies. They work together gathering information, plotting escape methods and routes, and supporting each other as best they can. Captured members of Mayday would be executed and hung upon the wall as an example to others who may consider defying the Sons of Jacob.
As harrowing as the tale of the handmaid’s is, when we study the parallels it shares with modern society, we can fight back. We can use our voices to rage against oppressors and take the power back from them.
Stand strong. Do not go quietly. Resist.
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” -Margaret Atwood