Before I became pregnant with my two year old son, I was haunted by fears of being unable to conceive. I had dismissed the fact that I had worked out five days a week, followed a strict diet, never smoked, and rarely drank even a cheap glass of watered down grocery store wine. Instead I was consumed by the reality that I was trying to have a baby after the age of thirty-five. Now looking back, I am not sure if I was more terrified of the idea of being unable to biological give birth to a child of my own or of being labeled by society as a woman who could not conceive. Despite all of the feminist literature I devoured during and after college, the numerous degrees, and professional milestones I reached, I still found myself falling into that dangerous mindset of assigning my worth and value as a woman to my reproductive ability.
I would like you to now imagine a United States of America renamed the Republic of Gilead where every woman’s status in society is in fact based upon their ability to procreate. This is the world created by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale which debuts this month as a Hulu television series. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women are not allowed to read, write, or earn an income, and the future existence of the human race is in jeopardy due to an unknown source that has left most of the female population infertile. The very suspicion that the root of the population’s infertility problems could stem from a biological complication specifically targeting men is never uttered or considered .In fact, the male elite control every aspect of Gilead’s economy and government. With little choice, women who can procreate are assigned to a commander, and their basic needs are cared for with the sole expectation that they will bear his children and immediately hand them over to their pious wives to raise as their own. Those individuals who are past the child bearing age are assigned to clean toxic waste sites that dominate the outer Gilead landscape or work as maids and cooks for the women that can.
The story revolves around Offred, the main character whose real name is never revealed. Her given name denotes the commander she has been assigned, for she is “of Fred.” She is forced to wear bright red clothing unsuitable for extreme climates and a white hat that shields her face. She is forced to live on a compound in austere prison like conditions and is allowed minimal time outside under the close and watchful eye of male “protectors.” Her existence is absent of all forms of art, music, literature or any form of mental stimulation. However, she is forced on a daily basis to listen to selected religious sermons and texts read out loud by the male commanders that reaffirm her duty to procreate and serve the needs of society. Although there are some women who exercise limited power, they are usually the commander’s wives and take every opportunity to both overtly and covertly express their anguish over their own sterility and envy at their handmaids who will hopefully bear their husbands’ children and give their life purpose. I found Atwood’s description of Offred’s current world fascinating and loved the debate that existed among the characters as to whether this new world in fact freed women from the financial stresses and strains of economic independence and sexual objectivity of the “old days.” As I read, I kept envisioning Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem battling it out over feminism and women’s rights. There were times where I felt that Atwood’s description of Offred’s world was on the verge of the absurd, until I came across a recent New York Times article that discussed how relevant The Handmaid’s Tale was to today’s current political environment. After reading the article, I learned that there was no part of the story that was not rooted in actual history. Atwood used examples from different societies around the world from various eras in history that implemented some form of the nuances of Offred’s world. The explanation of how a society that was inching towards gender equality fell and transitioned into a dystopian nightmare yielded too many parallels to today’s modern day events under the Trump administration. Although The Handmaid’s Tale was written decades ago, this book could have been written yesterday and would have the same relevance. It has become a hub of feminist literature and could definitely be a modern day wake up call for women and men to stay woke before Offred’s world becomes our own.
If anyone catches this month’s Hulu series this month, let me know what you think!
You should also check out the recent New York Times interview with Margaret Atwood where she discusses what her book means today in the age of Trump.