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The Handmaid’s Tale: a thistopian dystopia

Sunday, 30 July 2017  | Megan Powell du Toit

The Handmaid’s Tale. First up, is this a good piece of television? Undoubtedly. The cinematography is beautiful but foreboding. The soundtrack is very clever – listen carefully. Elizabeth Moss’s fine performance carries the show and is supported by many other good performances. Yet this is not a review, but instead an examination of its message.

One of the key statements people have been making about the show is ‘and this could happen!’. I applaud people’s acknowledgment of the dangers inherent in the current climate. But I came away with a different message. People, this IS happening. The power of the dystopian genre is not just that it tells us where we could go. Dystopian fiction often has exaggerated or symbolic elements that are unlikely to occur. These elements serve to highlight to us where we already are. Functioning as analogies, they reveal the extent of the horror of our current times.

It is worth starting with the recognition that, in many countries throughout the world, women have few rights, people are enslaved, violence is carried out on those who dare to protest injustice. By saying ‘this could happen’, we mean to us, to our countries, to people like us, and we forget those for whom it is literally already happening. To give just one example, the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram would very much understand the plight of the handmaids in Gilead, the regime depicted in the series. The Handmaid’s Tale should renew our commitment to global justice. If we spend about 10 hours watching this TV series, it will be time well spent to also educate ourselves on how to take action against injustice in our world.[1] What I also want us to realise is that, in subtle and insidious ways, this story is playing out in Australian society as well. Here are some I have seen:

Loss of name and identity. We are revolted by the naming of the handmaids - fertile concubines used to bear children for those in power - by the name of the man to whom they belong. The central character is called Offred – of Fred. Yet we do this to women all the time. I remember the shock the first time I received a letter after marriage addressed to Mrs (my husband’s full name: first and last). I had been reduced to the letter ‘s’. If you are thinking, ‘what’s in a name?’, ask yourself how many men you know who have swapped their surname for their wife’s. Ask a man whether he would do so and watch the discomfort cross his face. As a woman, I’m advised that, if I want to succeed as a writer, I should disguise my gender in the name I use. Studies also show my identifiably female name is a drawback in job applications, as is also the case for names associated with particular ethnicity. The Bible constantly recognises the power of the name in terms of identity. What does it do to people to have to suppress their own name?

Women are silenced. In Gilead, women are forbidden from reading and writing. To silence people is to control them, to make them unable to protest their treatment. Obviously, I can both read and write. However, women are silenced in other ways in our culture. Studies show again and again that women’s voices are ignored and interrupted. Every time I speak, I am aware that my gender immediately removes some of my voice’s volume and weight. Compare this to the gospel accounts, in which women are the first witnesses to the resurrection. We need to be very careful not to silence any voices within our churches, for in doing so we miss vital perspectives that challenge and transform our communities.

Women are blamed for men’s attraction to them. Gilead justifies the enslaved position of the handmaids, as many of them are branded as sluts due to non-conformity with the regime’s sexual ethic. One such is a woman who was raped. Recalcitrant women have their eyes or hands removed in a twisting of Matthew 5:27-30. There are also punishments for men who are caught in sexual misbehaviour, but their position gives them better ability to conceal, and a lesser sentence. This is a continuing problem in our society in the presence of rape culture. Christians are not immune. In insisting that young women dress modestly, without similar restrictions for young men, we put the onus on the women to control the men’s sexuality. Jesus’ advice in Matthew 5 instead puts the onus on those feeling temptation to control themselves. And in putting restrictions on women and men meeting together, we make it that much harder for women to break into the Boys’ Club. It isn’t just physical meeting together: some men are reluctant to be seen to notice or support women who could be at all construed as attractive, whether face-to-face or on social media, in the fear that it will be seen as sexually motivated.

Power corrupts. The oppressors of The Handmaid’s Tale are seen to have begun from a desire to save the world. But the more power they have, the more abusive they become. This mirrors the reality that we often forget our own theology: that sin has deeply entered each and every person. And so we forget that power is always dangerous to those who wield it, unless they are perfect. Power tempts us to use it to get what we want, or what we think is right without reference to other’s beliefs or needs. Power insulates us from alternative views and necessary correction. The more imbalances of power, the more abuse will occur. Systems in which there is structural inequality will always breed abuse. In Gilead, men oppress women, male leaders oppress their male subordinates, women with status oppress the women with less status. The system brings out the worst in everyone. The many stories of abuse of power in Christian communities and institutions should motivate us to instead aim for systems of equality, transparency and accountability.[2]

Women become complicit in their own oppression and that of others. We often erroneously assume that members of the oppressed group cannot be part of the oppression. But The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us that of course they can. Serena, a high status wife, is revealed to be one of the key architects of the current regime. She is also revealed as an abuser of power in how she treats Offred. Sometimes those who seek to subjugate others find it very useful to have voices of those they are subjugating on their side: it seems to suggest that what they are doing is reasonable and acceptable. The outcome is clear in The Handmaid’s Tale: ultimately Serena is also a victim of the regime she helped craft. It is a reminder to us that we are all living in a broken world: none remain unaffected by it. Let us all prayerfully allow God to examine our hearts, so that we may see how we contribute to oppression and abuse.

In order to control others, we infantilise them. The handmaids are called girls and treated like recalcitrant schoolgirls who need a firm hand. Submissive behaviour is rewarded with small trinkets and biscuits. The use of ‘girls’ is confronting – because it is what women get called all the time. Go watch this viral video by Mayim Bialik addressing this very problem. It is the same dynamic that meant black men got called boys for centuries in America, and why that is now justifiably considered a very offensive term for a black man. Instead, let us remember that all people are formed in the image of God.

The relationships created by unequal structures are unsatisfying. The central marriage in The Handmaid’s Tale is shown to be gradually poisoned by the newly created power imbalance. They are no longer partners in a mission. Fred, the husband, goes searching for a connection with his handmaid. But his power over her means he cannot trust any interest she shows in him. This leads to further alienation between men and women (or indeed between any groups with a power imbalance). Let us refuse to settle for dissatisfying unequal relationships in the church, instead rejoicing as sisters and brothers together.

Religion is used to oppress but is also a source of freedom. Some have seen The Handmaid’s Tale as anti-religion. My take is that it is anti-fundamentalist, or anti-religion that is used to dominate and coerce. There are hints of religion serving, instead, the opposite function. We do not know Offred’s own religion, but she talks about having her child baptised in a church that has been pulled down by the regime, and she at times prays against the regime. We also meet a nun who is working against the regime and offers to pray for those trapped within it. Many of us have been horrified by the recent reports of domestic abuse within the church, but we need to acknowledge that religion is used to oppress. However, we have also been heartened by the response of those who have declared that the church should be a safe haven for the abused. The Handmaid’s Tale invites us to examine the effect of our own religious systems.

Hope comes through people refusing to participate in evil. I don’t want to give too many spoilers for those who haven’t yet watched the entire first season, but let me just say: wait for the rock drop. (Those who have been watching: revisit this satisfying moment of the army in red.) Change happens through individuals brave enough to resist, brave enough to be prepared to sacrifice themselves for others. Did anyone say Christ figure?

Megan Powell du Toit is an ordained Baptist minister, Publications and Policies Administrator for the Australian College of Theology and editor of the academic journal Colloquium. She read The Handmaid’s Tale as a teenager and has been working against Gilead ever since.

[1] There are several good Christian organisations working in this space, such as Common Grace, A Just Cause and Micah Challenge. There are also good secular organisations, such as Amnesty International.

[2] I’m thinking here of such things as the celebrity pastors who are revealed to have used their position for sex and inappropriate control, and the many instances of child abuse uncovered in Christian settings.

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