How close are we to a Handmaid’s Tale reality?
Don’t want to live in a society like the one that Atwood illustrates in The Handmaid’s Tale? Then stop telling women that their health only matters on your terms.
Have you read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Maybe you are waiting for your backordered copy to arrive — the book made it’s way to the #1 spot on Amazon earlier this week, which is an impressive feat for a book published three decades ago. Perhaps you are waiting for the Hulu series based on the book to come out on April 26. Either way, there has never been a more appropriate time to visit this dystopian future novel.
I first cracked the cover of The Handmaid’s Tale in high school. I worked an hour each day as a librarian’s assistant, which mostly involved reshelving books and laminating covers. It was all boring, except for the head librarian who would pick out books for me to take home. She was a cynical woman who wanted to expand my worldview. She’d hand me Orwell, Ginsberg, Hoffman, and developed my interest in dystopian future fiction. One day, after talking about the school’s new dress code that forbid girls from wearing “spaghetti strap” tank tops, she pulled out a dusty copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from the shelf and told me I had to read it. “It’s a fine line,” she explained, “You may never think it can get to this point, but it isn’t so far from reality.”
The handmaids in Atwood’s book are subject to strictly enforced dress codes and are provided uniforms similar to a Catholic nun’s habit, except bright red. Red is the symbol of their societal status as women who are kept solely to conceive children for the wealthy. You may think this is extreme, but in 2017 when you have a president who says “[he] likes the women who work for him ‘to dress like women,” it may not be so far off.
I loved the book so much that I read it dozens of times. I have bought and borrowed away more copies that I can count. When I turned 18, I got my first tattoo as an ode to Offred, the main character, and the quote she finds scratched into a piece of furniture in her locked room:
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
It means “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” I explain to people frequently during the summer months when my bare arms show.
The book helped me understand what ideas in society raise red flags for women and how some of our freedoms are teetering perilously close to a cliff. Don’t think a nation’s culture can change so rapidly that women are suddenly forced to adhere to dress codes and limited socialization? Just ask the women who experienced life before and after the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Or read Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Did it happen overnight or was there a slow chipping away of freedom here and there?
In the book, women are fed a story about how their new restrictive lifestyle protects them from the dangerous world around them. “There is more than one kind of freedom,” said Aunt Lydia. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Freedom from being catcalled, from being assaulted by men. At my high school, they didn’t want boys to be distracted by the girls’ shoulders, so they required us to cover up instead of telling the boys not to objectify us. Covering up was freedom from the comments of our male classmates. Freedom to would have been teaching boys that girls do not exist for their viewing.
The main character in The Handmaid’s Tale is only valued for her ability to reproduce. Atwood’s imaginary culture holds pregnant women on a pedestal, and reinforces their purity and fragility. However, lower-class women who cannot reproduce are discarded to the “colonies,” a place so polluted by environmental toxins that they do not last more than a few months. It is only under the watchful eye of the government, deemed the “Republic of Gilead,” that birth and life are celebrated. There is no sex without the purpose of reproduction.
Even though pregnancy is culturally recognized in the US as the beautiful essence of womanhood, there is an argument against providing certain health coverage to women, including new moms. The GOP has long held a strong opposition to birth control coverage and until the Affordable Care Act passed in 2014, only 12% of insurance policies covered maternity care. The services of lactation consultants and the provision of an insurance-covered breast pump are both currently protected under the ACA. There are nine women’s preventative services on the chopping block including testing for cervical cancer, breast cancer, gestational diabetes, and more. If these services are eliminated, women will go back to paying out of pocket or dealing with deductibles.
In 2013, republican Rep. Ellers of North Carolina argued that men should not have to pay premiums for policies that include maternity care. “…we’re forcing them to buy things they will never need,” she argued. However, the policies would also cover the spouses and children of some men paying the premiums. This argument is a distraction. It isn’t a secret that a moral conflict exists for people who disagree with certain circumstances surrounding pregnancy, whether unintended or resulting from the relationship of an unwed couple. This way of thinking implies that too many pregnancies are mistakes and prevention is just for the promiscuous. The danger with this argument is that it dismisses reproductive health care as a necessary consideration for the majority of the population. How does one justify that women-specific health care is not valuable enough to be covered by insurance when everyone alive today came from the reproductive organs of a woman?
In The Handmaid’s Tale, once you are no longer able to provide children for the wealthy class, you too are sent to the “colonies.” In short, when you are no longer pregnant, you’re on your own.
The Hulu series release could not have better timing. The main character is played by Elisabeth Moss, who many remember as the mousy secretary transformed into feminist icon, Peggy Olson on Mad Men. My favorite character in the book, Moira, a rebellious handmaid who resists indoctrination, is serendipitously portrayed by Samira Wiley who also played my favorite character on Orange is the New Black. These strong actors will undoubtedly nail their roles in this spooky not-so-distant-dystopian tale.
It is hard not to wonder what truths might lie in plain sight within fiction. In the trailer for the upcoming Hulu series, the take home quote is, “We only wanted to make the world better… better never means better for everyone.” It has eerie similarity to Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” which beckons my response: will America be great for everyone?