So, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
We all knew, post-Kavanaugh, that some outlandish line of attack would be pursued with earnest against Trump’s latest SCOTUS nominee, but there’s still something remarkable about the sheer speed with which the mainstream media, the Facebook aunts, and the Blue Check Mafia arrange into a univocal chorus.
This time around, our thought-leaders tell us that the confirmation of this Catholic mother and accomplished jurist will deliver us into the world of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 novel, where all fertile women—including our hero, Offred—are forced into sex-slavery in order to bear children for the all-male leaders of the new totalitarian regime.
The first sanctioned think-piece cropped up as early as last Monday (five days before the nomination was officially announced) in Newsweek. It’s a baffling exercise in “guilt by association with something vaguely similar to another thing that an author may have read about 35 years ago.” Entitled “How Charismatic Catholic Groups Like Amy Coney Barrett’s People of Praise Inspired The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s founded on a misreading: Margaret Atwood once clipped an article on a group called “People of Grace” out of a newspaper, and Amy Coney Barrett is a longtime member of an unrelated group called People of Praise.
The author of the Newsweek piece conflated the two—both groups happen to have used the centuries-old word handmaiden—and suddenly (in her mind and the minds of a great many gullible readers) Judge Barrett became the basis for every fourth-wave feminist’s favorite bit of literary masochism. (Upon realizing that the entire foundation of this piece was false, Newsweek tweaked the headline and added a note at the end.)
This is nothing new: fans have been reading themselves into Atwood’s persecuted women since the day the book came out, insistent that their very existence on the same planet as religious people is roughly equivalent to the bondage of the novel’s handmaids. This feeling has only intensified in the last four years—a reflection at The Verge ran just one day after the 2016 election under the headline “In Trump’s America, The Handmaid’s Tale matters more than ever.” Atwood herself encourages these convulsions, calling the story “speculative fiction” and insisting that she “didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress… So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.” In response to a claim on Twitter that she was “prescient” in light of Barrett’s nomination, Atwood seemed to agree, and apologized. (She’s Canadian.)
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I must admit at this point that I had neither read the book nor watched the hit series adapted from it in 2017. This weekend, in a medieval act of penance that ought to earn me centuries off of Purgatory, I did both. I expected it to be laughable; from what I knew, it sounded like an outlandish fantasy, an outlet for hatred of people of faith, a way to indulge the left’s ever-growing victim complex. But I was wrong.
Now, make no mistake, it’s a terrible book. The prose is atrocious—already in the first paragraph I wished I could call Atwood up and tell her that you cannot smell an “afterimage.” The premise is ridiculous—in the blink of an eye, a ragtag band of fanatics managed to assassinate all of Congress, defeat the U.S. military, and take over most of the continental United States; once they’d done this, our fanatics stripped women of all property and rights, and implemented a complex, highly restrictive social order with shockingly little difficulty. Even Adi Robertson, author of the aforementioned essay at The Verge, admits that the absurdity of Atwood’s dystopia is a stumbling block. (I am also not convinced that we can take seriously any dystopian regime whose mastermind is named Fred.)
Despite the book’s many shortcomings, though, I cannot help but agree with Atwood’s assessment that her story’s central evils are tied to trends already present in our world. They are not, however, the trends that Atwood had assumed—nor ones, I suspect, she has any interest in denouncing.
Take, for instance, the highly regimented, highly artificial social order at the center of Offred’s fictional world. There are the Commanders, technocratic male elites who have led the revolution and now lead its aftermath. There are the Aunts, spinsterly women charged with the indoctrination and supervision of new Handmaids. There are the Handmaids themselves, perpetual surrogates valued solely for their wombs and subjected monthly to ritual rape. There are the Marthas, domestic servants charged with mundane tasks like cooking and cleaning. There are the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police. There are, of course, still prostitutes. For every discerned societal function, there is an entire class of people assigned, identified by particular clothing, inseparable as people from their utility to the task. (Talk about the division of labor.) The heart of Gilead is not religious extremism, but social engineering.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Handmaids themselves, and the Ceremony that defines their role. The idea that women can be used outside of the confines of marriage as incubators for strongly desired children would be abhorrent to the vast majority of religious conservatives who seem to be The Handmaid’s Tale‘s targets. But it is all the rage in certain secular and progressive circles—and by no means is it limited to the fringes. It has become especially popular among homosexual couples, many of whom pay top dollar for Handmaids who serve a purpose they cannot fulfill themselves.
The difference between Offred’s world and ours—both in surrogacy and in the assignation of people to all-consuming economic roles—is the illusion of choice. The problem, presumably, is not that the novel’s women are resigned to lives as walking wombs or floor-scrubbers; the problem is that they are not being paid for it. There is no other meaningful distinction: the standard reproductive ritual of our own sterile elites is merely a Handmaid’s Ceremony where dollars change hands.
Just how scant the differences are between Offred’s world and ours is more apparent in the TV adaptation, as pre-Gilead America has been updated to reflect the changing times. June—Offred’s name pre-Gilead—is a 2020 feminist’s hero. She had a chic job as an assistant book editor. She began her relationship with her husband—a handsome, bespectacled African-American hipster—as an illicit affair during his first marriage. She drops f-bombs a few times every episode. (Only, of course, in her internal monologues—a regime as repressive as Gilead does not allow such empowering activities as constantly saying the f-word out loud.)
We see no real family—only the husband June has drawn away from his wife, and brief glimpses of a baby daughter. In fact, we see hardly any human relationships at all, besides one friend, Moira, the token black lesbian. We see very little from which June can draw meaning, purpose, or support. Her life is a perpetual rotation between the bedroom and the office. Sex, work; sex, work; sex, work.
It is not a great leap, then, from June’s America to Offred’s Gilead. The family has disintegrated. The government of the United States has fallen. Rigid, meticulous control is maintained over the economy—over every facet of life, in fact. This is not Amy Coney Barrett’s vision of the future—but it is someone’s. Likewise, June’s pre-Gilead life is a world apart from Amy Coney Barrett’s—but it is an eerie reflection of how many Americans live today, especially the faithless.
Gilead, just like its precursor, is best understood as an irreligious state. There is not much faith in Gilead at all—only cynical gaming of means and ends, and a veil of sanctity cast halfheartedly over the game itself. Surrogacy, servitude, violence, power—these are not inventions of religious fanatics. They are functional aspects of the secular world that may take on religious character if a vacuum is left for them to fill.
There is sacred verbiage scattered throughout Offred’s world, and not infrequent calls to prayer. But there is never a sense of deep religiosity, nor even that Gilead is a substantially confessional state. It is, rather, the project of social engineers, merely imbued with the gravity, the fidelity, and even the language properly due to religious matter.
The horrific vision of The Handmaid’s Tale is not what happens when the religious instinct runs too strong, but what happens when it runs in the wrong direction—when man’s natural tendencies towards order, ritual, worship are channeled to places where they don’t belong.