Why You Should Read The Handmaid’s Tale: A Timely Animated Introduction

Prophe­cies are real­ly about now. In sci­ence fic­tion it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many pos­si­bil­i­ties, but we do not know which one we are going to have.

Mar­garet Atwood

There is no need to explain why Mar­garet Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has gone from read­ing like a warn­ing of the near-future to an alle­go­ry of the present after the U.S. Supreme Court’s rul­ing in Dobbs v. Jack­son Women’s Health Orga­ni­za­tion. Atwood’s sto­ry revolves around the fic­tion­al Repub­lic of Gilead, which takes over the U.S. after a fer­til­i­ty cri­sis dec­i­mates the pop­u­la­tion. Overnight, the fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian theoc­ra­cy divides women into two broad class­es – Hand­maids: chat­tel who per­form the labor of forced birth through forced con­cep­tion; and the infer­tile who prop up the patri­ar­chal rul­ing class as wives, over­seers, or slave labor in the pol­lut­ed “colonies.”

It’s a bleak tale, a sto­ry far less about hero­ism than the TV series based on the book would have viewers–who haven’t read it–believe. (The 5th sea­son, slat­ed for this July, seems to have been delayed until Sep­tem­ber with­out expla­na­tion.) Why should we read The Hand­maid­’s Tale? Because it is not only a work of dystopi­an futur­ism, but also a nar­ra­tivized account of what has already hap­pened to women around the world through­out his­to­ry to the present. The nov­el is a prism through which to view the ways women have been oppressed through repro­duc­tive slav­ery with­out the sci-fi sce­nario of a pre­cip­i­tous loss of human fer­til­i­ty.

As Atwood has explained, “when I wrote The Hand­maid­’s Tale, noth­ing went into it that had not hap­pened in real life some­where at some time.” Some of the worst offens­es were not well-known. “Female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion was tak­ing place,” says Atwood, “but if I had put it in 1985 [when the nov­el was writ­ten] prob­a­bly peo­ple wouldn’t have known what I was talk­ing about. They do now.” But we can still choose to over­look the infor­ma­tion. “Ignor­ing isn’t the same as igno­rance,” Atwood says in the nov­el, “you have to work at it.” The quote opens the 2018 TED-Ed les­son by Nao­mi Mer­cer above on Atwood’s book, walk­ing us through its sources in his­to­ry.

The Hand­maid­’s Tale, the les­son points out, is an exam­ple of “Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion,” a form of writ­ing con­cerned with “pos­si­ble futures.” This theme unites both utopi­an and dystopi­an nov­els. Atwood’s books trade in the lat­ter, but any read­er of the genre will tell you how quick­ly a more per­fect fic­tion­al union becomes a night­mare. The Cana­di­an writer has offered this lit­er­ary inevitabil­i­ty as an expla­na­tion for the mul­ti­ple crises of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy:

The real rea­son peo­ple expect so much of Amer­i­ca in mod­ern times is that it set out to be a utopia. That didn’t last very long. Nathaniel Hawthorne nailed it when he said the first thing they did when they got to Amer­i­ca was build a scaf­fold and a prison.

What Atwood does­n’t men­tion, as many crit­ics have point­ed out, are the slave pens and auc­tion hous­es, or the fact that Gilead close­ly resem­bles the slave-hold­ing Amer­i­can South in its theo­crat­ic patri­ar­chal Chris­t­ian hier­ar­chy and ulti­mate con­trol of wom­en’s bod­ies. And yet, the nov­el com­plete­ly side­steps race by hav­ing the Repub­lic of Gilead ship all of the coun­try’s Black peo­ple to the Mid­west (pre­sum­ably for forced labor). They are nev­er heard from again by the read­er.

This tac­tic has seemed irre­spon­si­ble to many crit­ics, as has the show’s side­step­ping through col­or­blind cast­ing, and the wear­ing of red cloaks and white bon­nets in imi­ta­tion of the book and show as a means of protest. “When we rely too heav­i­ly on ‘The Hand­maid­’s Tale,’ which ignores the pres­ence of race and racism,” says activist Ali­cia Sanchez Gill, “it real­ly dehu­man­izes and dis­miss­es our col­lec­tive expe­ri­ences of repro­duc­tive trau­ma.” Atwood’s “pos­si­ble future” pil­lages slav­ery’s past and con­ve­nient­ly gets rid of its descen­dants.

The trau­ma Gill ref­er­ences includes rape and forced birth, as well as the forced ster­il­iza­tions of the eugen­ics move­ment, car­ried out with the impri­matur of the Supreme Court (and con­tin­u­ing in recent cas­es). Kel­li Midg­ley, who found­ed Hand­maids Army DC, offers one expla­na­tion for using The Hand­maid­’s Tale as a protest sym­bol. Though she agrees to leave the cos­tumes at home if asked by orga­niz­ers, she says “we are try­ing to reach a broad­er audi­ence for peo­ple who need this mes­sage. We don’t need to tell Black women that their rights are endan­gered. They always have been.”

Maybe a new mes­sage after Dobbs v. Jack­son Wom­en’s Health Orga­ni­za­tion is that an assault on any­one’s rights threat­ens every­one. Or as Atwood wrote in a Cana­di­an Globe and Mail op-ed in 2018, “depriv­ing women of con­tra­cep­tive infor­ma­tion, repro­duc­tive rights, a liv­ing wage, and pre­na­tal and mater­nal care – as some states in the US want to do – is prac­ti­cal­ly a death sen­tence, and is a con­tra­ven­tion of basic human rights. But Gilead, being total­i­tar­i­an, does not respect uni­ver­sal human rights.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­garet Atwood Releas­es an Unburn­able Edi­tion of The Handmaid’s Tale, to Sup­port Free­dom of Expres­sion

Pret­ty Much Pop #10 Exam­ines Mar­garet Atwood’s Night­mare Vision: The Handmaid’s Tale

Hear Mar­garet Atwood’s Sto­ry “Stone Mat­tress,” Read by Author A. M. Homes 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • John says:

    The Supreme Court deci­sion just makes it an issue for the states. At the end of the day, how­ev­er, abor­tion is the only fer­til­i­ty cri­sis fac­ing our Repub­lic.

  • Handsome Jack says:

    Hand­maid­’s Tale is more dam­ag­ing to wom­en’s minds than the media could EVER wish video games could ever pos­si­bly be to men. HT is based on ISLAMIC sharia law and uses a sto­ry from Judaism. Fun­ny how all these women cos­play­ing in ‘pseu­do-hijabs’ aren’t being called Islam­o­pho­bic or Anti-semet­ic.

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