The media on both sides of the Atlantic have been falling over themselves to point to The Handmaid’s Tale as some kind of foreshadowing. Like 1984 and Brave New World before it, it’s held up as a warning of things to come if we don’t take a step back from the brink. I’m sure I’ll be accused of “mansplaining” or “not getting it”, but I cannot see this happening in The West anytime soon even under Trump who is more of an opportunist than anything else.
This is a President who seemingly can’t even repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act and is finding opposition in industry and academia in his stance to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement. Secondly, we are more deeply secular than that to allow such an extremist group as The Sons of Jacob to rise up and seize power. The lessons of history are clear from before and after World War II. There are simply too many who will stand against it. The protests in wake of Trump’s election prove that.
Gilead – the fictional state that seizes 48 of the US states – is held up as the natural end game of “Patriarchy” – that semi-mythical boogeyman of feminism that believes all men have all the power and all the privilege over all women at all times. Leaving aside this reductionist nonsense that stops short of suggesting that a homeless white man on the streets of New York has more privilege than Oprah Winfrey because he has a penis and because he’s white, the inconvenient truth in any extremist society dominated by men is the extent to which women themselves are complicit in the subjugation of their half of the species.
First held up as a mere bit-part and victim of the extremist religious group, her history proves to be anything but the wife with the weight of The Patriarchy on her shoulders. Her actions towards Offred/June flit between mild kindness (when she thinks Offred is pregnant) to varying levels of cruelty the rest of the time. Again, we can suggest she is a victim of the situation and just trying to get by. That is until we learn that before the rise of The Sons of Jacob, Mrs Waterford was an academic feminist. But how could she turn so?! Perhaps her Alpha Male husband laid The Patriarchy on her ass? No, because the next revelation of Mrs Waterford is that she was responsible for writing the academic paper that effectively gave The Sons of Jacob the fuel for their coup de tat. But the icing on the cake came in the final episode when Mrs Waterford states outright “I know the laws [of Gilead]. I wrote most of them.”
In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, fertile women are reserved for the dubious privilege of becoming a Handmaid. They are effectively little more than walking, talking incubators tied as concubines to the leaders of Gilead. Her job is to give him a baby before being moved on to the next one, rinse and repeat. Before these women are able to go out into the world for their new role, they spend time in a special school to learn the meaning of obedience and their duty to procreate.
The teachers in these schools are not the black-clad men with guns, but middle-aged women whose cruelty rivals only their indifference to the suffering that they inflict on the Handmaids. The Aunts are the discipline for the Handmaids, the one who keeps them in line. When the Handmaids are called on to carry out on execution by stoning – it is the Aunts egging on the Handmaids. In one early episode, we see a man brought before the crowd to be stoned to death. According to the Aunt present, he raped a Handmaid. But a reading of the background info behind the book suggests he was not a rapist, merely a political opponent of the government.
The Betrayed Wife
In the final episode, one of the Commanders is hauled up before the Council to answer to charges of adultery and covetousness. He admits that what he did was wrong and that he’d never do it again. Commander Waterford appeals for clemency – after all, aren’t we all sinners? The council disagrees; they feel he deserves punishment for what he did. Besides which, they must respect the request of the party calling for the highest punishment – his wife. She felt that nothing less than chopping off his hand would be sufficient punishment. Chopping off his hand… for lust and sleeping with another woman. The council decides that the wishes of the wife must be respected.
While The Handmaid’s Tale is a fictional narrative about a religious extremist organisation, it points to the reality of female complicity in any extremist government of a “Patriarchal” nature. I must state, once again, that should the desired feminist utopia ever appear, it will not be the world of unicorns where we all shit rainbows in the name of universal harmony. To suggest that only men are capable of extremist actions, of violence and subjugation is as dismissive of human nature as it is pompous.