Jelke Boesten explores the continuing relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale and its relationship to gender and memory.
Picture: Anna and Elena Balbusso
I read Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1985) when I was pregnant. I do not recommend doing so; any anxieties of aliens invading my body I might have had were strengthened by reading Atwood’s dystopian novel. So it might not have been the best timing, and I may not have taken in some of its messages, which is why I am even more grateful that we now have Hulu’s adaption for the small screen. I am very much enjoying watching this, because it is beautifully made and an absolutely exciting piece of television, just as the book was so astonishingly beautiful. But it is also an unsettling feminist reflection of what was, might be, or, perhaps even is. One could argue that this is a grotesque amplification of the situation we already find ourselves in –and it is the uneasy feeling that the story’s crazy-ness might be close to actuality that makes it so harrowing.
This review below is not a textual analysis, and certainly not a comparison between book and series (see the superb analysis of Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker), but at this point in time, it seems we need to discuss the questions that The Handmaid’s Tale raises for our contemporary times.
First there is the issue of motherhood – there are so many emotions, but even more questions. What makes a woman a mother? Does one have to give birth to have a bond with a child, does one possess motherhood because of giving birth? Or is motherhood a social construction, to be manipulated, created, fomented, wanted? The question is raised by the forced surrogacy imposed on the handmaids recruited to bear the children of their ‘masters’, as well as by the wives who are then forced to raise those children as their own. These are children born out of ritualised rape; who will love them, and how? How does this resonate with women who might be in similar positions, forced to continue unwanted pregnancies, or pregnancies conceived by force, because their societies do not allow them to abort, and thereby, condone rape?
–Whose child is it, actually? What gives someone the right to claim motherhood, and what makes it possible to genuinely reject it? Does it matter how a child is conceived and who the father is for a mother to establish a bond with a child? In many societies, including Peru, men make the decisions when it comes to women’s bodies, and conception is always legitimised for the sake of it, without any consideration of mother or child. Mothers are always expected to love that child, unless someone else lays claim…rather a double-bind really.
The series also raises issues of threat, violence, and survival. Do you ever wonder why and how people are able to survive the most harrowing cruelties? Why do people keep going? One answer is indeed the threat of pain, and there may be no worse pain than the threat of pain done to one’s loved ones. Is the death of a child indeed the worse thing that can happen to any individual? It certainly seems to be a plausible reason why women and men survive beyond dignity, beyond the imaginable: the idea that one day, you will be reunited, you will be given another chance to care for that child. Or, perhaps they survive in order not to inflict more pain on those loved ones. But are children born of rape necessarily included in that category of ‘loved ones’? The intimacy of the violence inflicted upon women removes the possibility of political resistance, or even of asking such questions, as it is replaced with shame and doubt over ones loyalties, deeply personal emotions.
And intimacy is central to The Handmaid’s Tale, partly because of the isolation of the bodily performance, the ability of the body, both male and female, to perform a sexual act and conceive new life without wanting to. And at the same time, intimacy is not about sex – it might be important for the survival of the species, but it seems utterly irrelevant to the survival of ones’ self-esteem, and hence, sanity. In this version of The Handmaid’s Tale, intimacy is found in a suggestion of trust, words scribbled on a wall, memories of happiness, and in a game of scrabble.
But the series is very political, even if there is little talk of politics. In episode 3, Offred ponders: “Now I am awake to the world. I was asleep before until it had already happened. When they slaughtered Congress we didn’t wake up, when they blamed terrorists, we didn’t wake up. When they suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake then either, they said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. And then gradually heating the bathtub you would be boiled to death before you knew it.” While filmed before Trump came to power, there are so many parallels. And anyone who knows anything about the world beyond the West also knows that much of what we see was and is real for so many people, but it is normalised, legitimised by cultural or religious arguments. In one episode, a lesbian character is deemed ‘gender treacherous’, a brilliant terminology apt for our times as it ultimately confirms the idea of gender as social construction, rather than biological given. ‘They’, the invisible regime, hangs her girlfriend and she has to watch. But they also intern her, drug her, and while she is clinically anaesthetised, her clitoris is removed. She wakes with her vagina bandaged, and is told ‘You cannot want what you cannot have’. This is in so many ways scary science fiction, and in so many more ways actual reality for so many women around world. And generally the genital mutilations, sterilisations, forced abortions and forced pregnancies that so many women undergo throughout the world are done without anaesthesia, with blunt knives and brutal violence while simultaneously inflicting blame and shame on those who are forced to undergo these practices. There is no way out, no collective action possible, it is all too horribly intimate and personal.
The series is brilliantly updated to serve contemporary times –Atwood published her book in 1985, but here, the flashbacks to the pre-bad times talks of mobiles, pay cards, Uber, Lesbian friends, mixed race couples, flexible labour regimes, evolving into increasing racism and sexism in daily life, soon backed up by laws, and then by armed police, threats, and actual violence. But we see no villain, no one is in charge; there is no one authority, no Trump, no Pinochet, not one man manipulating the rest. Rather, there is ‘them’, and as long as we cannot blame anyone specifically, nor meaningfully resist, them is us. It is the ultimate Foucauldian nightmare. Atwood’s novel, and now this smartly updated television adaption, show us a mirror that may unsettle our assumptions about sex, sexuality, gender, power and politics, but it only works if we dare to look.