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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Wants Us to Heed the Threat of ‘Fundamentalism’
It’s no coincidence that The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu original series based on the Margaret Atwood book of the same name, is being released now, more than 30 years after the book’s publication. Capitalizing upon a the parallels between its fictional American dystopia and the distress that many people feel at the current state of American politics, The Handmaid’sTale has been celebrated as a timely entry into the conversation about where we are headed as a nation. In particular, the show makes an uncomfortable connection between the contemporary political language of a “war on women”, as heard in the last several presidential election cycles, and the actual war on women in The Handmaid’s Tale, where women are enslaved, mutilated, raped, beaten, and killed.
The villains of The Handmaid’s Tale are fundamentalist Christians who, after a violent revolution, run a totalitarian theocratic republic called Gilead in place of the secular state—an echo of the Islamic Republic established in Iran after the 1979 Revolution, around the time when Atwood penned her novel. The highest function of women in this fearful new world is to bear children. Infertility and infant mortality rates, however, are through the roof, so when a member of the pious ruling class cannot have a child, the state sends her a “handmaid” to conceive in her place.
The handmaid system provides sexual surrogacy, the depiction of which, once seen, will not soon be forgotten—especially as it is set against a track of “Onward Christian Soldiers” in the show’s most heavy-handed moment. The whole scenario is reminiscent of the story of Hagar in the Old Testament, in which Sarah arranges to have her husband sleep with her handmaid Hagar as an unauthorized workaround in fulfilling God’s promise that Sarah and Abraham would have a child.
Of course, for a theocratic state run by biblical literalists, emulating Sarah’s example is a mighty strange interpretation, since, as any kid in Sunday School knows, Sarah’s circumvention of God’s plan didn’t exactly turn out well for everyone involved. And unfortunately, that confusion is just one of the many narrative elements that make little sense in The Handmaid’s Tale. Much of this incoherence is the result of utilizing fundamentalist Christianity as the basic framework for this particular dystopia without demonstrating any understanding of what fundamentalist Christianity is actually about.
Admittedly, what the story lacks in coherence, it nearly makes up for in visual beauty. The muted tones and carefully considered aesthetic of this society provide a chilling (and effective) contrast to the horrors it contains. A few minutes into the first episode, we see Offred (Elisabeth Moss), handmaid of the title, wearing a simple red dress and white cap, sitting in a chair, her hands folded in her lap. She is in a sparsely furnished bedroom with light streaming through a window across the hardwood floor, a Whistler painting come to life. Offred is entirely still. If we didn’t see the previous scene—a flashback in which she was terrorized and abducted, her young daughter stolen from her as they tried to flee to the Canadian border—we might even be lulled into thinking that everything is alright in Offred’s world, even beautiful.
But we know that it is not. Offred, no longer allowed to speak her mind, is reduced to uttering nothing more than pseudo-religious inanities. Only her interior monologue allows us to understand what is really happening, both inside her head and in the world around her. Her interior rage and fear are in sharp contrast to the society she lives in, which offers a superficial serenity with an aesthetic reminiscent of a 19th-century community of Shakers—plus machine guns. Everyone has their place, whether it is making bread or babies, and they’ve got the uniform to prove it. (As in Maoist China, their clothing indicates their status and work, except that in The Handmaid’s Tale, the dress code is meant to reinforce inequality, not erase it.)
The serenity of these true believers with their well-ordered lives is in tension with their reality, which is chaos and mayhem. The veneer is held in place only by a religious class system enforced by brute strength, represented in the series by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), a teutonic enforcer-of-all-trades. Aunt Lydia is ever present, which becomes one of the most surreal elements in a narrative chock full of them. Whether leading indoctrination classes, a rape–revenge execution, wielding a Taser during interrogation, or assisting in a baby’s birth, Aunt Lydia is there, having apparently broken the glass ceiling of oppression. Oddly, in this narrative of female enslavement, the women manage to do the work of the men even when it comes to their own abuse.
But how did it come to this? In a fictional dystopia, it usually isn’t necessary to ask this question. The power of The Hunger Games, for instance, isn’t lessened by the fact that there are not clear-cut, real-world parallels to its fictional elements. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, demands that we ask how such things came to pass, since it is clear that the primary message of the story is that this nightmare could be our reality. And if the show insists on offering a glimpse into a possible future, then it also owes us a blueprint for how to keep this future from happening.
Margaret Atwood has said in interviews that she built the more horrific elements of her story on real episodes in human history (the Salem witch trials and the treatment of women in Afghanistan are just a few examples she cites). According to Atwood, she wrote the story this way to give credibility to the other-worldliness of the horror, to help readers (and now viewers) take it seriously.
The fact that the Republic of Gilead is actually situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, along with its use of ideas found in fundamentalist Christianity as a catalyst for remaking society, means that things have to make sense: This fiction needs to be seen in relation to reality. Not only does the narrative’s internal logic need to prevail, but its external one does as well. We are necessarily being asked to see the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale in light of the ideology of actual fundamentalist Christians and in light of how our society actually treats women.
This, in short, is where The Handmaid’s Tale stumbles. Its lack of external logic grows into a narrative flaw too large to ignore, no matter how beautiful and visually arresting the storytelling itself may be. If viewers are supposed to be learning their lesson about how the Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale came about so that we can avoid it, then we need to know just how these people got to where they are. The occasional flashback to Offred’s life “before,” when her name was “June” and she had a typical middle class life, has, at least in the first several episodes, not illuminated what brought about the absolute destruction of centuries-old American pluralism. These flashbacks offer glimpses of June’s life “back in the day,” when she partied with her pals, wrote academic papers on sexual assault, and worked as a designer in a fancy firm; however, nothing cataclysmic seems to have happened to remake the Western world into a place where women can’t hold jobs or have bank accounts—no energy crisis, no massive epidemic, nothing. Americans were not living in caves and urinating into old Coke bottles when the religionists took their rights away.
So far, the only answer The Handmaid’s Tale has given to how the world got to such a state has been “fundamentalism.” The narrative assumes the received wisdom that Christian fundamentalism in particular parallels that of the Taliban, and that no case needs to be made that a particular segment of Christianity in America could not only grow dominant enough to present a threat but also harbor an ideology capable of fueling a militarized revolution in the first place.
Definite problems arise from those assumptions. For one thing, fundamentalists in this country barely have the means to fund anything, let alone a war. Furthermore, anyone who understands American Christian fundamentalism also understands that it does not scale up; instead, it tends to thrive at the local level. Most Christian fundamentalists live sectarian lives because they are opting out of larger society to create small fiefdoms. The relative success of Moral Majority–types in getting on school boards and creating a voting bloc notwithstanding, Christian fundamentalism is unsuited to power politics on a large scale, since Christianity is by definition based on individual, unmediated communion with God. Individual faith which yields to no man’s authority in matters of conscience does not lend itself to highly centralized governance like the one that a society as regimented as that of The Handmaid’s Tale would demand, with its clockwork precision.
This is not a minor quibble, since the entire conceit of the show is that we watch and take heed, lest we head down this same path of totalitarianism. The irony of utilizing fundamentalist Christianity as a narrative framework is that, here in the real world, evangelicals, including fundamentalists, have been doubling down on the idea that Christians should opt out of American society, not take it over—especially if this takeover would involve massacring members of Congress and burning the Constitution the way it does in The Handmaid’s Tale. This particular path toward a theocratic state would be especially painful for all those strict Constitutionalists and conservative Christians currently holding congressional seats alongside their secular American brothers and sisters.
The fact that the story doesn’t make sense wouldn’t matter if we weren’t being asked to make sense of it, of course—to find meaning in its depiction of this clear and present danger. It is undeniably true that women have been, and continue to be in many places, systematically dehumanized and brutalized by their fellow human beings. But are we really moving toward this sort of subjugation in our own society? It’s a question worth asking—one that watching The Handmaid’s Tale demands, with its insistence on grounding the story in the very real phenomenon of American fundamentalist Christianity. Instead of making the story more plausible, however, this framework only serves to undermine it.
If the viewer wants to extend the grace of seeing The Handmaid’s Tale as nothing but a metaphor—which is grace indeed for a show that seems determined to be taken literally—then the story does resonate. Indeed, the greatest truth that The Handmaid’s Tale has to offer is that no matter the place, no matter the time, evil remains. In this, the narrative is effective—and it is no small thing to be reminded of our capacity for evil, to be provided with a check on our hubris in thinking we are civilized, that we are infinitely progressing.
One thing The Handmaid’s Tale gets undeniably right, in other words, is this: We do bad stuff, and we need personal, unmediated divine intervention to do otherwise. Even Offred knows this. In her despair, even as the theocrats destroy everything and everyone she loves, she still prays: “God, help me.”
S.D. Kelly is an editor for Christ and Pop Culture. She lives with her family in coastal Massachusetts, where she runs a community nonprofit.