You’ve probably heard that a tv show just came out based on Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Reading the book came on my radar because their marketing is just that good. But so is their decision to bring this series out in 2017.
It is a timeless book but a timely show. A rightwing Christian sect murder’s representatives of American democracy, takes over a section of the country, and protects it with arms. And that’s before the book has even started. There is some kind of incident that has created a majority population with infertility. Lineage and reproduction become a key political issue that requires removing the rights of some for the good of all.
The Hunger Games series revisited the archetype of structuring a new society, and might be more familiar to everyone. The colonies, outside the wealth of the capital, are tasked in groups to do the hard work that allows the elites to prosper. Agriculture, mining, etc. In Atwood’s work, those in the middle or bottom castes that act outside of the strict rules are killed without guilt. An example of this, and of the forced adherence to gender/sexual binaries, is found with “Gender Traitors”. Within those groups, regular workers are put to death while maidens who would otherwise have that fate are instead tortured into compliance. So long as fertile cis women can remain able to conceive, other physical injuries don’t matter.
As a cis man reading this, there are themes within this work that will never directly affect me. Both within the story, theoretically, but also in how it echoes with today. That absolutely impacts my reading but also highlights the necessity of it. My value has never depended upon my ability to reproduce. Here, though, fertility is the only value able to elevate women.
The book is told through a female lens that examines the advantages given, and taken, by men. Hinted at, but never confirmed, is the fact that men also have infertility issues. In a return to historical beliefs on this, the blame is laid within the womb and wickedness of the maidens. An overlay of religion suggests that handmaids can be returned to piety and then successfully be impregnated. At a time when we’re seeing regained ground on restricted access to birth control, abortions, and female bodily autonomy– we can see the return of hidden systems to gain access to these. Within Handmaid’s Tale, we see the same dangerous dealings, but in attempts to become pregnant.
Pregnancy shields women in a variety of ways. They face less violence from high ranking males. The religious stricture eases because you have fulfilled your duty. Their quality of life is temporarily bettered due to the elevation in status and worth. Those familiar with The Giver will recognize that theme. The Birthmothers, literally referred to as Vessels, have a period of better care to increase viable pregnancies.
Atwood’s work here helped create the structure that led to these more recent releases. And with the help of this show, I hope that Handmaid’s Tale, with its more definitive focus on reproductive rights, will become part of our current discourse.