The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, needs a trigger warning. It’s “intended for mature audiences,” but it’s hard to watch if you’ve ever been in a relationship with a total imbalance of power, if you’ve ever been pregnant or nursed an infant, or had a child die, or been sexually assaulted. It took me four tries to get through one scene: I kept pausing and switching windows in my browser, so great was my anxiety about what was coming next.
When I first picked up the novel, I was a freshman in college – a preacher’s kid in an interdisciplinary program in Boston. I’d grown up in Midwestern churches, the words of Psalm 19 and the words of institution and my father’s preferred baptismal covenant and benediction etched on my heart. I could recite them from memory years before I entered ministry myself. But when I read Atwood’s novel, which depicts a dystopian future theocracy where women are not allowed to read, much less own anything, work, or maintain bodily autonomy, I did not recognize the ideological roots of the regime as Christian. Atwood’s world-building is incredible; and though I got references to “Loaves and Fishes” and “Milk and Honey,” I felt certain she’d also made up most of the cited religious language. At the Prayvaganza, as a handful of girls are offered in arranged marriage to returned soldiers, the Commander in charge says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection… [For] Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.”
I grew up in churches, but my dad had taken Old Testament with Phyllis Trible in the 1970s. I had no idea what 1 Timothy was about. I was sheltered.
I reread the novel last fall, when #repealthe19th was trending on Twitter. The Nineteenth Amendment, you’ll recall, is the one which grants women the right to vote. The hashtag gained popularity after statistician Nate Silver suggested that if only women voted in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton would win hands down. I’m no stranger now to the realities of misogyny, the ubiquitous evidence of rape culture, even as a privileged white woman, but the threat, however far-fetched, of disenfranchisement seemed to raise the stakes.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, both the show and the novel, a violent act that takes out Congress precipitates the imposition of martial law and ushers in the theocratic, totalitarian regime known as Gilead. Facing cultural upheaval and global infertility, fertile women are assigned to marriages, to serve as handmaids to the wives of powerful men in the manner of the biblical Rachel and her slave Bilhah. These handmaids are infantilized and treated alternately as holy vessels and sluts; they are covered in billowing red dresses and starched white veils; they are stripped of their names, known only in relation to the man they serve, Of-Fred, Of-Stephen, Of-Glen.
After November, it feels all the more timely. Read more