“Our BODIES, our LIVES, our RIGHTS, our FUTURE”, chants the website of the women’s rights organisation poignantly titled the Handmaid Coalition. Formed in response to the outcome of the 2016 American Presidential election, which, they claim, “changed us all”, this collective are “fighting to ensure fiction does not become reality”. But why would a modern feminist group home in on Margaret Atwood’s fictional extreme theocratic dystopia to hallmark their contemporary political concerns?
In The Republic of Gilead, the fictional country of The Handmaid’s Tale, a patriarchal theocracy dictates, in which women have been reduced entirely to the functionality of their reproductive organs. Atwood’s dystopian America sees women socially categorised by their obedience and procreational use. The titular handmaids are the fertile few, forced to be surrogate mothers via an unbelievably perverse sexual ritual coded ‘The Ceremony’. Gilead is obsessed with control over women, including stunting their sexuality, blocking their communication with one another (via the infamous blinkered handmaid costumes) and pitting them against each other.
These are outcomes that the Handmaid Coalition, as well as many other commentators, have seen disturbing echoes of today. One of these is women’s right to choose abortion, which is often contested by proponents of religion, conservatism and patriarchal tradition. The Guttmacher Institute reported that although abortion is legal in the US, state restrictions sharply increased in 2011. In general, state laws differ across the US, making it harder or easier for a woman to have an abortion. The aggressively masculine Trump administration has been cutting funding for contraception services nationally. Elsewhere, in the Republic of Ireland, abortion remains illegal, although a referendum on the topic is planned for this coming summer. Anti-abortion laws restrict the right of a woman to choose what to do with her own body. A state and part-societal obsession with pro-life reflects a schema that envisions women as primarily reproductive entities, just as in The Handmaid’s Tale. The theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale is so anti-women because it is controlled by men. According to United Nations Women: “Only 22.8 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995”. Generally, it isn’t women who are taking away women’s right to choose, but men. As long as those in power are majority male, women are subject to the influence and decisions of men and therefore suffer inequalities due to their gender. The 2017 television adaptation placed great emphasis on the rapid escalation of America into a totalitarian regime. In it, we see the protagonist Offred’s story unfold, interrupted with flashbacks to her life before the fundamentalist revolution in a shockingly modern setting, a surprise to those expecting to see the distanced 1980s. This modernisation is a disorientating reminder of how quickly a democratic state can become a dictatorship without being challenged by powerful individuals or group resistance. This is a reminder of the necessity of resistance groups and political unity in the face of growing oppression. Many platforms and groups have been set up across the West to challenge, or reinforce, Trumpian notions, untrustworthy news sources and anti-Brexit sentiment.
However, in a fake-news signally society where Trump is president, there has been much concern over the collapse of democracy. Trump’s anti-migrant, pro-borders, individualistic leadership combined with populist support, as well as his stubborn dislike for fact-checking, doesn’t bode well for the future of rational, cooperative leadership.
Access to the international world, reading and political discussions are forbidden in Atwood’s Gilead. Are fake news and personal echo chambers achieving a similar effect in Trump’s America? Trump’s tendency to accuse huge media outlets of outright lying and to encourage ‘alternative news’ has contributed to a sense of living in a post-truth world, exacerbated by social media algorithms and the democratisation of news sources, making accurate and impartial information increasingly difficult to source or to trust. The unhelpful effect of this is to create a society which cannot converse with itself.
The Handmaid’s Tale imagines the ease with which society could drain any ‘extraneous’ rights afforded to women, skinning ‘the second sex’ down to their ultimate societal function; reproduction. Although women can vote, work, drive and the like, there are many situations in which women remain defined and constrained by gender (domestic workloads, street harassment, gender pay gaps, etc). This is arguably because the supposedly liberal West still sees women, primarily, as procreational beings. The Handmaid’s Tale reminds modern audiences of surviving reductive perceptions of women, and hopefully promotes fuller liberation.