The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.
— RITA MAE BROWN
I have been watching The Handmaid’s Tale.
Even if (especially if) you’ve read the 1985 book by Margaret Atwood, I encourage you to give the series a try. Because this creation is more than speculative fiction. The characters are made up, but Atwood has confirmed repeatedly that every event depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened somewhere at some time in recorded history.
Offred’s narrative is presented in the context of a present-day post-revolution segment of The United States, but the methods of organized oppression illustrated in this society aren’t hypothetical. Gilead is not a prediction. It’s a depiction of what can happen when hierarchical values are given license to develop into an authoritarian regime.
The tools of hierarchy are insidious. The female characters allied with the powerful men in Gilead are valuable tools of tyrannical enforcement. Privileged women (like Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia), participate in systems that exploit them — herding, subordinating and breaking other women — seemingly unaware that they are reinforcing the bars of their own cage.
None of this is new. In 1949, Simone De Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, woman,” suggesting in our well-rehearsed performance of gender, men are scripted with the masculine traits of action and agency and women are scripted to be demure, compliant and acted upon. She suggests that anything we decide to give our time to is either getting ourselves and others closer to freedom, or further away from freedom. Performing gender clearly restricts freedoms, and as The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates, when we internalize the sexism inherent in our definitions of masculinity and femininity, we collaborate in our own oppression.
Unraveling gender roles and expectations can be discombobulating and frightening. Part of the appeal of a “traditional” society is the nostalgia. People look back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods with the illusion of safety, as if the stories they’ve heard (or remember) represent a world in which things were simpler and more moral.
Even in the rare cases where this was true for some, better for some was certainly not better for all.
I know the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale. I won’t name them here, but I was raised by several of their prototypes. And I can assure you this seemingly unbelievable world is fully possible. Even here.
The control of women and their babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet. The handmaid’s dystopian tale illustrates misogyny already inherent in our social and political system, one in which women are shamed for sexual assault, where restricting access to birth control, limiting dissemination about reproductive options, debating whether a woman (even one who has been raped) is obligated to bear a child she doesn’t want, wrenching babies from their mothers in the name of nationalism, using religion as a basis for public policy, and stigmatizing citizens who worship in other faith traditions is a fait accompli.
So much of this has been normalized, many Americans aren’t outraged, or even disturbed by it.
When politicians can publicly declare that human beings are illegal because they’ve crossed borders for their protection and the protection of their children, that’s an authoritarian regime.
The contrast in the way The Handmaid’s Tale depicts Canada distributing aid to refugees is both poignant and appalling. I cried unabashedly when Luke came in for Moira in the refugee center, torn up by her utter shock (and subsequent relief) that he had listed her as family. Many of us, especially those raised in a theocratic dictatorship, know it’s love, not blood, that makes a family. And our families are as big as our love.
When I was in college, my first humanities professor, Gayle Greene, assigned us Surfacing, another book by Margaret Atwood. I still have my original copy, in which I underlined: This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone. A lie which was always more disastrous than the truth would have been.
No matter what our leaders tell us, when we are asked to violate the sanctity of basic human decency by looking the other way, we can’t remain powerless.
Whether we trust our authority figures or we don’t, to trust and respect ourselves, we must resist the tyranny of the majority and do the next right thing.
Most Americans say they don’t want politics disrupting their sports’ entertainment, but we could all use a reminder of the way social identities, thought crimes, and political dissent are ruthlessly persecuted here and across the globe. As Masha Gessen points out, Pussy Riot’s recent protest message was not intended to be subtle: “In Putin’s Russia, dozens of people are behind bars for political crimes — which do in fact include social-media behavior such as ‘liking’ and ‘sharing.’ Unlike the 2014 Olympics, in Sochi, where Pussy Riot also protested, the World Cup has occasioned little criticism or reflection by Western politicians or media…Pussy Riot became the only people to make a meaningful statement about Russian politics during the World Cup — and it came on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s triumphant meeting with Donald Trump. They also created, on one of the biggest stages in the world, an image of unjust and arbitrary authority, the sort with which a hundred and forty-five million Russians live day to day.”
When the effects of oppression don’t affect you directly, it can be tempting to look the other way, assuming it’s not your problem. While those who have lived under tyranny are more likely to recognize the tools of oppression, empathize with persecuted people and feel compelled to take a stand, art helps widen our empathic opportunities beyond what we’ve personally experienced.
We can’t change those who hurt us, but when we have healed enough to give up hope for a better past, we can participate in freeing ourselves and others from hierarchical power structures that restrict our personal and political freedoms. Once we recognize what’s at stake, we can step into our strength, protest and hold accountable those in power who have abnegated the tenets of love and social responsibility.