Who's Afraid of The Handmaid's Tale? Not them.

This post contains spoilers

I read The Handmaid's Tale sometime back in the early 1990s.  From what I have read regarding Margaret Atwood's reason for writing the book, she was inspired by Iran.  She wanted to imagine how a secular country could adopt theocratic policies and how that would play out.  The fact that she set the book in the United States rather than her native Canada speaks volumes about how outsiders view the US as a place where such a government could take power.

When I read the book, the Religious Right had completed its stranglehold on the US government.  Ralph Reed had a visible hand in politics and  Congress was touting its racist and Christian-biased Contract with America.  Reading The Handmaid's Tale sent chills down my spine.  I could see such a tragedy happening here.  A religious group had fulfilled its goal of taking over a major US political party and who knew where its agenda would lead?

Most conservative critique I now read about the book and the TV series dismisses The Handmaid's Tale as nothing more than a paranoid liberal fantasy.  The Handmaid's Tale is just a liberal version of Obama's America 2016.  It is meant to stir up fear and hatred.  It doesn't accurately reflect the views of the Religious Right.  They don't want to create a world of forced childbearing and outright male dominance.  All they want is a moral country. 

How exactly do you define a moral country?

The Handmaid's Tale is a bit extreme, but we can't deny the existence of dominionists (or read this if you want a somewhat biased, but more nuanced explanation) in this country.  There are Christian groups who are actively trying to bring the government and the country under Christian control.  They deny the belief in separation of church and state.  They deny the First Amendment gives the freedom for anything other than differing sects of Christianity.  They insist that Christianity is the de facto national religion. If it isn't, then it is their goal to make it that way.  The acceptance of Mike Pence as next in line for president is one example of how dominionists are working their way into the government and how accepting Americans have become.  Another example is how the Duggars, a family who is literally trying to outbreed non-Christians, have become television celebrities.

The Handmaid's Tale is a story of a dominionist government.  The Bible is quoted often  as justification for the laws of Gilead.  The show carefully skirts around comparison to today's Christians by rarely saying "Jesus" or "Christianity" but still manages to imply it.  The language sounds similar to the language fundamentalists use today.  There is no doubt in my mind that The Handmaid's Tale is a depiction of the Biblical utopia so many Christians espouse.

The exact situation shown in the Republic of Gilead isn't likely to happen in the United States.  The story is unique.  The Republic if Gilead was formed partially do deal with global declining birth rates.  It is set in a post-war future where fertility has declined rapidly, presumably due to the effects of war and pollution.  The book implies it is the men who were rendered sterile by war, although the women were blamed.  In the TV show it is not quite so clear where the issues lie.  Low birth rates may not be the only motivation behind the patriarchal takeover of the government, but they are a catalyst.

American feminists today worry the Religious Right wants to reduce women's roles in society to babymakers, and do so by force, without the concern over fertility presented by The Handmaid's Tale. Controlling women's reproduction is an easy way to curtail a woman's direction in life and her economic security.  In the United States, controlling women's reproduction is a way of retaining male power.  In Gilead forcing women to have babies is a matter of human survival.  In some ways Gilead is more tolerant because it has to be.  Today's Christians often bemoan the country's shifting demographics by subtly implying white Christian women need to breed more white Christians.  In Gilead, color no longer seems to matter and black babies are as desirable as white babies.

It's easy to dismiss Gilead as being completely different from the United States today because of these differences.  It is uppity feminists who want to stop having babies.  There are no catastrophic health crises caused by human activity - not war nor global warming nor infections disease - that will render much of the world sterile.  Nobody will force women to have babies.  The Christian goal is  to make it harder for them not to have babies.  That's all.

In early 2017 many conservative women passed memes around the internet claiming that they voted for Donald Trump proudly and fearlessly because they don't have to worry about their rights.  Their rights are just fine, thank you.  What liberals, don't understand, according to them, is that we have it good.  We don't live in the Middle East.  We aren't forced to dress a certain way.  We aren't denied education.  We are allowed to have jobs and own property.  It could be so much worse.  Stop complaining about how expensive birth control is.

Yes, that's the defense.  It could be worse.  We don't live in a theocracy.  We live in a democratic republic with freedom of religion.  Don't complain about your rights because other women have fewer rights.  There are governments out there that want to control your every move.  Christians wanting you to have fewer options about family planning is nothing in comparison.

How bad would it have to be before a Christian woman complained about her rights living in the US?

Right now there are many fundamentalist families who are trying to enforce a what they feel is a Biblical moral code.  The eschew birth control in order to have the largest families possible.  Their hope is to breed as many (white) people like them as possible and take over a society where birth rates are declining (voluntarily in this case). The reality TV stars, the Duggar Family is the most popular and most well known.  They are not the only ones.  There is also the Bates family the Maxwell Family, the Botkin Family (known for its books and documentaries showing how young women should not leave their families or live independently until marriage), and the particularly loathsome Anderson Family (whose patriarch openly espouses  the most vicious hate speech and anti-government conspiracies).    The female children in these families are denied a proper education.  They have to dress a certain way.  Children are not allowed to go out out of the house without an "accountability partner" (aka a sibling to spy on them).  Unsupervised dating is forbidden.  They are not allowed to dance or listen to contemporary music (including CCM).  They can't drink alcohol.  They can't read secular books, watch television, or watch secular movies.  Adult children live at home, still monitored by their parents, often with no degrees and no job that could keep them independent. 

Is this the life Evangelical Christian dominionists desire?  Prior to Josh Duggar's molestation and infidelity scandals, many evangelical Christians looked to the Duggars as role models.  Even more secular Christians admired the Duggars for their presumed peaceful, happy family life.  There are those who argue that they made the choice and it works for them, so the pubic shouldn't criticize them.  (I argue the parents made the choice.  The children have no choice and that's what bothers me.) I don't know anyone in my immediate circle - Christian or not - that would want to live in that kind of isolation and follow those rules, but the fact that so many people look up to them anyway is troubling.  Patriarchy looks appealing when it has a cheerful, pretty (and white) face on it.  What cost would you pay for what you perceive as family happiness?

How many Christians are willing to pay the price of personal freedom for a Christian government?  Would sacrificing your rights be more acceptable under Christianity than it would be under Islam?  Dominionism is much less scary when you are the ones dominating.

I'm going to repeat that, because it is the key to understanding dominionists.  Dominionism is much less scary when you are the ones dominating.

Most white Americans are not concerned with white nationalism as blacks are because they aren't black.  Americans ignored the death camps of World War II for years because most of them weren't Jewish.  The ignored the concentration camps here in the US because they weren't Japanese. Straight people are less concerned about gay rights than gays.  Men are not generally concerned with women's rights. In the same way Christians are less concerned about the loss of rights in a  Christian theocracy because they are on the correct side.  Why fear a government that forces Christianity if you are already Christian?

If you are a Christian, how concerned are you about the plight of non-Christians in this country?   Who cares if tampons are taxed out the wazoo or that insurance companies are allowed to not cover birth control? Who cares that working mothers can't have affordable child care or maternity leave (thus restricting their economic freedom)?  American women are relatively privileged compared to Saudi Arabia.  If you have it bad, you can always try to make yourself feel better by saying others have it worse.  I worry that the concept of relative privilege will carry women, carry Christians, right through the crazy.

There are plenty of Christians out there, even evangelical Christians, who enjoy many aspects of American culture that fundamentalist dominionists would oppose.  They drink alcohol, like secular music, dance, dress in questionable clothing, and have secular educations. They would likely respond in the negative if you asked if they wanted these everyday rights taken from them.  On the other hand, they have many deeply held beliefs about how society should be run and how we should all follow the same moral codes.  Would they be willing to sacrifice some small freedoms in exchange for other rules in their favor?

Would you give up the right to drink alcohol if it meant not only overturning Roe V. Wade, but also making the strictest penalties (even death) for abortion?

Would you accept a standardized dress code if it meant the borders would be close to impenetrable, and entire armies would block possible entry point?

Would you renounce all forms of secular entertainment if it meant homosexuality would be illegal again, or that birth control would be denied to single women and married women could only have it (and pay full price for it) under special circumstances?

Would you give up your right to own property or possess a credit in your own name if it meant schools would only be allowed to teach your Biblical version of history and science?

Here is a more realistic question:  Would you support someone who was accused of molesting children, or someone who wasn't even Christian, if he supported your social agenda?

Take another look at The Handmaid's Tale.  The life of handmaid Offred is one of slavery - lonely and humiliating.  On the other hand, the couple who keeps her resides in the upper echelons of society and they seem to have little to complain about on the surface.

Serena is a high ranking wife and is certainly restricted.  She has to dress a certain way.  We learn in the second season she is forbidden to read or write.  She can't speak out. Despite the negatives, she seems to live well.  The Waterford home is large and commodious (although it's eerily dark).  It is a lovely house by objective standards with a garden, a greenhouse, and an apartment above the garage.  They own an expensive-looking SUV.  Serena even manages to smoke an occasional cigarette.  She and Fred appear to have a strong relationship centered around mutual goals for society.  She may have no power in society at large, but she rules her household in any way she sees fit.  Life is good at the top of the heap.

The strongest contrast between the pious wives and the downtrodden Handmaids is shown in the episode where handmaid Janine (ofWarren) gives birth.  The wives go to the Putnam house to assist Naomi with attending the baby, and the Handmaids go with them to assist Janine with the actual birth.  When the viewer enters the house with Serena and June, we see Naomi lying in a pile of cushions on the living room floor, surrounded by other wives and going through the motions of childbirth.  She is giving birth in her own way with no pain or effort.  She has all of her friends encouraging her to breathe and push, and they do so in a quiet and soothing way, as if chanting.  Upstairs Janine is in the bedroom panting and grunting and pushing as she gives birth for real.  The handmaids surround her with the same instructions to breathe and push, but their voices are more urgent and strained.  They know this is no relaxing simulation.

The Putnam house is as commodious as the Waterford house.  It is beautifully decorated and full of light.  At one point the wives enjoy a beautiful teatime spread in the well-appointed dining room.  June walks in on it and they deign to offer her some coffee and a cookie.  It's clear she wants some of that coffee.  The viewer can tell June hasn't had a cup of coffee in a long time. The cookies are an elegant assortment of macarons.   The sharp contrast between the lives of the sinful caste and the lives of the religious elite was starkly outlined.

This is why Christians aren't afraid of what they see in The Handmaid's Tale.  It's why they don't fear dominionism.  They are the ones on the right side.  In a theocracy the likes of Tomi Lahren, Elizabeth Hasselback, Candace Cameron, Sarah Palin, and Christine O'Donnell (rich white women who already have a level of privilege in society) will be the privileged wives eating cookies.  I and my fellow feminists (along with Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christians) will be the servants, the handmaids, or the slave laborers removing nuclear waste from the prison camp until we die. Maybe prominent Christian women won't have the kind of privileges they had in a secular society, but they will still enjoy lives at the top.  Whatever sacrifices they make they believe will be for the greater good.

I have encountered more than my fair share of extremists who have a single-minded vision for how the world should be.  I don't know what they would be willing to personally sacrifice for what they want.  Many of them are women who believe they have God on their side.  I have heard one batguano crazy religious right winger tell me that any woman who has had an abortion - or is even pro-choice - is incapable of being a good mother. (So in her mind that would be one in three women is a bad mother.  Seventy percent of the entire country is made up of bad mothers.)  There is an extremist blog out there where the female blogger has declared if a woman dies from a dangerous illegal abortion, she deserves it.  (I won't link to the post and will make you take my word for it because I refuse to drive traffic to such an awful blog.)  I don't know how many women agree with these positions, even if they don't say so out loud.  It's terrifying to think these crazy people want control of the country.

It is ironic how liberals are often accused to sacrificing freedom for security.  The world is full of groups who are willing to sacrifice their own interests because they feel it's more advantageous to ally themselves with those in power.  Examples of this are everywhere.  Many of the most prominent black political figures in this country cling to the white stereotypes that institutional racism is not a problem and that African Americans are to blame for their own misfortunes.  There are gay Republicans who are convinced that libertarian ideals will eventually swing society in their favor.  A group of female bloggers and pundits known as the Honeybadger Brigade  not only turn their backs on the movement that gave them their rights and their voice, but they actively support the most extreme misogynist MRA movement.  They compose chef-level word salads trying to prove it's men who are suffering from inequality in this society.

Why not side with the ones in charge?  Rebellion is dangerous.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it gets you killed.  Sometimes having food, clothes, and a roof over your head are more important than principle.  Just like a poor woman might take TANF benefits to make sure her children don't starve will reject the principle of the dignity of work, there are women who are going to reject the principle of equality to make sure she can depend on having a male provider and never have to fear not providing for herself.

The only argument feminists can make is that relying on the support of others can backfire too.  A woman can comply with whatever the men in her life ask in order make sure she and her children are cared for.  The question is whether or not she is prepared for a time when that support runs out.  To hand all the responsibility to a man is as risky as trying to survive on your own.  He can lose his job.  He can die suddenly.  He can leave you.  He can become abusive and make you wish you could leave him.

The second season of The Handmaid's Tale ends with Serena crossing too many boundaries.  She thought because of her high ranking position in society, because of the assistance she gave with her husband's power, she was immune from harm.  Unfortunately, she paid the price.  Her husband beat her.  The government tortured her.   The one thing she wanted most, the reason why she went along with the plan - a baby - was denied her.  She thought by complying she would have everything she wanted and she had nothing.

For those Americans who long for a Christian government, especially women, I have only one thing to say.  Be careful what you wish for.


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