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Five Things I Want from The Handmaid’s Tale


Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985

This past Monday, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time.  I am a huge fan of both feminism and science fiction, and feminist science fiction is one of my passions.  That being said, people have been recommending this book to me for years and I’ve just never read it before.  And I have to say that, after all the hype, I found this book to be lacking in a few key areas.  So here are some things that I wanted from The Handmaid’s Tale.

1) More information on the fundamentalist wackos who took over the country, especially their theology.

My biggest problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is its believability, or lack thereof.  We are supposed to accept that in just a handful of years, a society with an active and vocal feminist movement could become Gilead —  it’s preposterous.  I think one of the reasons the world felt so false was because the actual theology of Gilead — its dogmas, its doctrines, all of it — was never developed beyond a vague “Let’s use the Bible to justify violence against women.”  Sure, there’s lots of quoting of Paul riddled throughout the book, but it’s all of the Paul passages that say questionable things about women.  For someone who has never studied the Bible or any type of theology, maybe that’s sufficient.  But for me, it’s not.

Because I’ve studied Christian theology, and I’ve studied within that the way women are treated in the Bible and the way women have been treated throughout the history of the Christian church, so I know that not only is the biblical interpretation presented in the book profoundly heretical, but not enough to establish a fundamentalist religious society.  If this is a Christian society, as we are led to believe by the use of Paul and the altered Beatitudes, then what are their views on the person of Jesus Christ?  How do they interpret the book of Revelation?  Do they have a sacramental or an ordinal view of the Lord’s Supper?  Do they uphold salvation through grace?  These are the sticking points of a religion that people become fanatic about.  Gender roles and family structure are only a part of what makes a fundamentalist religion work.

The closest The Handmaid’s Tale gets to exploring the underlying theology of this “Christianity” is when the new government offers the Jews a chance to immigrate or convert.  The Jews are “sons of Jacob,” and thus deserve some kind of exception.  This attitude resembles dispensational eschatology, which holds this idea that God’s plan was always all about the Jews, and the whole Christianity thing is kind of a plan B, and in the end times, God is going to go back to plan A with the Jews.  So the religion of Gilead is a little bit dispensational, I guess.  Maybe.


A nice infographic depicting dispensational end times theology. Note the millennial reign of Christ coincides with Israel being supreme.

2) A better timeline.

I understand that Offred is supposed to be in this first generation of women who are suddenly subjected to the heinousness of Gilead, and so then all of her misty-eyed remembrances of Take Back the Night are all the more poignant and tragic.  But no.  How much time has passed since Offred was in college (at Harvard, no less)?  Ten to twelve years.  She’s thirty three at the end of the book.  She’s only been separated from her daughter for three or four years.  And yet, throughout the book we see Offred judging tourists for wearing the same clothing that she herself had been wearing just three years ago, and forgetting how to spell, and forgetting how to put on makeup (which she had done probably every day for years and years and years until just three years ago), and generally accepting her role in life as a Handmaid, which to her feminist sensibilities that were being reinforced until just three years ago ought to be reprehensible.  But beyond Offred’s personal journey of three years from women’s rights activist to professional breeder, the political and cultural journey from the United States to Giliead makes no sense for just three years of time. The world surrounding the United States at the time of its collapse would not have allowed Gilead to happen.  Human rights organizations from around the world would have come pouring in, military operations from the US’s allies (and probably their enemies, too) would have fought the Gilead army in defense of the US.  The kind of total takeover that Gilead is able to procure in just three years is impossible.

3) Skymall.

This one is a little bit particular to my reading experience.  I read The Handmaid’s Tale on Monday, over the course of an eight hour flight from Lisbon to Philadelphia.  So Skymall was right in front of me the whole time while I was reading.  When I say Skymall, though, I really mean anything absurd.

You gotta hand it to Skymall, though-- they are really great at absurd.

You gotta hand it to Skymall, though — they are really great at absurd.

There’s a scene between Offred and the Commander.  He’s been “inviting” her to his private study, to play Scrabble and to use hand lotion and to read.  The first time he gives her something to read, it’s a magazine.  It’s a copy of Vogue.  And Offred is in shock that he has a real magazine, because they were all burned by the government for their illicit content (aka pictures of ladies in proximity to words).  The Commander talks about Vogue like it’s a collector’s piece and worth a lot of money.  Offred flips through the pages and scrutinizes the fashions and the makeup and the women with their exposed, immodest skin.  She thinks about how she never has to worry about runny mascara or washing her face ever again.  It’s supposed to be this real touching moment where you see how makeup and fashion and beauty standards are both cultural and patriarchal, no matter what the culture.  Makeup and fashion are just as restrictive as the red Handmaid frock, in their own way.

Have boobs like this Vogue cover or die!

Have boobs like this Vogue cover or die!

When I read that scene, I rolled my eyes.  Yes, I get it — our fashion standards are created by an industry with men in mind.  Men control fashion.  Yes.  I read The Beauty Myth, too (which is slightly unfair to say, since The Beauty Myth was published after The Handmaid’s Tale, but still).  What I really wanted from that scene was for the magazine to be Skymall instead of Vogue.  Having something like Skymall being revered as a collector’s item, something that men are willing to pay good money for, is comical.  It borders on the absurd.  Vogue, on the other hand, is already considered a fashionable magazine, of course it would be a collector’s, and isn’t it a handy metaphor for female oppression in the pre-Gilead age?  Skymall would have stretched the boundaries of Gilead beyond just the constant emphasis on the subjugation of women.  Vogue is a women’s magazine; of course it has been banned and destroyed. But to have something like Skymall in its place would show the extent of the censorship in Gilead.  Skymall is not a women’s magazine.  It’s mostly full of pictures of stuff.  But there are makeup and perfume adds that are highly sexual mixed in with the ten-inch garden gnomes and fancy pet beds that I’m sure the government would have wanted to destroy.  Vogue is obvious.  Make Skymall your contraband, and the reader laughs uneasily because if Skymall is already absurd, how absurd and sinister is banning it.

4) A truer representation of the United States.

From 2007

From 2007

I’m sorry, but there is no way that the United States would suspend the Constitution in order to establish internal peace and control after a terrorist attack.  And in 1985, when the book was published, I cannot believe that anyone would buy that.  Who knows, maybe they could have.  Obviously they did, because The Handmaid’s Tale is considered a classic.  But for me, who has lived in the post 9/11 world for over half of my life, I just cannot buy it.  Because I know what happens when there are terrorist attacks in the United States that are linked to Islamic extremists (the cover that Gilead uses to attack the US and make it crumble).  The US doesn’t go into panic mode and suspend the Constitution.  The US attacks the Middle East.  That’s what happened in real life after real Islamic extremists attacked the US, and that’s what would have happened in the US if fake Islamic extremists would have attacked the US.  The US has a political and military culture that doesn’t crumble after a few isolated incidents.  The US fights back, and then picks fights with others when it can’t win the fights it’s already in, so that the US is always fighting.  I don’t think this is a recent development, either.  I think the US has always been this way, even before 9/11, and I don’t think that it’s going to change.

5) Offred, masturbating (or stealing, or something).

Offred — doing anything completely for herself and no one else.  I want this, and I cannot have this.  Offred has no agency in society, that’s the entire point of the book.  Offred has no agency, it’s awful, it’s terrible, isn’t that sad.  Don’t let that happen to you.  But unlike Moira, who fights and fights against the system and constantly takes action, Offred doesn’t.  She lets things happen to her.  Until she decides to start sleeping with Nick on a regular basis, which happens in the last fifty pages of the book, she literally does nothing.  She has things done to her, she has many things done to her, but she never acts out.  She never seeks to claim anything as her own.

At least Movie Offred gets to be sexy (?).

At least Movie Offred gets to be sexy (?).

She often thinks of stealing something.  Okay, good — she wants to take control back.  But then she never does.  She never steals anything.  Even when she does finally get up to think about stealing something, she doesn’t go through with it.  I want her to wait in that sitting room until Nick is gone, and then take that flower.  Or better yet, I want her to take that flower right in front of Nick’s face and steal it.  Then the whole drama with Nick could start sooner, and I could actually feel like there might be consequences to her sleeping with him.

I want to see Offred masturbating, and I want to see her get in serious trouble for it.  If this is a society built on the repression of women who, until just three years ago, had jobs and social mobility and sexual agency, there should be a lot more frustration among the women.  Instead, we see the women give up sexual pleasure for the greater good of childbearing with no problem.  We see Offred, who began her relationship with her husband Luke as a hotel-hopping affair, completely complacent about her own sexuality throughout the entire book.  Even when she starts sleeping with Nick, we never see her orgasm.  Masturbation is a solitary act, pleasure for pleasure’s sake and nothing else, an act of control and dominance.  Offred, and all of the women of Gilead, have lost any meaningful control or dominance in their lives.  So yes, they should be masturbating.  They should be experimenting with their frustration.  And they should, on occasion, get caught and publicly shamed.  This would reinforce the total control that Gilead has over its people.  Yet the fact that she did it would still remain.  Offred would navigate her own body and remember that yes, in fact, she is human.  Offred would steal from the house and collect things in her room and remember that yes, in fact, she can do something about her situation to improve her mood.  Offred would do anything, anything at all for some small personal rebellion, and I would believe in her.  Instead, she does nothing for herself that her society would view as sinful until she starts sleeping with Nick, and even that sequence stresses the emotional solace that he gives her instead of showing any type of agency from Offred.  I wanted to see Offred sin.  As she is though, she isn’t quite human.


One thought on “Five Things I Want from The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. here’s a thing: (i read the book many years ago, saw the film adaptation and am at the 2nd episode of the current iteration) I had the impression that whatever was causing infertility was well established at the time of her (June/Offred) pregnancy. Once an ongoing existential threat is perceived by only a significant minority (say 40%) of a population then groups get targeted , constitutions get suspended, the terms of national security get broadened. and people find themselves living in camps in fairly short order.
    I suspect that Margaret Atwood set the time frame at around 3 years as this mirrors the span of time from Hitler’s appointment as chancellor to his consolidation of power on crystal night.
    i agree that more detail of the rise of a theocracy would be nice. is Offred’s location typical, or a “model” town occupied by leaders of the new Gilead? However, perhaps theocracy is only a convenient cover for underlying motivations? i.e. religion provides justification (and reinforcement) for pre-existing misogyny.
    I’d also like more on the social position of “wives”. i can see that they have some analogy to house slaves and it would make sense for them to be zealots as their status (above martha and handmaid, below men) is solely supported by the framework of religion that is to say: they cannot work, they cannot bear children and (presumably) do not engage in intercourse , they do not nurture children (we see that indoctrination is a collective affair).

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