The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that has recently been adapted into a television series on Hulu. It is the story of a religious society that has taken over after the fall of the United States Government. After society crumbles, the Republic of Gilead is in control.
The central point of the society is the role of women. The story is told from a handmaid, a woman who is forced into a life of reproductive activity. Due to various reasons, infertility has risen and a limited number of women are able to bear children. These women become handmaids.
While this is clear oppression of women, is the society misogynistic or indiscriminately tyrannical?
In the first episode of the television adaptation, there are three bodies seen hanging from a building. These three bodies are a gay man, abortion doctor, and a priest. In a misogynistic society, why would there be men who were prosecuted if the country is now targeting women?
One suggestion is that the hanging of an abortion doctor implies an attack on women’s rights. Frequently, the topic of abortion is turned into an argument about a woman’s body and her rights. While this neglects philosophical, moral, or scientific arguments in defense of the unborn child, the point is still made here.
At the same time, what about the gay man and the priest? Homosexuality is clearly a crime. Not only was there a man who was hung for being gay, later there is a woman who is hung for having a lesbian relationship. Those who engage in these acts are labeled as “gender traitors.”
It is clear that while women are oppressed under the Republic of Gilead, there is a greater statement about tyranny.
In modern America, the government has a lot of power available in case of an emergency. If martial law were to be declared, the Constitution would be suspended and the country would be at the mercy of the few. Will the top of a government hierarchy always be honorable and trustworthy?
The story shows a quick fall for the country. After an alleged attack on the United States, the response was martial law. The Constitution was suspended and then a range of laws were put into place, including the freezing of bank accounts. Government in real life already has a great deal of control over the banking industry over terrorist concerns.
Martial law is the absence of accountability and a lack of rights. History shows us that the suspension of constitutions never ends well.
Instead of attempting to look at a specific gender message in the story, people should look deeper to the statement being made about society. An attack, real or staged, can be used to enact authoritarian laws. After the United States was attacked on September 11th, 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act passed. This legislation was a sweeping power grab, despite obvious conflicts with the Constitution. Various moves over the following years would be made, all under the guise of combating the bad guys.
If the Republic of Gilead is truly a misogynistic society, which it is to a degree, it was made possible by tyranny enabled by a crisis. Many are too quick to offer blind consent to a government out of fear. It happened during World War II when the United States Government forced Japanese Americans into internment camps. War hysteria was used to suspend the due process rights of American citizens.
Have we learned anything as a society?
The Handmaid’s Tale is an intriguing story that speaks to the struggles of women. But more importantly, it speaks to the power of tyranny and the ascension of authoritarians during a crisis. This is more important, because the inequality against various groups was made possible by power gained through fear.