Hulu is finally ponying up with its own original series, using Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale as its premise. At the same time, the AHCA or “Trumpcare” has been under review, passing Congress and headed to the Senate. Some of the plan’s most vocal detractors are those who note that “women’s health” issues are considered pre-existing conditions and as such Health Care companies can legally refuse coverage for them: Pregnancy, Anorexia, Bulimia, Hysterectomy, C-Section, and Post-Partum Depression. Conversely, Erectile Disfunction is not listed as a pre-existing condition. Is this evidence of the GOP’s priorities, preserving the status quo (a patriarchal agenda) at the continued expense (both literal and figurative) of minorities, women and children?
Given the timing of the new series and the AHCA, it’s an interesting time to be a woman. And by interesting, I mean welcome to dystopia.
If you’ve continued to read, I will be sharing spoilers of both the novel and the show to discuss women’s issues, so be forewarned.
An OP this week by scholar Taylor Petrey in the Deseret News talks about how church culture has shifted from progressive values to near total alignment with conservative politics, a shift that represents a change to core values:
Mormons from an earlier era were not only more politically diverse, they also were champions of various progressive social movements, including women’s rights and economic and social welfare institutions. The rise of Mormon conservatism was a reframing of values, not an inevitable interpretation of the tradition.
Petrey continues, pointing out some of the specifics to conservativism that he views as moral failings:
The appropriation of the religious right’s values made sex and gender issues central to political identity and organizing — against women’s and LGBT rights — in the name of “family values.” While it often strung together some short-term victories against the Equal Rights Amendment and same-sex marriage, these victories were futile in the long run. The legal and cultural changes came about anyway.
It also turns out that conservative political approaches have little impact on strengthening families. Progressive values like greater marriage equality and educational opportunities for women have produced more stable marriage rates and could complement Mormon interests in the family. Further, these wins were counterproductive by creating bad will among members and potential friends and converts to the church. For Americans age 18-29 — the group most likely to support progressive politics — Mormons are the least liked by a wide margin.
Petrey’s observations match my own, that the increasing alignment with the GOP has altered many of the progressive elements to our doctrines that were familiar in my youth. As a result, many of Atwood’s dystopian observations, although an exaggeration of our current state, make poignant commentary about the underlying aims of social conservativism that are familiar in a church culture context, specifically as it relates to women’s rights. Obviously her novel is an extreme view; that’s the point of literature as social commentary. She presents a world that, although unfathomable (I hope), takes the underlying conservative thinking about the role of women to a logical, if extreme, conclusion.
The world of Handmaid’s Tale is set in a post-apocalyptic near future in which large parts of the population have been rendered sterile due to radiation fallout. Our present day is referred to by the subsequent nationalist state as “the days of anarchy” because citizens had freedoms and differences of opinion and diversity and weren’t required to adhere to strict gender and hierarchical roles. In this dystopian future, women are prohibited from owning property or money or having a job. This was accomplished in one mass event during which all women’s funds were seized by the government and reallocated to their husband or closest adult male relative. This event is retold in flashbacks:
Did they say why? I said. He didn’t answer that. We’ll get through it, he said, hugging me. You don’t know what it’s like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn’t crying. Also, I couldn’t put my arms around him. It’s only a job, he said, trying to soothe me. I guess you get all my money, I said. And I’m not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre. Hush, he said. He was still kneeling on the floor. You know I’ll always take care of you. I thought, Already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, Already you’re starting to get paranoid.
That night, after I lost my job, Luke wanted to make love. Why didn’t I want to? Desperation alone should have driven me. But I still felt numbed. . . It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying we, since nothing I knew of had been taken away from him. We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent? . . .
But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me. He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead I am his. Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened. So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn’t afford to lose you.
Saturday Night Live did a sendup of the series on last weekend’s show. Male cast members are hanging out, talking about a fun weekend, when they run into their former friends, the “girl squad,” four women they used to hang out with who are now subjugated as “handmaids” by the state, given as property to the conservative commanders and forced to bear children on behalf of the sterile wives. The joke is that the men are mostly clueless about what has happened to their friends because they lost nothing in the process. They are wondering why the girls missed the recent party.
In the novel, women are separated into several different roles, including:
- Wives – these are the mostly sterile wives of the powerful political commanders
Ordering prayers from Soul Scrolls is supposed to be a sign of piety and faithfulness to the regime, so of course the Commanders’ Wives do it a lot. It helps their husbands’ careers.
- Marthas – responsible for cooking for the families
- Handmaids – women who are fertile (e.g. already have children) who are not married to the men in power. They are taken and reassigned to powerful men to bear their children for their sterile wives. (This part sounded a whole lot like how polygamy was actually practiced). Their names are erased, and they are named “Of” and the name of the commander to whom they are assigned as property. The heroine is named “Offred.”
I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong. It does matter.
This quote reminded me of the frustration some women express at the church’s computer system’s inability to consider a woman the joint head of household or to deal with a woman who has not taken her husband’s last name.
I think of her as a woman for whom every act is done for show, is acting rather than a real act. She does such things to look good, I think. She’s out to make the best of it. But that is what I must look like to her, as well. How can it be otherwise?
Because freedom of speech is not permitted, the women are limited to presenting a unified appearance, but it also erodes trust and prevents them from becoming allies for one another.
- Gender Traitors – are lesbian women. When caught, they can be executed (if sterile) or have their sex drive removed (if fertile). Male homosexuals are also executed.
This reminded me of the stance requiring gay people to remain celibate for life or to enter heterosexual unions only.
- Aunts – tasked with training the fertile handmaid “recruits” (who are torn from their children and husbands to become surrogates) and to make them submissive for assignment to families where they will be impregnated repeatedly until they are past their fertile age.
Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen–to be seen is to be–her voice trembled–penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable.
I couldn’t help but think of groups like Mormon Women Stand who are militant in their promotion of the interests of patriarchy at the expense of feminism.
A thing is valued, she says, only if it is rare and hard to get. We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savors in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define; we must suffer her adjectives.
I was also reminded of the two sided coin of objectification of women: modesty on the one side, and pornography on the other. Both are casting women as things to be desired.
For him, I must remember, I am only a whim.
Because the only power the women have is that of the male leaders, their status depends completely on patriarchy. The women are forced to be complicit in their own subjugation.
Most of the stores carrying things for men are still open; it’s just the ones dealing in what they call vanities that have been shut down.
Not all the men are happy with things as they are. The commanders are the real winners because they have all the power.
Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse for some.
Some men might be allies, but they are powerless to change the situation. The women spend most of their time alone, often for hours or days at a time, waiting for the next fertility period.
Maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it for men.
In the poignant words of the protagonist, Offred, who has lost her freedom, her marriage, her daughter, her money, her ability to earn money, and is now at risk of losing her life if she doesn’t become pregnant from a Commander who is likely sterile (but only women are capable of being barren in this future):
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it.
Doubtless, there will be those who look at the novel or the series and say that it’s an absurdist view of how conservatives view women. I would have liked to think so, too. It is extreme, but it’s on the same continuum as some of the conservative rhetoric we are hearing, both in our country and in the church: women shouldn’t work, motherhood is the most (or for women–only) important thing, and only men can be in positions of power.
In one online forum, it was reported a year ago that a local leader asked one of the Q12 how he could get the women in his ward to quit working. The apostle said, “You don’t. That’s none of your business. They have to be able to support their families like anybody else.” While that’s doubtless a paraphrase (I wasn’t in attendance), it’s a fascinating exchange, both the assumption of the local leader and the clear answer to dial it down. While the answer to this specific question may have been clear, if it were truly clear, the question wouldn’t have been asked in the first place.
- Are you watching the show or have you read the book?
- Do you think the church’s conservative bent will continue to increase (if that’s even possible) or will things like immigration policy and a Trump presidency finally cause a swing toward moderation?
- Do you see the church softening or hardening its stance on women and gender roles in the next 5-10 years?
- Does patriarchy and conservativism undermine family values in the long-run as Petrey’s article suggests and as illustrated in the impacts to Offred’s marriage to Luke when women’s assets and jobs are taken from them? Or do you see this as mere liberal hand-wringing and hyperbole?