The Handmaid’s Tale is a real warning from the pages of fiction

There’s a new fashion trend appearing at anti-abortion protests and women’s marches across the country: red robes and white bonnets.

If you’re not familiar with the costume, it’s from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was adapted into a wildly successful show on Hulu earlier this year. It tells the story of a religious coup that leads to an authoritarian government in America, now known as Gilead, where women have no rights. Women who are able to bear children are separated from their families and forced to procreate as surrogates with the ruling male elite.

This world might seem extreme and distant, but to Atwood, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. And based on current events, it should come as no surprise that many women feel an uncomfortable kinship to the handmaids in her tale.

Atwood, a Canadian author and poet, wrote the novel in the 1980s as a criticism of a New Right movement that was becoming increasingly influential in North America. The movement was led by conservatives who were against abortion, against the Equal Rights Amendment, and against LGBTQ equality. Ronald Reagan used the support of the New Right, and in turn empowered their movement. Now with Trump in power, the parallels between reality and dystopian fiction are getting even stronger.

Let’s take a look at a few of them:

1. Men have all the power.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, men assign different roles to women based on their fertility, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation. It’s not that different from real life, where women make up less than 20% of elected politicians in Congress, despite representing more than half of the population. It’s how we get those infamous pictures of a group of men sitting around a table making decisions about women’s healthcare and reproductive rights.

In the show, the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, was once treated as an intellectual equal to her husband. She was viewed as a confidant advisor. But after the coup, Serena was forced to quit her job and stay at home patiently waiting for her handmaid to get impregnated by her husband.

We get glimpses of the old Serena still trying to give her husband input on foreign affairs, but now she’s shut down and told not to worry about it. In a scene in the episode “A Woman’s Place,” one of the elite men tells the Commander, “Well this is our fault, we put so much pressure on academic pursuit and ambition that they’ve forgot their real purpose. We won’t let that happen again.”

Strangely, Serena doesn’t seem to mind this; as a conservative elite woman, she’s in favor of the new system. Atwood may have intend this to be a warning to conservative women. There was recently an interesting article in New Republic arguing that American fundamentalism “could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women.” Think Sarah Palin, Kellyanne Conway, etc.

2. Women must be kept ignorant.

In Gilead, women are forbidden to read and write. They’re stripped of any right to information. How can women organize and resist if they don’t have access to basic information? We see this today, with President Trump’s efforts to discredit the media and dismiss information as Fake News. Could this all be part of an effort to keep us confused and misinformed?

3. Men control women’s health.

In Gilead, fertile women are forced to bear children while infertile women are forced to work either as domestic servants or prostitutes, known as Jezebels. Similarly in the United States, a woman’s right to choose is constantly challenged by societal pressures that make us feel like we have to have a child or else be labeled as immoral.

There are now 34 states that require women to undergo counseling before having an abortion. In Arkansas, women need the permission of the biological father before having an abortion—even in cases of rape or incest.

In addition to making it harder for women to gain access to abortion clinics, states like Arkansas now want to take away virtually all women’s decision-making power when it comes to their reproductive rights.

4. Women are stripped of economic independence.

With women earning only 79% of what men make, the wage gap remains an effective tool for denying women economic independence. In The Handmaid’s Tale, in the time between the coup and the establishment of Gilead, women are fired from their jobs, and all the money in their bank accounts is transferred to their husbands, fathers, or brothers.

That isn’t really so far-fetched either. If the wage gap were to increase rather than decrease, would it really be that different from women losing any semblance of financial independence from men?

Whether we’re horrified, distracted, or entertained by The Handmaid’s Tale, how close will we allow these parallels to get to our reality before we rise up and push back?

Join us Tuesday night on The Feed, where we’ll take a closer look at the frightening parallels between reality and The Handmaid’s Tale.

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