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Margaret Atwood Wrote a Great Novel. Unfortunately, Her Fans Turned It Into a Cult

Among the notable cultural events of the last decade, one must count the emergence of the Handmaid’s Tale franchise: the hit television series loosely based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, the novel’s return to bestsellerdom as a trade paperback, and The Testaments, Atwood’s 2019 sequel, which won the Booker Prize and has topped the New York Times best-seller list, where it is currently in its 16th week and in fifth place. It is a phenomenon that has made Atwood, who turned 80 last November, not only a celebrity but a cultural icon: “Queen Margaret,” as The Atlantic recently dubbed her. She was the subject of a recent 7,000-word interview in New York magazine, as well as one of Glamour magazine’s “Women of the Year” for 2019. 

There is a certain irony in Atwood’s cultural queenship. The significance of The Handmaid’s Tale is not primarily artistic but political: Set in a speculative world where the United States has been taken over by an oppressive, hideously misogynistic regime, it is seen as a warning that women’s rights are in perpetual peril—and, more recently, as a terrifyingly “prescient” commentary on America in the age of Donald Trump. “Sentences that she wrote in the 1980s bloom, chillingly, in 2019,” feminist pundit Rebecca Traister declared while introducing Atwood at a belated birthday celebration at the New York Public Library in December.

Atwood herself has backed such a reading. And yet she has long shown an ambivalence about being cast as a “feminist writer”: One senses that her heroine in the 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, an artist, speaks for the author when she responds to a question about being called a “feminist painter” with, “I hate party lines. I hate ghettos.” Atwood has still eschewed the label in some recent interviews. Even at the feminism-heavy New York event, she voiced misgivings about feminist inclinations to deny or condone female wrongdoing. (Recalling a reader who professed to identify with the sociopathic Zenia from Atwood’s 1993 novel The Robber Bride “because women are tired of being good all the time,” Atwood commented tartly, “I think you have to be careful about that.”)

Atwood’s relationship to feminism has been further strained by her support for the presumption of innocence for men accused of sexual abuse, and specifically for Canadian novelist and former University of British Columbia professor Stephen Galloway—a stance that made her a “bad feminist” in her own sarcastic words and a “rape apologist” to detractors in places like The Mary Sue, the Pravda of online pop-culture feminism.

Those issues never came up at the New York event, where the mostly female audience of 200 or so greeted Atwood like a pop star. So far, it seems, the Handmaid’s Tale cult has easily survived Atwood’s offenses against wokeness, just as it has survived accusations of “white feminism” and, horror of horrors, “colorblindness”: It has become a symbol of the “Resistance,” the book and TV equivalent of the Women’s March.

But that’s a mixed blessing, because this cult does Atwood a disservice. It has resulted in elevating some of her weaker work (namely The Testaments, though arguably even The Handmaid’s Tale is not among Atwood’s first-rank novels) while overshadowing far superior novels and poetry written over the course of a career that spans nearly six decades. And, especially via the TV adaptation—on which Atwood herself served as a consultant—it has also flattened her complex vision into a simplistic screed.

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While The Handmaid’s Tale’s ultra-patriarchal world is now interpreted as a metaphor for the Trump-era “war on women,” it was first conceived as a commentary on the Reagan era and the rise of the Christian Right: In Atwood’s dystopian future, the United States has been replaced by the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist Biblical theocracy where women are relegated to forced domesticity or breeder slavery.

In a 2012 essay on The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood wrote that when it first came out, the most common reaction from American readers was, “How long have we got?” But perhaps this mainly tells us something about Atwood’s American readership—or at least those readers whose reactions she heard. The literary doyenne Mary McCarthy, who reviewed the novel for the then-still-unwoke New York Times, emphatically disagreed, writing that its “lurid pages” made her feel “no shiver of recognition,” and that she simply couldn’t see the religious Right’s crusades against abortion, gays and offensive library books leading to a dictatorship of “super-biblical puritanism.” Noted feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich called the book “absorbing,” but also described it as “feminist paranoia,” and found its dystopian world unimpressive, writing that “Gilead seems at times to be only a coloring book version of Oceania,” the totalitarian superstate of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Despite this unflattering comparison to the George Orwell classic, The Handmaid’s Tale has undeniable power as a depiction of life under totalitarianism: the bleakness of day-to-day living, the dangerous pleasure of small private rebellions, the pervasive paranoia, the knowledge that one is in the absolute power of a malignant and omnipresent them. (When I first read the novel in 1986, it had been only six years since I’d left the Soviet Union as a teenager, and the shiver of that recognition was definitely present for me—even if the Brezhnev-era totalitarianism I knew was of a watered-down variety.)

Atwood’s innovation is to give this dystopian nightmare the distinctly female framing of domestic and sexual enslavement—as experienced by “Offred,” a “Handmaid” assigned to a man named Fred and his wife for surrogate motherhood via monthly copulation. The framing is highly effective, especially since Atwood is a master of mood and atmosphere: Something as simple as Offred sneaking out of her room for an unsanctioned late-night visit to the kitchen can be imbued with both excitement and terror. And there are other compelling details, from Gilead’s creepy ritualized language—especially the parting salutation, “Under His Eye,” in which God merges with Big Brother—to the public hanging, or “Salvaging,” where spectators must participate by laying their hands on the long rope that ends in the noose.

But where The Handmaid’s Tale fails is in creating a plausible “it can happen here” scenario of takeover by an American Taliban. Atwood’s set-up involves a demographic collapse (caused by epidemics and environmental disasters that lead to rampant infertility and birth defects) and a coup engineered by a group of religious zealots, the “Sons of Jacob.” After the President and Congress are slaughtered in a terror attack blamed on “Islamic fanatics,” the U.S. military imposes a state of emergency and suspends the Constitution, and the Sons of Jacob, who have presumably infiltrated the army, take over. Women are abruptly stripped of civil rights, protests are ruthlessly crushed, and soon enough the dictatorship solidifies into a fundamentalist regime that bans all secular culture, outlaws all faiths other than its own, herds black people into “homelands,” deports Jews, and gets busy hanging gays and heretics. Meanwhile, “sinful” fertile women—i.e., single and divorced mothers—are rounded up and forced into service as concubines for high-status men with barren wives, while their children are placed with elite childless couples.

What are the odds? Nonexistent.

Never mind that the U.S. government has a “designated survivor” plan to ensure there will always be a legitimate acting President; never mind the 50 state governments, each with a National Guard. An even bigger issue is that Gilead would have no base of popular support. Even the most traditionalist of evangelical Christians would regard its religion, with its sanctioned polygyny, missing Jesus, and strategically edited Bible verses, as an odious, heretical cult—a fact Atwood seems to recognize when she mentions anti-Gilead Baptist rebels. Meanwhile, virtually all Americans would have to be forced into a way of life profoundly alien to their culture and history. One of Atwood’s models for Gilead was Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution; but in Iran, women’s pre-revolutionary emancipation had been limited to the secularized urban elites, and such repressive norms as female veiling and sex segregation in public spaces were familiar to most of the population.

Margaret Atwood, appearing in Buenos Aires, 2017.

Ironically, in her 2012 essay, Atwood herself mentions that totalitarian regimes always have some cultural continuity with the societies they seek to transform; but she imagines that Gilead has such roots in the patriarchal theocracy of “17th Century Puritan New England.” Yet Puritan New England was not nearly as misogynistic as Atwood imagines: indeed, for its time, it was remarkably female-friendly, prohibiting “bodily correction” of wives and promoting literacy for girls as well as boys. By contrast, women in Gilead (except the female enforcers known as “Aunts”) are strictly forbidden to read and write.

Gilead’s impossibility may be the reason its world is, as Ehrenreich put it, “thinly textured.” Atwood’s attempt to have the regime’s official language mix Biblical ultra-traditionalism with 20th century slang—such as “Particicution” to describe execution by mob, a term that the epilogue reveals was coined by a commander with a marketing background and apparently inspired by “Jazzercise”—adds to dark comedy but subtracts from believability. A scene in which Offred in her burka-like garb is gawked at by Japanese tourists and finds the women obscenely underdressed is a heavy-handed “East-West” flip that rings equally false (tourists visiting a fanatical theocracy in the midst of a war?). And on occasion, Atwood seems to forget about the reading prohibition: One moment, the regime is so hell-bent on keeping letters from female eyes that even store signs are pictures-only; the next, there’s a banner announcing a “Women’s Prayvaganza,” and the wife of Offred’s commander casually mentions having “read [her] file” with no frisson of the forbidden. (Maybe one reason for these slip-ups is that the reading ban itself makes no sense and has no realistic precedent: Female educational attainment in Iran actually rose dramatically under the Islamic Republic despite other setbacks to women’s rights, and even the Taliban’s opposition extends only to “un-Islamic” materials.)

The Hulu television series, despite its excellent cast—particularly Elizabeth Moss as Offred/June Osborne, Yvonne Strahovski as the Commander’s wife Serena Joy, and Ann Dowd as the formidable Aunt Lydia—compounds the plausibility issues. The attempts to flesh out Gilead’s history make things worse, not better: The Sons of Jacob are ludicrously inept plotters, pre-Gilead America looks far too normal for a society reeling from demographic crisis, and we’re expected to believe that the whole world pretty much chugs along as usual when its largest economy (and a nuclear superpower) goes full Taliban.

What’s more, even the first season, whose storyline was loosely book-based—and which reaped many accolades and eight Emmy awards—frequently traded Atwood’s subtlety for soapy melodrama and grand guignol.

The novel’s Commander was a nuanced character toward whom Offred felt complicated emotions; the show’s version became a loathsome, lecherous bully. Serena Joy got an interesting backstory as a pro-traditionalist author/activist (rather than the novel’s ex-televangelist) but also became an unhinged uberbitch whose treatment of June lurched from affection to violent abuse. Fellow Handmaid “Ofglen,” a member of the rebel underground, took on a lurid storyline involving lesbian romance and clitoridectomy. Gilead’s brutality turned to random sadism: Early on, a future Handmaid at the women’s indoctrination center, Janine, had an eye removed for cursing at Aunt Lydia. (Meanwhile, June’s escape attempt and assault on another Aunt was punished with a painful but non-mutilating whipping on the feet.) Since the show also has to have its girl-power moments, these horrific cruelties coexist with incongruous scenes of sisterhood and defiance by the Handmaids.

The problems were magnified in the second season, when the showrunners left the book behind (and began to tangibly pander to the Trump-era “Resistance” with ripped-from-the-headlines topics such as assaults on the press, brutal border agents, and persecution of Muslims). Potentially interesting storylines—e.g., Serena and June teaming up to secretly take over some of the Commander’s official role after he’s hurt in a bombing—went nowhere. Handmaids were subjected to grotesque cruelties like mock executions, with no regard for the possibility of pregnancy and miscarriage. Janine and Ofglen/Emily were shipped to a Gileadean gulag where inmates have a short life cleaning up toxic waste, only to be promptly saved by a far-fetched plot device; another elaborate twist was blatantly contrived so that June could give birth on her own. Serena careened ever more wildly from psychotic monstrosity (punishing a very pregnant June by instigating and aiding her brutal rape by Fred, ostensibly with the intent of stimulating labor) to sisterly self-sacrifice.

In the third season, things went so off the rails that even some sympathetic reviewers grumbled. The sadism meter keeps going up (Handmaids with mouths stapled shut!). June becomes a badass feminist superheroine whose absurdly far-fetched plan to smuggle a party of Gilead’s stolen children across the border to Canada somehow works. She barely even pretends to be submissive anymore, making cheeky remarks to Aunt Lydia (whom we’ve seen cattle-prod Handmaids for far less) and bossing her new master, Commander Lawrence, a closet dissenter helping with the child rescue. True, June’s recklessness gets a few innocents killed along the way, but at season’s end the show still treats her as grandly heroic, and even her earlier critics are wowed into submission. “You’re fucking fantastic!” exclaims an underground member initially skeptical of the rescue plan. “June…She did this. She did everything,” gushes an adult escapee in the season finale.

Amidst all this, the show has entirely abandoned a notably thought-provoking aspect of Atwood’s novel: the suggestion that censorious, authoritarian feminism—the kind exemplified by the anti-pornography activism of the 1980s—helped enable the forces that created Gilead by supporting the notion that freedom leaves women perpetually exposed to male abuse. (Aunt Lydia herself suggests that Gilead is, in its own way, the fulfilment of feminist ideas about female community and women’s protection.) It could have been an especially interesting point to explore today, given that this brand of feminism is now back with a vengeance, with its adherents trying to excommunicate Atwood herself for defending due process. But there is no trace of it in the series. Instead, we get June snarling at Commander Lawrence when he gets cold feet, tries to call off the rescue mission, and reminds her that she’s in his house: “Men. Fucking pathological. You’re not in charge, I am.” Feminist critics and twitterfolk loved it.

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While the series’ latest two seasons more or less continue where Atwood’s novel left off, The Testaments offers a different sequel: The fall of Gilead, 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, as told by three different women who played a key role in it. The principal narrator is none other than Aunt Lydia, reimagined here as a behind-the-scenes subversive—a woman who joined the Gilead regime because it was either that or death, who got to wield substantial but always limited power in exchange for her co-operation, but who had been plotting Gilead’s demise all along.

As always, Atwood’s writing has power. The passages describing the future Aunt Lydia’s harrowing captivity after the Sons of Jacob takeover, and her fateful choice to join her captors and gun down a group of other women in a stadium to demonstrate loyalty, are particularly compelling. The Testaments works well as a first-person account by someone who has done terrible deeds for the sake of survival and wants to explain herself to future generations. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them,” Aunt Lydia observes, with characteristic dry wit.

And yet, compared to The Handmaid’s Tale, the new book has major problems—some of them noted by mostly friendly commentators, such as Katha Pollitt and Sarah Jones in The Nation and Kristen Roupenian (of “Cat Person” fame) in The New Republic. For one, the new version of Aunt Lydia is a blatant retcon, i.e. ex-post-facto rewriting of previous canon. There is literally nothing in The Handmaid’s Tale to suggest that this woman, who encourages her wards at the Handmaid reeducation center to berate a gang rape victim for having “led them on,” is anything other than a zealous enforcer for Gilead—whether for true-believer or power-seeking reasons, or both. Both Pollitt and Jones suggest that Atwood’s attempt to redeem Aunt Lydia is a cop-out or “liberal wish fulfilment”: What do you know, the woman who looked like a zealous patriarchal collaborator helping oppress other women was actually an undercover feminist fighter all along!

And then there’s the plot, in which Aunt Lydia works to bring down Gilead by collecting kompromat on Commanders and smuggling the compromising material out with help from two plucky teenagers (who are the other narrators—more on that in a moment). The shocking contents get published, which leads to the fall of Gilead because…what? A brutal theocracy that hangs religious dissenters and openly forces fertile women into breeder slavery is hopelessly compromised when the world learns that members of its elite do Very Bad Things privately, like marrying and murdering nubile girls? No, apparently (as the postscript reveals), it’s because the revelations included the commanders’ secret machinations against each other, triggering discord, purges and eventually a putsch. But if that was the goal, why couldn’t Aunt Lydia have simply snitched on commanders to other commanders, without engineering a super-risky border escape? Not as romantic or action-packed?

Speaking of romantic narrative devices, those two teens involved in Aunt Lydia’s scheme turn out to be long-lost half-sisters, namely Offred’s daughters: the one taken by Gilead, and the one born in Gilead (fathered by the Commander’s chauffeur Nick) and spirited away to Canada. Notably, major elements of the girls’ storylines are taken from the TV show: the older daughter’s new name, “Agnes,” and the younger’s legendary status in Gilead as the abducted “Baby Nicole.”

If The Testaments dips into the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale for its canon, Hulu, in turn, has already optioned The Testaments—either for a future series after this one is done, or as source material for future Handmaid’s Tale seasons. How this new and improved Aunt Lydia can be squared with the Hulu version, who not only has a different backstory but makes the original novel’s Aunt Lydia look like Mother Teresa, remains to be seen. Then again, her character arc couldn’t be any more schizophrenic than Serena Joy’s.

It’s hard to disagree with Jones’s conclusion that The Testaments is essentially “fanservice,” offering the Handmaid’s Tale TV following the uplifting “resistance” story it craves. It’s also worth noting that the first book’s critique of radical feminism is absent from the sequel. At one point, the Atwood hate club on Twitter freaked out over a passage in which Aunt Lydia helps frame a man for attempted rape, and especially over her wry aside that “innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men.” But there’s a catch: the “innocent” man is actually a child molester whose real crimes cannot be disclosed without wrecking his victims’ lives, and who richly deserves his awful fate. In this scenario, it seems, even a false rape accusation is a blow struck for sisterhood.

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While most of the Atwood celebration in New York focused on The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments as supposed parables for our time, there were a few moments in a different vein. In her introduction at the New York event, Rebecca Traister acknowledged that although The Handmaid’s Tale was a “formative experience” for her as a child, she felt that another Atwood book, Cat’s Eye, was “in a way more traumatizing.” In the later conversation with Atwood, Traister remarked, “So much of your work is about brutality in a one-gender direction—men being brutal to women. But Cat’s Eye is about female brutality to other women. It’s not talked about much these days.”

Indeed, The Handmaid’s Tale was followed by not one but two novels that deal with woman’s inhumanity to woman: Cat’s Eye, a Booker Prize finalist, and The Robber Bride. Cat’s Eye, whose narrator Elaine looks back at her small-town childhood and especially at her complicated history with her school “friend” and tormentor Cordelia, may well be Atwood’s finest work. (In response to Traister’s observation, Atwood noted that when the book first came out, some were shocked that she could write “female people” acting so viciously; on the other hand, she said, “many women said to me that it doesn’t go far enough.”)

The story of Cat’s Eye is rich and multilayered, but the relationship between the two girls is at the heart of it. Elaine, naïve and something of a misfit—due to her parents’ travels, she spent little time around other children as a preschooler—is relentlessly bullied by a trio of girls, with Cordelia as their ringleader, under the supposedly benevolent guise of teaching her proper social graces and norms; her loyalty to her tormentors makes the abuse worse. Later, the dynamics shift in complicated ways; but even as a grown-up and a successful artist, Elaine is haunted by Cordelia long after the latter has vanished from her life.

The Robber Bride was another standout, as was Atwood’s next novel, Alias Grace, a fictionalized treatment of an actual 19th century case of a Canadian immigrant housemaid sentenced as an accomplice in the murders of her employer and his housekeeper. That novel, also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, deftly wed the psychological thriller to social realism. It is certainly a “feminist” novel in the sense that its themes include specific gender-based burdens faced by young women, from the press’s morbid fascination with Grace’s sexuality after her arrest to her roommate and friend’s death from a botched abortion. But the principal male character, a psychiatrist who interviews Grace in the hope of learning the truth about her, is treated with just as much sympathy and insight as the women.

And yet there’s a good chance that for the rest of her life, Atwood will be defined by the Handmaid franchise. And so “Queen Margaret” may become her creation’s captive, just as George R. R. Martin fell captive to Game of Thrones, and J.K. Rowling’s reputation will forever remain a prisoner of Hogwarts. Such are the perils of creating a cult, even if that’s never what Atwood intended.

 

Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63.

Feature image: Women’s rights protesters dressed as Handmaidens march though Trafalgar Square as part of the protests against US president Donald Trump’s UK state visit. Guy Corbishley /Alamy

Comments

  1. I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was younger and actually enjoyed it- although this might have something to do with having lived in the South for a year, as an eight year old child, and seeing a somewhat fundamentalist society firsthand, up close and personal. Attendance at the local Baptist Church was compulsory, if one wanted to avoid becoming a social pariah. Drinking, smoking and wearing a bikini were all frowned upon, as was dancing. I can still remember sitting in the back of a car, and my mother asking the local real estate agent whether the local elementary was a mixed school (she meant boys and girls), to which the agent replied “they can play together as much as they like, but our children never go round their houses, and theirs never come round ours”. After discerning what she meant and having spent my years of infancy with a mixed race playmate in Britain, near the base my father had worked at, I was confused. I asked “But why?” several times, and with an increasing sense of urgency. My mother, the ever polite British Primary School Teacher, just didn’t know what to say. Still, I did acquire an enduring love of roller disco, with my year in Mississippi.

    Having read The Handmaid’s Tale, I even went on to buy and try Bluebeard’s Egg, whilst on holiday in Majorca at 16, but I have to say that the modern update of The Handmaid’s Tale strikes me as bordering on derangement. I imagine this has a great deal to do with the justifiable fear that ‘a woman’s right to choose’ is under threat. But like so many of the great discussions that frame our Western societies, the argument over the truth is presented as a set of only two binary options- either a woman’s right to choose is an essential right, without which a woman no longer possesses equality under the law, or an unborn baby’s right to life is sacrosanct, and any attempt by a woman to exercise autonomy over her own body, is murder.

    I reject both premises, and the very idea that it is a binary choice. From anything other than a religious perspective, it is impossible to argue that the morning after pill is murder. What next- every sperm is sacred? Similarly, given that we know that the earliest instances of brainwave activity occur around 110 days, and that by 24 there is a reasonably certain medical case to be made that the woman at this stage, is carrying a baby, fully capable of feeling pain. Perhaps then, we should instead look at abortion as a spectrum, in which the failure to act in a timely fashion represents a moral hazard, both in a legal sense and in a broader ethical context.

    Recently I watched the excellent On the Basis of Sex. It was a great film. But one thing that niggled, was the fact that in one of the court scenes, great emphasis was placed on the absence of the word freedom in the Constitution. This was because the Founding Fathers were at great pains to emphasis Liberty as a concept balancing both rights and responsibilities. If we accept abortion as both a Right and an escalating moral hazard (which I am fully aware is a reach, for both polar opposites of the debate), then surely the Responsibility then lies on the individual to exercise that Right in a timely fashion.

    But you don’t have to take my word it, because in many Western Democracies, this concept of legal balancing has become enshrined in medical practice- if for no better reason than because it is better for the patient. In England and Wales, only 8% of abortions occurred after 12 weeks, and only 0.1% happened after 24 weeks. By comparison, in the US 10.4% of abortions occurred between weeks 13 and week 20, with 1.3% occurring at or after week 21. Whether you care about the rights of the mother, or the unborn baby, then this is real evidence that the American obsession with turning abortion into a binary choice, a wedge issue devoid of subtlety and nuance, is causing needless human suffering.

    Of interest to Quillette readers, the word Freedom didn’t make an appearance until the advent of the First Amendment. Given the Founding Fathers insistence on Liberty instead of Freedom in most instances, this might imply that they saw Free Speech as a duty, both to be maintained and exercised. Perhaps they simply didn’t want to cede the Responsibility to speak, to the greatest fool in the room…

  2. It always annoys me when fiction is considered as predicting anything. A novellist creates an imaginary world frequently simply to entertain but perhaps to make a political poi t or illustrate some idea. Frequently it is amplifying or emphasising some aspect, perhaps little known, of the real world which creates an interesting and insightful novel. None of these things are predictions. It is childish to think they are.

    Atwood has found the same problem that countless science fiction world builders have found, that once the provocative and interesting assumptions in a first work are considered further and played out, the world they construct does not make sense.

    Ultimately the world in a handmaids tale falls apart because it is a world constructed without consideration of consistency and as the logical consequence of a few key differences but as a wish fulfilment fantasy. The aurhor wanted a world in which women genuinely are oppressed by an evil male collective. She brought together a hodge podge of assumptions to ex post facto explain how that world could come about. It all collapses under any sustained thought or development because it doesn’t make any sense. Feminists love it because it is aligned to their fantasy of the patriarchy and male oppression.

  3. You can see a lot of A Brave New World or 1984 in modern life, but you have to not just squint but roll your eyes back into your head to see even a glimmer of The Handmaid’s Tale in modern America.

  4. It was a good article for talking about some of the subtleties of the book which have been forgotten. However, I don’t like the story in the book because it has become a focal point of Trump Derangement Syndrome, and because it never made sense to begin with.

    The problem that the “resistance” has is that Trump is nowhere near the demon that they need him to be to justify their anger and hatred, so they go looking for cultural artefacts that give them that demonisation, and helps work themselves up to a frenzy. Then they accuse trump of these fictional wrongs.

    For the rest of us, seeing women dress as handmaidens in London (the picture seems to be outside the national portrait gallery) comes across as shrill and extreme, and ultimately makes them out to be the ideological fanatics.

    It also reveals the huge cultural blindspot of the left, which is that it can’t quite come to handle the fact that the novel is based on the Iranian revolution (the hangings from construction cranes being a clear case in point) and Gilead is closer to ISIS than any other society to have existed, probably ever. It is a good example of the bad case of cognitive dissonance that is gripping the American left today.

    As for the story, I always felt it completely ignored what makes totalitarian systems function. In particular, there was no reason for the vast majority of men to act as enforcers of the regime, since in the story most were not allowed wives. If that were the case, I would imagine the regime wouldn’t last long at all, as the pressure from disaffected men to take control of the regime would mean permanent coups. Society wouldn’t consolidate around an ideology, instead it would fracture into tribes and gangs of violent groups, each trying to protect their women and poach some of their neighbours.

    There’s another movie that deals with the idea of societal breakdown during a fertility crisis, which is Children of men - in my view that is the much superior story.

  5. It has always struck me as absurd the anyone could view The Handmaid’s Tale as anything but a complete fiction, given the fact the current American society is perhaps the most female-friendly in the history of the world. Women’s reproductive right to abortion may be imperiled by evangelical Republicans, but American women are arguably the most privileged people in the world if they are white and professional.

    And yet it enjoys a reputation as somehow being a metaphor for the struggles of “oppressed” women living under a “patriarchy”.

    I have begun to suspect that the novel’s real appeal is that it supports some kind of unconscious need by many women to see themselves as “victims”, a positioning that allows them to feel outraged indignation combined with self pity, a feel good by feeling bad cocktail of self- induced suffering, made all the more titillating by the theme of sexual bondage.

    In fact, the novel is a kind of masochistic porn fest that satisfies a need to be forced to submit to sexual violation while keeping one’s dignity intact by maintaining the moral high ground. 50 Shades of Gray tapped into this same vein of bondage porn erotica, women revelling in sexual submission while eschewing any responsibility for their own desires.

    And what does it say about those fantasies that many of the cruelest antagonists are other women? An evolutionary biologist may throw more light on the Freudian implications of this masochistic melodrama than any feminist reading ever could.

  6. Novels and films are used as metaphors all the time. The question is what metaphoric comparisons are to be drawn.

    Since posting my first thoughts, it has occurred to me that rather than being a patriarchy, the novel actually represents the worst kind of of matriarchy.

    The men are useful for providing the muscle, resources and semen than support the entire social structure, just as they are in today’s world. They are, in fact exploited to meet the needs of the real mistresses of the world of Gilead: the sterile wives who use the bodies of still fertile women to serve their own need to procreate. It is the wives, after all, who hold down the handmaidens while they are being inseminated, an appropriate symbol of their domination.

    Strangely, this fairly obvious reading has, to my knowledge, never been investigated, perhaps because it undermines the politically correct, self- serving narrative of female subjection, which as I discussed previously, serves the masochistic female need for submission combined with self-righteousness.

    The real beneficiaries of the sexual authoritarianism and oppression in The Handmaidens Tale are the wives, who exploit both the men of their society and the fertile women to meet their own needs. But that reading would never fly in today’s culture, particularly in English departments, which have become the shock troops of the feminist cult. No wonder humanities departments are dying.

  7. The melodramatic comparison of THT with modern America is yet another embarrassing illustration of just how entitled Western women are. A few states restrict their ability to kill their own children, and suddenly they think they have it as bad as ISIS sex slaves. The notion that they’d be the least bit responsible for their actions is that repulsive to them.

  8. It’s always fun to have a “I survived the South” story. That mythical land only inhabited by inbred lowbrows. And lo if any one doubts the noble survival tale, the author need only to point to a history that is over half a century passed. I have lived throughout the wretched South. My sister and wife wore bikinis when they were young. My parents drank alcohol with their neighbors. There were both wet and dry counties but the trend was toward wet. There were all types of Christian denominations. Our class high school President was Jewish. Iranian immigrants arrived when I was in high school. I attended integrated public schools. I lived in small towns supporting only a few public all integrated public schools. Unlike my friends up North there was no white flight and no place to flee. I once visited a friend in the north who’s high school was four times as large as mine. Not only were there no black students, there was no black teachers and no black cafeteria or maintenance staff. Before you ask, I am older than you. Of course according to the myth back in the day my friends and I were planning lynchings and harassing gays when we weren’t beating our wives and girl friends. Do you want to know what bigotry is? It is looking down your nose and condemning millions of people as your inferiors simply because of where they happened to be born. Imagine growing up be labeled and associated with the worst actors in the region from where one hails. Do all Brits believe “No Dogs or Chinese” should be permit admittance to parks? That’s the nice thing about the South, there will always be a place where one can rest assured he is better than those inhabitants.
    My backward Southern Christian upbringing tells me to end this lecture and forgive. It reminds me that generally you are a thoughtful poster and perhaps you got too carried away and are not as scornful of people who wish you no harm as you appear. It further tells me that should you be as full of contempt and scorn for people based upon their birth place to forgive anyway.

  9. I’m sorry, he is not alone. When complaints of sexual assault are going too far, I’m quite capable of cynical jokes. When pro-choicers say that the right to abortion applies to all nine months of pregnancy, I become a conservative pro-lifer.
    Finally, I am absolutely sure that Harvey Weinstein was a byproduct of Hollywood actresses’ desire for fame. I do not claim that he is a good person, he is a bad person, but they were interested in using his bad sides.
    I know that you will not like my remark, but I’m afraid I’m much closer to the truth than you think.

  10. Great book, a wonderful piece of imaginative fiction. I read this after my older sister put it down (at about 12 yrs old) and was mesmerized by the dystopian landscape and religious tyranny.

    As for today’s cult following inhabited by adult western women…@stephanie said it best, it’s embarrassing. The infantalization that must be performed on oneself to register today’s western society as misogynist and choice less for women is incredible. I can’t even wrap my brain around the mental gymnastics that must occur to come to such a conclusion. Never have women been freer or more in control of their lives, bodies, and biology.

  11. Considering you yourself are a cluster of cells, I would avoid using such dehumanizing language. But yes, the moral position that human individuals have intrinsic value is subjective. Some people disagree, such as psychopaths and sociopaths. But more commonly, people think human individuals have intrinsic value except when they feel they would be better off without a particular human being alive, and think they can get away with killing them. The fact some people don’t have consistent values certainly deserves to be pointed out.

    • absent father
    • violent alcoholic mother
    • robbery as a minor
    • ward of the state
    • alleged being raped by a cousin
    • married at 16
    • alleged being assaulted by her husband
    • first child at 18
    • developed a drinking and drug problem
    • now identified as a lesbian
    • alleges baby snatched by her mother, who drove her out of the house with police, and deceived her into adopting the baby out
    • still a lesbian, yet pregnant again at 19/20, adopted baby out
    • still a lesbian, yet pregnant at 21, sought abortion
    • alleged being raped by a gang of black men
    • recanted allegation
    • still sought abortion, was assisted by legal counsel
    • legal process took three years, so adopted her third child out
    • twelve years later, claimed she had been raped for her third pregnancy
    • two years after that, recanted that allegation
    • couple years after that, blamed the lawyers for the court case, saying she’d never wanted an abortion
    • a decade after that, writes a book, living with a lesbian lover as wife and wife
    • the following year, baptised as an evangelical christian
    • decides she’s against abortion now
    • shortly after, decides she’s Catholic again
    • now decides she’s no longer a lesbian

    Charitably-put, this does not seem like a stable person. Less charitably, she couldn’t decide if she were wet if she fell in a river, and if she told me the sun were rising tomorrow I’d look out the window and check.

    More broadly, this is the sort of person you end up with if you as a father abandon your children.

  12. Soso Mississippi had a mixed race community after the Civil War. During the war Newton Knight led resistance against the Confederates. This was recently memorialized in the movie “Free State Of Jones”. Mississippi has very distinct regions which are very different. The coast which many now know as having Casinos, is not new. The coast had gambling in the 1940’s and 50’s. River cities like Vicksburg and Natchez have a history of being wide open from the days of river boat travel with locals over looking houses of prostitution for decades. The delta as well as northern Mississippi primarily agrarian is usually more conservative. The point being history and attitudes are often more complex and varied than presented or understood.

    I have no doubt your experiences were your experiences. But do think the people you referenced spoke for the entire South? Your depiction is typical and objectionable by omission. Bad southerner stories have a common theme. They have the protagonist who witnessed objectionable conduct and bravely resisted. They fail to mention encountering any southerners who were nice, pleasant or may likewise have objected. The point of this omission is to create the illusion that all southerners have solidarity with the reprehensible conduct. Finally there are the references to poverty and ignorance. You have posted twice now about living in Mississippi and failed to make any positive comments about the people. Was it your experience as well that people you encountered were utterly lacking in redeeming qualities? Furthermore you post continues to emphasize the superiority of you and your family to the persons you had to endure. Perhaps the people you mentioned were worthy of condemnation. Does that mean all Mississippians or southerners are deserving of contempt and scorn?

    I am not offended or angry. I object and sometimes am guilty of posts reading or implying all liberals are…, all conservatives are…, all women are…, all gays are… ect. You decide which memories define your experience. My question would be why do you choose only negative memories for the South? Most prefer to relay only these types of encounters because the relating of the stories makes them out to be a morally superior witness. It is a telling of a fraction of the story and how myths are made. No worries. We are all human. In my retelling of stories, I usually come off better than I actually am.

  13. Sure. Negroes were at one time not persons. Under Islam, all infidels are not people. In various cultures at various times women have not been people, or perhaps 2nd class people. Yet when a woman miscarries, one still commonly hears: “Gail lost her baby.” Folks can ‘consider’ as they please, but when an abortionist has to take steps to kill the [word of your choice] so that it is not born alive and crying, I consider it murder.

  14. @Ella-B The hierarchy of morality in play isn’t in your favor. It’s why you have to have acorn/oak analogies and “cluster of cells” obfuscating your argument.

    If you were to avoid a hardship (raising a child or adopting it out) by ending a life instead of dealing with the hardship it creates, your morals concerning life are based on convenience.

    A more honest argument is just that. That you care less about the value of some human lives (or certain stages in a human life)in relation to the hardship it places on others.

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