Dreams of Gilead

By Sophie Lewis |

The Handmaid’s Tale has been generating a lot of enjoyment for over three decades. Its trajectory includes a film starring Faye Dunaway and Natasha Richardson (1990), an opera (2000), a radio drama (2017), and a forthcoming graphic novel. In academia, the output concerning Margaret Atwood’s most famous book, in Canadian literary studies alone, could fill a whole shelf. A personal encounter with the dystopia seems to now be the feminist coming-to-consciousness narrative; one journalist makes the claim that reading The Handmaid’s Tale “convinced me to leave the church”. Since 1985 the paperback – Atwood’s account of a fascist American society, Gilead – has sold over a million times and inspired untold quantities of fan art. Two hundred odd pins, necklaces, T-shirts, candles and totes are listed on the Etsy marketplace. Purchase of these is sometimes identified as participation in a ‘movement.’ This profusion of fan merch is all the while due to the fact that The Handmaid’s Tale is a utopia for its feminist fans.

Indeed, The Boston Globe proclaimed a “new look for women’s rights protests” when, following International Women’s Day and the attendant Women’s March in Washington DC, reproductive rights activists dressed in the blood-red robes and blinkered white wimples of Gilead’s breeder caste to disrupt the proceedings of the Texas Senate. Red is my color, said the electric Elisabeth Moss, embodying the eponymous protagonist – now renamed June – in the TV adaptation broadcast on Hulu. Ironically, Atwood’s original (Kate) claimed the opposite. What hasn’t changed, though, is the narrator’s lack of political courage and preoccupation with conventional romance. The tale she tells focuses on heterosexual love despite a totalitarian system of sex segregation in which women are officially managed as state resources and forbidden to read (or perhaps, alas, because of the frisson this scenario affords). That Offred prefers to pursue sex with her fascist boss’s chauffeur-cum-snoop rather than attempt to build solidarity with the other oppressed castes in Gilead’s reproductive division of labour has apparently not dampened anti-Trump protester’s enthusiasm for roleplay.

Gilead’s female ranks include not only Handmaids (gestators impregnated via systematic rape) but Marthas (cooks and cleaners to the bourgeoisie), Jezebels (illicit sexual services), Unwomen (deportees) and Econowives. The latter lowly class of multitaskers and thus the question of class as a whole have, however, been disappeared from the 2017 version, along with white supremacy. This decision has not escaped the notice of critics who long recognized in Atwood’s premise a deraced slave narrative about forced surrogacy (or reproductive ownership) on the American plantation, appropriated for the purposes of white feminist futurism. Director Bruce Miller now only takes the ahistoric fantasy further, imagining that a society in which “fertility trumps all” would (indeed, could) be “diverse” and “post-racist”. Meanwhile, even as he and his cast publicly disavow the word ‘feminist’, The Handmaid’s Tale’s resurgence has become a metonym for feminist consciousness tout court in several sectors of the media.

In keeping with the flattening, dehistoricizing postracialism espoused by #HandmaidsTale’s director, the alarum “We are living in the Handmaid’s Tale” has become the refrain of a great number of progressive op-eds in response to threats to US abortion provision. Unsurprisingly, many of these columnists prefer, not without traces of Islamophobia, to point the finger at Saudi Arabia instead of the US in the final analysis. Others – much like Atwood’s surrogacy-abolitionist peers in the mid-80s – inappropriately bring up commercial gestational surrogates in the global south (“wombs for rent!” [sic]) as “proof” that Atwood’s “prediction” has “come true.”

Gestational surrogates are actually waging their own struggles for better pay and conditions within – yes – deeply racialized markets in transnational reproductive technology. Gestational labour-power is fast becoming privately commodified, and surrogacy work a method of survival for poor people in various locales including India and Mexico. But far from being interested in the collective struggles and possibilities that might emerge from gestational workplaces (paid or unpaid) Atwood’s novel was, it is not often remembered, part and parcel of the apex of a specific organized formation of Anglo-European radical-feminist antisurrogacy sentiment. Networks like FINRRAGE were agitating vehemently throughout 1984-1986 for the criminalization of what they called “slavery” (e.g. publishing books like Gena Corea’s The Mother Machine).

What I want to understand by all the claims that “we are living in The Handmaid’s Tale” is that the reactionary moralism of mid-1980s white cultural feminists (to use Alice Echols’ term) is back in force, in the form of campaigns like Stop Surrogacy Now. Because, in reality, the only plausible “we” in question belongs to Black women under chattel slavery. Excitable tweets claiming that “we are living in Gilead now” reproduce a wishful universalist myth at least as old as liberal feminism itself: women, united without regard to class or colonialism, can blame all their woes on evil fundamentalists with guns.

It is, admittedly, to be a killjoy to point out the reactionary mystification and white historic amnesia that lie at the heart of the utopia (yes, utopia) that is Gilead. To add this note of caution and complaint to the glut of commentary already in existence is not, however, to begrudge millions their jubilant experience of feeling activated by Atwood’s parable. It is to demand a better feminist horizon. Given that more and more of us now dream of Gilead (even speaking and dressing the part: “Under His Eye”, etc) it behooves us to reconsider whether this particular script helps us develop practices capable of responding to current conditions. Gender oppression today is still primarily shaped by capitalism, after all, not fascist theocracy.


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