The Handmaid’s Tale
**Part two of my series on The Handmaid’s Tale.**
At their core, the Sons of Jacob are not a religiously motivated group. They talk a big game, but their religiosity is ultimately a mask. Everyone in their society does what they want with the power that they have.
For every sentiment you see in a religious text, you can find a contradictory one to match it, so let’s investigate the society and see what they really care about.
The first thing that you see is that they are very interested in what women do with their lives, except they are very inconsistent about what they want women to do with their lives:
- They want to improve birth rates, but they keep killing people who can get pregnant and enslaving people who could be doing scientific research to advance that cause.
- They want women to be more maternal except they keep taking newborn babies away from handmaids who could be forming a maternal bond with their children.
- Maybe they want women to be more conservative and less sexual, but if that’s the case, why do they keep a publicly owned brothel for elites to visit?
- Maybe they want women to be more servile and domestic around the home, but wives are not expected to do anything: they have Marthas to take care of all of the stuff biblical wives would have done, and handmaids aren’t expected to do any manual labor either.
So there are a lot of exceptions here and it should be no surprise that the Sons of Jacob as a whole do not care about principle. (At least not the principles that they espouse.) This isn’t a case of having taken their beliefs too: far it’s about awkwardly maneuvering their beliefs around just enough to do… what they really want.
To divide and conquer women.
The books are excellent at exploring this dynamic. Offred is despised by the people in her household. The Martha’s Rita and Cora talk about her like she’s a pet who has long since outlived being adorable. Econowives, that is to say, wives of lower level people who are expected to do all of the jobs of these segmented women, are utterly disgusted by the handmaids.
And Offred herself despises other women: in the book, it’s made very clear that her relationship with Janine is not as magnanimous as it is in the show.
In the show it’s made explicitly clear that Janine is suffering from mental health problems, and June/Offred is very interested in taking her under her wing and protecting her. But in the book, which is completely framed by Offred, Janine is shown to be something of a pathological liar. Offred goes so far as to speculate that Janine may have lied about the horrific gang rape that she was subjected to at the age of 14.
She believes that Ofglen is a sniveling little rat that would turn against her in a second, even though she was actually the one who was participating in the MayDay rebellion, as a result of the fact that they are put there to spy on each other.
The book 1984 is partial to Winston Smith’s point of view, even though it’s not told in the first-person, and Winston Smith goes around through life in the party assuming that everyone is worse than him. He assumes that everyone he has not had a good chance to talk to must be a party hack because they seem so devout when they’re walking around doing their jobs. Of course to them he also looks like a party hack because he goes around acting as zealous as all of them.
Like in 1984, where people who are actually in the same boat, are convinced that they ought to turn against and hate each other, The Handmaid’s Tale explores that divide and conquer strategy on an individual level. The book has an interesting means of exploring this divide and conquer dynamic in the way that different women attempt to subvert their subjugation in different ways.
Atwood implies that the anti-pornography line espoused by the third wave feminists of the 1980s belied a sort of naivete and frivolousness compared to the truly pernicious aspects of patriarchy. Like, a bunch of elites were poised to throw a coup, imprison women, queer people and people of color, and Offred’s mom and her friends were out burning pornography.
Phrased differently, the fascists in the Sons of Jacob were taking away women’s sexual freedom while these feminists were burning and defiling images of women engaging in consensual sex in a way that profited them.
The feminists depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale novel condemn a symbol of patriarchal oppression of women’s bodies, rather than attacking the actual harm happening in the seats of congress or in the powerful lobbies where women were being consigned to literal rape and slavery.
In the book, Offred remembers not liking the activism her mother engages in simply because it’s antithetical to living a life. Offred just wanted to spend time with her mother as a child and have a quiet life with her husband and daughter as an adult. She felt that her mother’s revolutionary aspirations belittled her for simply wanting to have a fun and peaceful life with the people that she loved.
The book condemns Offred’s mother for her shallow attempts at fighting patriarchy, but it also punishes Offred for having been too passive in her life before the Gilead coup d’etat. Not only are the post coup castes of women separated and poised to shame each other and silence each other, but even the free women of the pre-Gilead era seem to have no ability to unify their efforts and work towards the goal of gender liberation. They are incapable of staving off their own subjugation because they’re too busy shaming each other.
In this way, women as a class in the novel are shown to be almost incapable of forming solidarity. But this is changed in the show. Because the series is set in the modern era, pornography is not the subject of June’s mother’s feminism. Unlike the third wave feminists of the prior generation, June and her mother’s era focus on topics like rape and sexual assault.
In the novel, there is a scene where Offred remembers accompanying her mother to a rally where women burned pornography. But in the show, this is updated to a scene where June’s mother takes her to a Take Back the Night rally where women burn the names of people who have sexually assaulted them.
This change makes the pre-Gilead harm women face far more material and less symbolic. It’s not porn depicting bad power imbalances, it’s rape. It’s real violation of consent. Likewise, the show does seem more optimistic about the idea of women’s solidarity.
Check out Shain’s video for the whole take on their YouTube channel.