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Holy Hell! Why am I watching this? It won so many awards, but I’m finding it disturbing. I’m freaking out! Why aren’t I watching Downton Abbey?
Having no awareness of the series’ plot, I’d borrowed the first-season DVDs of The Handmaid’s Tale from my public library, simply to pass the time when none of the 400 channels in my rip-off cable package was broadcasting anything of substance.
As the story unfolded, I sat spell-bound, binge-watching two seasons in less than one month.
As a writer, I was captivated by the asynchronous storytelling. As a woman, I was terrified of my gender being relegated (once again) to servitude. As an American, I was horrified watching my country become the Republic of Gilead.
Even worse, when the DVDs ended, I was still watching women losing rights and my country transitioning to Gilead.
Gilead: The biblically-derived name The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood gave a portion of the United States after the government was overthrown by fundamentalist Christians, assassinating members of Congress to create a theocratic military dictatorship where women’s primary responsibility is to bear children and to serve the ruling class.
Sharia law: when laws are created or interpreted based on religion. Although the term is most often associated with Islam and the Qur’an, every religion imposes prohibitions or decrees on its members despite how courts interpret secular laws.
Danger arises when government is the entity imposing behavioral expectations based on religious values. When compliance is no longer voluntary. When the First Amendment precept of separation of church and state is no longer recognized, enforced, or is outright violated. When a secular government decides that a woman no longer has the right to terminate her pregnancy, despite the First Amendment’s prescient mandate since 1791 that government must protect itself from the imposition of any religion.
Under his eye.
My obsession with The Handmaid’s Tale led me to watch an interview with Atwood who spoke of the reception her dystopian novel received when first published in 1985. The British declared it “a jolly good yarn,” praising the author’s vivid imagination. Readers in Canada nervously considered, “Could it happen here?” In the United States, an informed reaction was, “How long do we have?”
Today, I respond, “Not long.”
In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, Atwood said she didn’t include anything in her novel that hadn’t previously happened or for which the technology didn’t already exist. “I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behavior. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the ‘Christian’ tradition, itself.”
As an aside, she noted that atrocities committed by Christians through the ages would have been abhorrent to the person after whom the faith is named.
And this was before the ascendancy of Trump, the evangelicals’ savior. The ultimate commander.
In Gilead, over time, women slowly lost the most basic of rights. The Constitution was suspended when authoritarianism and fundamentalism took over, and martial law was declared. Christian men who’d imposed such restrictions on women still have their jezebels; they can still “grab pussy,” so to speak. Language is manipulated for marketing the belief systems and to suppress emotions: Gays are gender traitors, rape is the ceremony, public executions are salvaging, feminists are unwomen.
Journalism is fake news. (Oh, wait. That’s our current U.S. administration. In Gilead, all the journalists are gone.)
In her novel, Atwood wrote “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” Or put another way, Gilead became possible because everyone had continued business-as-usual while rights were being stripped away…until it was too late.
Blessed be the fruit.
One reason I compulsively watched the Tale was because I needed to see organized resistance, hoping against hope it would surface. But non-compliance in Gilead is met with harsh consequences: public hangings, mutilation, exile to hard labor in a toxic dump. Most handmaids are too frightened and beaten down – emotionally and physically – to fight back. They’re forced to be compliant, even having to accept rape without screaming, without whimpering. Complicit wives hold them down as their husbands rape them, in order to conceive a child for the couple to raise.
May the Lord open.
What bothered me the most is that I could watch the screen without averting my eyes. I could watch because the handmaids’ faces were impassive. So, my brain told me it wasn’t horrible because the women weren’t reacting.
My God! Not horrible because the women aren’t reacting?
Does that mean the reproductive freedom taken away from women throughout the United States today isn’t horrible because we don’t see first-hand the beaten-down victims crying and raging? Or maybe we can’t relate because we don’t know those women. Is that what it takes to empathize, to revolt, take a stand against what we know is inherently oppressive sharia law?
If that’s the case, here’s my declaration: I’ve never had to terminate a pregnancy; I’m grateful my circumstances were such. And, now, I’m past my child-bearing years. But I honor and support my friends and relatives who’ve had to turn to that desperate option due to rape, incest, marital instability, health, finances, immaturity, education, career, or other reasons that are none of my (or your) business. I’ve escorted desperate women past the deplorable protesters who yelled “Murderer!” in our faces. I’ve witnessed friends’ insidious and enduring self-loathing after the procedure. Some, in an act of misguided atonement, even became staunch anti-choicers, denying others the same opportunity they had to direct the course of their lives.
My mother was very Catholic. I mean very, as in daily-Rosary Catholic. Therefore, her public support for choice baffled me. It didn’t fit with her Vatican-dictated faith. After she died, stories wafted forth about my ancestors, which seemed to explain this anomaly. And may have shortened at least one foremother’s life.
Whether legal or not, women will find a way to exercise their choice; they have since the most primitive of options were identified. Many will not survive should sharia law take effect. If they do, they could be imprisoned.
Non-compliance in Gilead is met with harsh consequences.
Ann Dowd, the actress who plays brutal Aunt Lydia on the series, publicly challenges the hypocrisy of fundamentalists. “We’re all pro-life,” Dowd says. “They’re just pro-birth,” noting their lack of concern for babies brought into the world. She recommends they “go to church and ask forgiveness.” And warns women to fight back. NOW. Before it’s too late.
I vow to defend every woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. And I challenge others to make their own declarations, to lend a human face to this issue.
Come out of the back room.
Abort this movement to control women’s lives and bodies. Now.
Abort this dangerous slide into sharia law. Now.
Because we are not handmaids. Yet.
In Season 3, the handmaids fight back.
So must we.
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of They Live on: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad and the editor of the anthology Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women before Rosie Started Riveting. Her blog can be found at www.journalartspress.com.
Copyright 2019 Patricia A. Nugent