The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Dear Dystopian Deniers

September 8th, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part seven in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Dear Dystopian Deniers

The Handmaid's Tale (Book - 1985)

Perhaps the most widespread criticism I’ve seen of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it is improbable, unrealistic, a stretch of the imagination.

To wit:

Not Realistic Enough to be Scary; [A]lthough there were a great deal of things about this book that touched me and made me think, I found it simply unbelievable that anyone, male or female, would have tolerated this social system for very long.

Handmaid Tale…; Atwood made this society where it is supposed to be the future, yet women are still being repressed by male dominated society. Theocracy should have been eliminated by this point in time.

Trite and unrealistic.; This book in no way convinced me that American society would end up in the bizarre ‘1984’-like ripoff presented here. To even suggest this as the logical future is completely shortsighted and ignores all advances women have made towards equality in the past hundred years or so.

…and my personal favorite, from “a female conservative”:

Intriguing, but Unlikely; Several of the other reviewers argue that Atwood’s vision is not at all farfetched because of the state of women in Islamic countries. Exactly! I had the same thought in the back of my head the whole time I was reading this book. It is so-called Islamic countries in the Middle East and not Western nations where women are limited to lives as wives and mothers and where the sanctity of the individual is not respected. Had Atwood set her novel in present-day Iran or Iraq, it would ring true in a way that setting it in near-future-day America does not. We have a centuries-old tradition of respecting individual rights in America.

Shorter female conservative: It’s the darkies who are bigots, silly!

Or: What slavery?

Granted, these criticisms are all from regular schlubs on Amazon, so maybe I shouldn’t take them so seriously. (One reviewer name “Brittany” pats herself on the back for hunting down Offred’s real name, which she incorrectly identifies as “June”, while another dismisses it as a “chick book”, and there’s also quite a bit of whining over the book’s “loose ends”…I guess they’d prefer the same sanitized, feel-good Hollywood ending that effectively butchered the movie.)

But it’s a fair point, and one that’s especially pertinent if you’re viewing the 1990 film adaptation which, in its pared down form, didn’t offer much of a back story. So, a refutation for the dystopian deniers. First, I’ll discuss the Republic of Gilead, including their rise to power and how they managed to sustain a dictatorship for as long as they did. I’ll also consider The Handmaid’s Tale in a global context; could it ever happen here?

Given the disjointed flashback/real time/flashback structure of the book, the story of Gilead’s formation is told piecemeal; we never fully grasp how the godbags managed to grab the east coast until the end of the book, in the “Historical Notes”. Rather than being a sudden, violent revolution, it was a slow, gradual erosion of individual rights and civil liberties.

Through Kate’s flashbacks, we learn that her childhood years – the 1980s, roughly the time Atwood was writing The Handmaid’s Tale – were similar the ’70s in terms of the radical feminist activism taking place. Kate’s mother is a prominent feminist activist (I picture her as Gloria Steinem), a single woman raising a daughter on her own, trying to mold Kate into a radical blamer. Kate (then and now) is your (stereo)typical “third-wave” “sex positive” “fun” feminist. As in, not especially. Kate finds many of her mother’s ideas antiquated, particularly when it comes to equality (or lack thereof) in intimate male/female relationships. Kate is sometimes presented as a retrogressive character; during one flashback to her college years, she even admits to temporarily withdrawing from Moira (her BFF) when Moira outs herself as a lesbian. By the time Kate has reached her teen and early adulthood years, the cultural backlash against “second-wave” “radical” feminism is in full swing, and Kate’s even buying into a bit of the hype – despite (or perhaps because of) being raised by a radical activist.

The Sons of Jacob, described as a “top secret…think which the philosophy and social structure of Gilead were hammered out”, was probably active during this time, if not earlier. The Sons of Jacob planned to take advantage of the current social unrest in order to overthrow the government and install their own theocracy. By “current social unrest”, I don’t mean to imply that a backlash against feminism and women’s liberation was the only contributing factor. There were also declining fertility and birth rates (both voluntary and not), coupled with immigration and xenophobia; environmental catastrophes, including pollution from pesticides and nuclear spills (which also contributed to declining fertility and birth defects); and scientific mishaps, like the “sterility-causing virus…developed by…gene-splicing experiments with mumps”.

Neither was the social instability confined to North America; although Atwood doesn’t elucidate the specific social issues affecting other countries (food shortages, oil, the diamond trade, desertification, climate change, declining fish populations, etc.), it is clear that unrest was widespread and at times, quite violent. For instance, before the Sons of Jacob was formed, world governments “recogniz[ed] the superpower arms stalemate and…sign[ed] the classified Spheres of Influence Accord, which left the superpowers free to deal, unhampered by interference, with the growing number of rebellions within their own empires.” Such an agreement suggest that many world governments were dealing with social unrest. (The Accord also helps to explain why the other global superpowers did little to challenge Gilead’s human rights abuses.)

In an America already distracted by “culture wars”, looming environmental catastrophe and possibly the specter of terrorism, the Sons of Jacob plotted their revolution.

For example, the scientists describe one Son of Jacob thusly:

Judd, on the other hand, seems to have been less interested in packaging and more concerned with tactics. It was he who suggested the use of an obscure “CIA” pamphlet on the destabilization of foreign governments as a strategic handbook for the Sons of Jacob.

Far from a rushed, half-assed affair, the Sons of Jacob seem to have planned and plotted Gilead for quite some time. They managed to infiltrate the government, including Congress and possibly even the President’s close personal circle. The group also includes security experts, who compromised security systems, including those protecting prominent politicians. Some Sons wormed their way into financial institutions, natch; how else to explain the freezing of all bank accounts marked “F”? Still others militarized, armed themselves to the teeth, created their own, alternate army. (Leaving this admittedly paranoid blamer to wonder if that’s the real reason why so many conservatives lurv their guns so much.)

Once all the True Believing ™ fundie operatives were in place, they disabled the American government.

Kate recalls,

I guess that’s how they were able to do it [freeze the women’s bank accounts], in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more difficult.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on. […]

Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. They said new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.

From there, the situation kept deteriorating, though some changes – such as the disappearance of the Pornomarts, Feels on Wheels vans and Bun-Dle Buggies – were seen as positive. Soon afterwards all females were fired from their jobs and their bank accounts were frozen. As Kate described it, their feet were cut off, literally and damn near figuratively: with no money, women couldn’t leave the country on their own. Later, after Gilead was officially established, no one was allowed to leave. The borders of Gilead were patrolled regularly, and potential refugees were either captured and returned to Gilead or murdered. (The women, some of whom were considered valuable property, were more likely to be captured alive and returned to Gilead against their wills.)

The Republic of Gilead continued to enforce more and more stringent rules. At first, unmarried men and women were allowed to cohabitate; in time, such things were (presumably) outlawed, and all “illegitimate” marriages were annulled. Even the definition of a “legitimate” marriage changed; while at one point Gilead accepted all heterosexual unions in which neither spouse had previously been married, eventually only those marriages performed by Gilead were recognized. Families were torn apart, but gradually. And not just physically, by the government itself, but also by the mutual distrust fostered between the sexes by the government’s misogynist policies. (See, for example: “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

Once established, Gilead ensured obedience and conformity in a number of ways. Most significantly, they created a police state which was teeming with spies, and not just the Eyes: friends, neighbors, acquaintances, employees, associates, strangers on the street – all are encouraged to eavesdrop and tattle on one another. Through Kate’s narration, you see that her every move is carefully choreographed, down to the greetings she uses when she meets with her paired Handmaid. Speaking of which, Handmaids are sent shopping in pairs with the understanding that they’ll keep one another in line. Though government propaganda claimed that it wanted a society in which women – and men – are all “Comrades”, in truth no one is to be trusted. The slightest misstep could get you killed, as with the Martha who was gunned down by Guardians when she fumbled for her Identipass in her robe. (The Guardians took her for a dissident suicide bomber in drag.) Even in the early days, after the President’s Day Massacre, citizens were already highly distrustful of one another, to the extent that Kate and Luke killed their pet cat before attempting to flee the country, lest she hang around and arouse the neighbors’ suspicions.

Dissidence is dealt with swiftly and brutally. Many nonconformists – gays, lesbians, liberals, religious minorities, people of color, feminists – and “worthless” (i.e., infertile) women are sent to The Colonies to either labor in the fields or clean up radioactive waste (a sure death sentence). If you’re lucky, the state executes you straight away and hangs your corpse on The Wall for all to see. Otherwise, you may be tortured first, or perhaps killed in a public ceremony: a Salvaging, maybe, or a Particicution. Both ceremonies are horrific in their own right.

Women’s Salvagings (we never do get a glimpse of Men’s Salvagings) involve the hanging of sinful women – Handmaids who have had sex with men other than their patriarchs or Wives who have harmed fertile, functioning Handmaids, mostly. Instead of a Hangman, however, all the women collectively participate in the execution: at the other end of the noose is a long, winding rope, with room enough for each woman’s hands to pull, pull, pull! until the “criminal” takes her last breath. In this way, they are all murderers; no woman is innocent. They are co-conspirators in their own oppression.

Particicutions are also a collective effort, though just for the Handmaids. In addition breaking down the women’s sense of morality and ethics, Particicutions provide a scapegoat on which the Handmaids can unleash their anger and frustrations. Here, the Handmaids are literally set loose on a man, usually one who has ostensibly been convicted of raping, murdering or otherwise harming a Handmaid. Most of these so-called misogynists are actually political dissidents, as we see when Ofglen mercifully knocks a fellow May Day member unconscious so that he’s not awake and suffering as the Handmaids rip him apart.

Aside from corporal punishment, Gilead also makes use of propaganda to control its citizens. The media is all owned and operated by the government, and as such, the programming is a mix of Biblical shows and news programs. The religious content conforms to and reinforces Gilead’s specific sectarian ideology, while the “news” shows show proper laudatory deference to the government. Most of the news coverage focuses on the Civil War, and only reports on Gilead’s victories. This feeds into the sense of hopelessness that most Gileadean citizens must surely feel – there’s no one to help free them of this oppressive regime, not other world governments nor guerrilla fighters or rebels. Resistance is futile, and self-preservation is the only solution.

Gilead’s propaganda takes many forms. In fact, the government is rarely truthful with its citizens. They omit, add to and intentionally misrepresent Biblical verses, in order to support whatever unjust new law they’ve devised. (The Bibles are kept locked up, so the women folk will never know otherwise!) Social interactions such as greetings and farewells are highly scripted, thus encouraging a sort of mindless fugue state; religious phrases repeated ad nauseum start to take hold here, when a person’s defenses are down. “Blessed be the fruit.” “May the Lord open.” “We’ve been sent good weather.” “Which I receive with joy.” “Praise be.” “Under His Eye.”

Simply put, Gilead is a cult: citizens are broken and brainwashed, and those which cannot be forced into conformity are killed or sent away. These changes weren’t introduced all at once, but piecemeal. Once one egregious policy gained widespread acceptance (or tolerance), another was introduced, and so on. By the time it became obvious what was happening, Gilead was already a carefully patrolled police state, within and without. Those who wanted to leave, couldn’t.

(For a more in-depth discussion of how Gilead controls women, see: Misogyny & the Oppression of Women; for men, see: The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too.)

Not all of Gilead’s citizens readily accept their new lots in life, however. We see through Ofglen, Nick and Moira that there’s a highly secretive and organized resistance movement active within (and without) Gilead’s borders. Several hundred years later, it becomes clear that they – and possibly others – did succeed in toppling Gilead.

As for the realism (or, more accurately, lack thereof) in Atwood’s story, the only aspect of Gilead’s story I find questionable is the President’s Day Massacre. With 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, the U.S. Congress is quite large. Could the Sons of Jacob assassinate 537+ people (some of them, including the President and VP, tightly guarded) in a single day? Personally, I find it improbable, but not impossible.

Even so, that’s really the only suspension of belief required in The Handmaid’s Tale – the rest is quite believable. The ways in which Gilead controls its citizens are nothing new; indeed, our scientists of the future observe, “[T]here was little that was truly original with or indigenous to Gilead: its genius was synthesis.”

In addition to bolstering the believability of Atwood’s story (i.e., not only did Gilead come to power, they did so using proven strategies, employed by similarly oppressive governments in the past), our future scientist’s remarks also go to the questions of whether such a thing might happen in the here, the now, on American soil, even. The answer is a resounding YES!

Looking to the past, human history is littered with oppressive regimes and movements: the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, the European witch hunts from 1450 to 1700, Nazi Germany, Stalinism. Today, we see theocracies in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey; military juntas in Myanmar and Zimbabwe; genocide in Sudan.

Even America, in its brief life, is guilty of heinous human rights abuses – slavery, segregation, prohibitions against interracial and gay marriage, relegating women and people of color to varying degrees of property status, the denial of women’s and POC’s suffrage, genocide (e.g., Native Americans, among others), the internment of Japanese-, German- and Italian-Americans during WWII…the list is painfully long.

Even today, (particularly though not solely) under the Bush administration, there’s a palpable but gradual erosion of civil liberties, to the point where vegan potluck-goers are identified as “the number one domestic threat”. Much of this is done under the guise of fighting terrorism…and so is tolerated, even accepted and encouraged, by many Americans. Meanwhile, Christian fundamentalists, in their quest to enact religiously-based laws, mourn the secularization of America…all the while decrying “Islamofascism”. Ironic, dontchathink?

While this blamer generally considers herself a pessimist, I do believe that human progress is lurching forward, albeit slowly and erratically. Life in America is better today for most (all?) marginalized groups than it was at America’s (“New World”) conception. Yet, complacency is dangerous. Without continued vigilance, there’s the ever-looming risk of falling backwards, into regressive, oppressive modes of being. The specter of terrorism (or socialism, atheism, “loose” morals and the like) must never be used – or, more to the point, accepted – as a justification for the government to curb our civil rights and liberties. And yet, it’s happened many times in our past – and it’s happening in our present.


A Republic of Gilead in Northeast America? Totally believable. Not in spite of all the progress we’ve made, but because of it. Because, the further we move away from our history (especially in memory) – the more we romanticize and dismiss it – the more we doom ourselves to repeat it.

So thank you, “female conservative”; thank you for your willful ignorance, your xenophobia and racism, your blind nationalism and unquestioning patriotism. When I find myself imprisoned as a Handmaid, you’ll be partially to blame.


The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Table of Contents

1. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Intro & Plot Summary

2. Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

4. The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

5. A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

6. Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

7. Dear Dystopian Deniers

8. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

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