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In defence of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

As only she can, Helen Razer gave Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a real shellacking this week. Atwood and her Handmaid copped it from all sides – the book, and presumably the TV adaptation, represent the failure of liberals to understand the rise of Trump and everything that is wrong with America.

Razer has a point. Margaret Atwood did not predict the rise of Donald Trump. She is not a clairvoyant. The book is not a “forecast” of the future. At times, The Handmaid’s Tale is unsubtle, and the TV adaptation will probably be worse. The way the book and the TV series are being uncritically hailed as a harbinger of the near future is really annoying.

This doesn’t mean, though, that the book is utterly pointless, as Razer suggests, or even that it doesn’t have any interesting – and accurate – reflections on the history of the United States and the liberal order. 

Atwood’s point is not that the worst thing could happen is that America ceases to be “great,” but that it wasn’t so in the first place.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the not too distant future, in a dystopian United States taken over by religious puritans in a violent coup. Women are brutally oppressed, forced into sexual slavery: breeders for rich, white men and their wives. The book follows Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss, pictured below, in the new screen version), a formerly middle class, educated woman who has lost her husband and child, and her struggle to escape her sometimes benevolent master.

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In Atwood’s dystopia, extremists take over Congress at gunpoint and suspend the Constitution. That, Razer suggests, is the most horrifying predictor of the future for American liberals – that a group of powerful elites might not respect a piece of paper. Perhaps unintentionally, though, the book also makes the opposite point: that the Constitution is just that – a piece of paper.

In Atwood’s world, liberal elites and the educated middle class failed to anticipate that the flimsy structures of American democracy would not always protect them. They failed to understand what the powerless have always understood: the Constitution of the United States, already a flawed document written almost entirely in the interests of rich, white men, is easily rendered meaningless. In the book, Atwood suggests that the fictional Americans in her story should have seen it coming – just like real Americans shouldn’t have written off Trump with such derision.

Atwood’s point is not that the worst thing could happen is that America ceases to be “great,” but that it wasn’t so in the first place. Offred’s United States is not exceptional. It is in fact just like those many countries it has coerced into pro-American authoritarianism in Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. It seems only logical that those who favoured right-leaning dictatorships in other places for so long would eventually turn to the same system themselves.

While Razer is probably right in pointing out that Atwood herself demonstrates a “faith in liberalism,” the book doesn’t necessarily do the same. Maybe it was unintentional, but at times The Handmaid’s Tale does the exact opposite. In Offred’s world, the country that has long refused to recognise the realities of class and put its faith instead in the fiction of individualism and the American Dream, class divisions have finally been identified and codified. Divisions have shifted slightly, yes, but class is now clear and openly acknowledged. The rich and the powerful keep slaves and servants who are recognised by their dress and their titles. They are kept in place by violence. This picture is “unsettling” because it is already real for so many Americans. That the story focuses on the middle and upper classes doesn’t invalidate the point.

The book surely alludes to the point that white, upper and middle class liberal women fail to understand structural oppression.

In the book, this change appears on the surface to have happened rapidly, which Razer suggests is ahistorical. Atwood’s methods are certainly questionable, but it’s worth noting that her sources are historical. And if the book is even remotely based on the reality of the American political system, which I think it is, the preconditions required for such a radical event were already in place. Power was seized by a small group of extremists – of which there are many, in many different flavours already in positions of power in the United States – because those radicals were already close to the centre. Razer is right to argue that history unfolds within particular structures and that violence exists within systems. Atwood makes the same point – the United States was subject to a violent seizure of power because it is already a system based on violence.

That violence, in both the book and in reality, is often directed at women. Razer suggests that this is representative of the book’s celebration of liberal feminism. But The Handmaid’s Tale could be interpreted as doing the opposite. The book surely alludes to the point of second-wave feminism: that white, upper and middle class liberal women’s failure to understand structural oppression, and their obsession with symbol, individualism and “calling out” that Razer so rightly detests, offers no prescription for women without power or privilege.

In Atwood’s dystopia, women like Offred learn this lesson in brutal fashion. In the book, at least, Offred passively watches things happen around her. She has no control over her own body. She has no money. She leads a life, in short, already familiar to millions of American women. Women who have no access to reproductive health care, education, employment, or physical safety, mostly as a result of their class or race (or both). Lives that white American liberal women, thanks in part to the current domination of the Republican Party (following decades of neglect by the Democrats) are now being forced to consider in ways they haven’t before.

Many Americans accept as a normal state of affairs that corporations and governments will literally poison the working class with impunity.

Part of the reason Offred and the other handmaids have been forced into this sexual slavery is because of an environmental crisis, a common theme in many of Atwood’s dystopian stories. They are forced to breed because babies are so hard to come by – something that terrifies the powerful. They know they can’t perpetuate their power with, in the words of one current (actual) Congressman, “someone else’s babies“.

In Atwood’s world, white, rich American women can’t conceive because theirs and their partners’ bodies are so riddled with poisons. Those babies that are born are often deformed or dead within days. This is already the daily reality for a great deal of the Third World, as Razer points out – not least because of the actions of the United States. Environmental degradation affects the poor and powerless – overwhelmingly women and children of the Third World – first and worst.

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But within the United States as well, a similar picture has long been emerging. In Flint, Michigan, the drinking water is poisoned by lead, and nothing is being done about it. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Flint is overwhelming black and working class. This is accepted by many Americans as a normal state of affairs; corporations and governments will literally poison the working class with impunity.

In Atwood’s dystopias, just like in the real United States, the wealthy and powerful have protected themselves from the worst effects of environmental degradation. In The Handmaid, like in Atwood’s more explicitly environmentally focused series MaddAddam, those who hold the power isolate themselves from the worst of these effects, which they deliberately inflict on the poor. But, as Atwood points out, maintaining this isolation on a finite planet will get increasingly difficult. The rich get their food, as it were, from the same poisoned dirt. Climate change will mess up everything, eventually – and if the current Presidential administration has anything to do with it, sooner rather than later.

More recently, like many of her liberal feminist peers, Atwood has certainly been irritatingly self-congratulatory. But sometimes stories take on a life of their own and make points they didn’t intend to. The Handmaid’s Tale might purport to tell the story of a radical break with the past, but it actually suggests one possible, not illogical, continuation of it. Razer dismisses the ‘”this could really happen here” claptrap’. My question is, though, hasn’t some of it happened already?

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8 responses to “In defence of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

  1. “A science fiction writers job isn’t predicting the future. A science fiction writer’s job is telling lies” – Ursula Le Guin (quote may not be exact, but the gist is there).

    The point of good science fiction, or at least one of the points, is to take aspects of society and put them into a different context so that we see them more clearly than we would otherwise. It’s not to say “this will happen”, but “this matters”. Although people are joking about the Handmade Tale’s prescience, I don’t think anyone literally thinks “oh it is happening exactly like this”. What they are saying is that Attwood captured the religious fundamentalist drive to control women’s fertility and said that instead of fading away it might grow and strengthen – which is exactly what is happening. Not so much with Trump, but with Pence and Repbulicans in state congresses across the country.

    As to the part about it coming suddenly. It’s a long time since I read The Handmaid’s Tale, but my recollections of it are primarily of the sense that the takeover was presented as something that had been building for a long time, and then a crisis (not specifically economic, but one would expect that to have accompanied other crises) allowed it to happen. People who hadn’t been paying attention were surprised, but once it happened it was obvious that the seeds had been there long before. Jjust like what really happened with the Berlin Wall coming down.

    Part of the point of the book was to say, “see these seeds are here in society, look at them, think about what might happen if we allow them to germinate unregarded”. To attack Attwood for suggesting it all happened improbably fast strikes me as an astonishing reading.

  2. Hi, Emma. Thanks for your retort.
    You can argue that Atwood is a good student of history. And, sure, maybe she has read a lot. This doesn’t mean that her historiography is good. If she can imagine the sudden intrusion by a bunch of heretofore marginalised zealots to power, without giving us any description at all of how they seized that power (in the epilogue, it’s interesting to note that she compares the fictional period of Gilead to the real one of Iran. There’s a Eurocentric laugh, comparing a small transitional economy largely dependent on one commodity against the US, which was about as far from Iran as you could get) then she doesn’t get it.
    I know people like to believe that things can just happen. For example, people are imagining that Trump is the first person to deport undocumented people in large numbers, forgetting that it was Obama who financed ICE and actually expelled more people from the US during his term alone than all of the US Presidents of the 20th century combined. Obama built the infrastructure. Obama made sure the logistics were in place for mass detainment and deportation. In every single week of his administration, he deported more people than the number that finally led people to an airport this year to protest deportations. And yet, people say, heedless of the real and available numbers of people Obama expelled, “this happened suddenly”. No it didn’t.
    As for the claims I have read in the comments here and elsewhere that the Berlin Wall came down suddenly. Sure it did. If you weren’t paying attention. Can no one remember the protests across the eastern bloc and a little thing called the nuclear arms race, in which Russia, having state capitalism and no access to the rapid growth of the US, could not compete? It is absolute malarkey to say that no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. Plenty of people did. There was a thing called Perestroika. There was an open admission by Gorbachev that the Soviet Union would open its borders to global capitalism. I mean, seriously. If a guy says that the borders are coming down, then you should maybe expect borders to come down. To remember the fall of the Berlin Wall as some sort of victory for western capitalism is to crave the victory of western capitalism. Which is fine. Whatever. Just be honest about that. But don’t tell me that no one saw it happening. Suddenly, my foot.
    When you say that Atwood agrees with me that the Constitution is “only a piece of paper”. I didn’t say that the constitution was only a piece of paper. Elements of the superstructure, like legal documents, can always be seen as flimsy, in that they are upheld by our belief. But this belief is formed and emboldened in large part by prevailing economic conditions. Which as far as Atwood is concerned are just all fine. There is no crisis in the culture, other than the moral ones she describes. Economic crises always precede state takeovers. Always. People who are more-or-less content with their material lot will opt to stay with the previous system. So, how is a nation of 300 million going to just agree to give up on all their fun, which we must presume in Atwood’s account they’re having?
    Her book rests on the idea not only of liberalism but that the most powerful force in the US, if not the world, is “patriarchy”. That men are so willing to share in its benefits, whether material or psychological, that they will agree to the abasement of women.
    I would also say that the social reproduction aspect of this book is illogical. If the ruling class are the only people permitted to have babies, how will it sustain itself? They’d worked out all this complex stuff, apparently, about how to keep the population in check, but they hadn’t wondered how a new class of labourers would be socially reproduced. You’d think these evil geniuses who somehow took over all the machinations of state and economy in five seconds would have factored in “where will our new generation of slaves come from?” as a question.
    And the colonies. What is even that? How is this internally focused power that has no labour power focused on anything but the cultural enslavement of women and the service of the new feudal lords going to acquire the military power to colonise? These other developed and developing economies that now have weapons and global trade? And what of the Soviet Union? Man. If there was any time to radicalise the American people, it was during Gilead.
    It’s full of holes. It’s not prescient. And, again, I would like to make the claim that I am only arguing in the first instance with the many people who say that it is prescient and follows some kind of historical logic.
    As for the critiques that I just don’t care about the abuse of women (not from the author of this post, but others here and in my original post). Seriously. I care about the abuse of all people. I know that sexual abuse goes on, but I don’t think that Atwood’s description of how this plays out in the quasi-biblical context of social reproduction is in any way useful or realistic. I think it is a sort of fantasy that underscores the belief that white middle-class feminists have that “all women suffer equally under patriarchy”. Which is actually untrue.

    1. Hi Helen, thanks for your comment.
      I think we agree on a fair bit, actually. I agree, for e.g., that the comparison to Iran is total rubbish. But I think the point here is still that America is not exceptional, as so many Americans continue to insist. It’s nothing like Iran, of course, or any of the other countries the west has forced into historic dependency. But it’s not a shining light on a hill either. That message isn’t aimed at us, but the American liberals/progressives who insist on holding on to it despite all evidence to the contrary. Hard for us to imagine, but still a thing.
      I also agree that it’s pretty frustrating that people seem to believe that things “just happen”. They don’t. I still think though that you can take this point from the book – it’s told from Offred’s perspective, and maybe for her the takeover was sudden (liberal bubble and all that). But there are hints that economic decline and environmental crisis might have had something to do with it – structural issues that build up over decades.
      I see your point about Obama building the infrastructure, too (although it has a much longer history than that). I think there are a couple of points here – Obama was never as progressive as many thought he was. And he and Clinton are representative of liberal/progressive refusal to critique the Democrats etc. Their policies did help Trump’s rise, which as you say, given decades of wage stagnation etc etc shouldn’t have been a surprise. And Trump is building on a long history of violence, oppression, deportations, etc. But I would still argue that his presidency is a historical rupture (though not, as you say, a sudden one).
      To your point about the Berlin Wall, it baffles me why this keeps being brought up too. Nothing about the end of the CW was sudden, you’re right – the fall of the Wall was the symbolic end of decades of momentum. I would say that historians, at least, left the idea of a sudden, spontaneous end to the CW behind a long, long, time ago.
      On the Constitution, again, my point was more that one of the takeaways from the book is that Americans’ faith in it is misplaced. I agree that economic decline is a necessary precondition for the fall, and again, I think there are hints of that in the book.
      On the issue of labour, that is a hole (one of quite a few, I agree). Maybe the ruling class are resting their hope on the breeders having enough babies? The point seems to be that no one can have them, so I guess the idea is that they haven’t thought their plan through? Not such a great leap (see: Trump administration). Again, I think the emphasis here is on the long term political/econonmic/cultural impact of catastrophic environmental decline.
      Anyway, I agree that the book isn’t prescient. And I want to emphasise I never thought for a second you don’t care about the suffering of women – quite the contrary. I hope agreement with your critique of liberal feminism’s total failure to understand power structures came through.
      And I also want to say that I love your writing, and am in furious agreement with you probably 90% of the time. Loved your piece on the Democrats and millennials last week in Crikey.

  3. I’m glad this discussion has arisen because it touches on the middle class subversion of feminist objectives in the 1970s. In NSW Anne Summers and her colleagues, especially Diana Beaton, began Elsie, the famous refuge against violence in inner Sydney that over its first 18 months sheltered 13,500 battered women and children. They had a hard time setting it up, but, through the cooperation of Bill Hayden and Tom Uren, they persisted and gained government support for their initiative. I was living in Melbourne by then, but knew exactly the situations they were dealing with, having been a single mother in inner Sydney in the 1960s. In Melbourne I kept much more middle class company. One friend had a daughter at a very posh school who was writing an essay entitled ‘Is there a culture of poverty?’ I immediately thought she was trying to find out about the wonderful way in which working class women would support each other in inner Sydney – it was out of such cooperation that Elsie was born. Actually, my friend’s daughter was not writing about that at all, but about the ‘poor me’ syndrome that began to inform Liberal Party politics of the time and to leak into feminism, trying to cover over the ugliness in our midst. The If He Beats You, Leave slogans that appeared on Melbourne walls at the time, were ludicrous. There was nowhere to go and women stood to lose everything they owned by leaving. Mandy Sayers wrote a terrific piece on Elsie at 40 years of age, available here http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/40-years-of-elsie-20140411-36h9v.html
    In 2014 the initiative was being privatised. Anne Summers’ comment was that over the last 40 years family violence had worsened because of ice and methamphetamine. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is the tale of womankind and the sooner women stand up for combined practical action and drop selfish sanctimoniousness the better.

  4. Thank you for your article.

    One thing that isn’t mentioned in Razer’s article when she says The Handmaid’s tale has “as much forethought and accuracy as a magic 8 ball” is that Atwood is meticulous in her research.
    She does not pull out of thin air the grotesque practises that are re-presented in The Handmaid’s Tale, as they are all things that have happened historically and/or are happening currently in ‘other parts’ of the world, but of course are fictionalised within the novel: “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened”

    I agree with Razer, it is annoying when anyone says they saw the future coming because it can’t be true, but Margaret Atwood doesn’t herself say that. She says, accurately, that history can show us what can happen and the future can’t be predicted due to the exhaustive number of variants that can change and produce a different outcome. That’s an objective view of future-prediction in my opinion.

    Without spoiling the plot, survivors will tell you that character of Laura in The Blind Assassin could not have been written by an author who was not devoted to accuracy. Rather, by a writer experienced and highly nuanced in her awareness and treatment of facts, so we ought not to dismiss that. I would add that there is a care and a love for people, for women, for men, for children and society.

    Interesting that a charge of inaccuracy could be said of a writer who really knows her facts. I would challenge Razer, if you say that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t fact-based or lacks accuracy, then where is her solidarity with women past and present who suffer from such things? Isn’t that a way of wiping out what happens to them and is happening to them, to say a novel talking about exactly those things isn’t accurate?
    To say that there’s nothing accurate about public hangings, women’s bodies being controlled by the state or to serve patriarchal agendas, women and girls being commodified, etc. is dismissive. I lived in Saudi Arabia as a girl and I can tell you that compared to that, America IS great. It really is. Not perfect, not lacking in hypocrisy or profound inequality and disadvantage, but I think Razer perhaps adopts the liberal attitude she is criticising by minimising how great a free society actually is.

    Razer ends her article with a recommendation for people to read The Handmaid’s Tale who don’t believe in history.
    It’s catchy, but it’s really patronising.

    Margaret Atwood believes in history, she knows it, she studies it and it is apparent in her work.

    She wrote her novel while the Berlin Wall was still up. My father’s from Nablus and at the time of his birth it would have been inconceivable that a massive concrete wall would divide the road from his village to Jerusalem with armed guards at the checkpoint, one entrance for some citizens with one type of number plate and a different entrance for the rest, but that happened.

    It happened quickly. It’s history. It’s standing today.

    The Handmaid’s Tale provides insight into history and it’s a book.

  5. Then there’s the old saying: Sci-fi isn’t about the future, it’s about the present.
    Those claiming that this or that piece of sci-fi ‘predicted’ the this or that aspect of the then future, are missing the point. Even when these ‘predictions’ happen to look accurate.

    Of course, Trump isn’t the harbinger of a United States theocracy.

    But the VP, Mike-I-can’t-eat-a-meal-alone-with-a-woman-who-isn’t-my-wife-Pence is another story. An example, perhaps, of the: “extremists – of which there are many, in many different flavours already in positions of power in the United States”.

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