Some books are best read while you are a teenager. George Orwell’s 1984 springs to mind, as does his Animal Farm, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But of all the really great teenage literature out there—the books and short stories that set the teenage heart on fire and inspire him to take on The Man, to battle injustice and racism and oppression and capitalism and communism and all the other Evils of Society—of all the books and short stories that, while best read as a teenager, (should) continue to fire the mind decades later—almost every one of them is about men. For some reason raging against The Man seems best done by the Holden Caulfields in the world; while Katniss might provide a female archetype for taking on a dystopic government, her role as heroine is far too romantic, far too accidental, to really inspire midnight thoughts for academics and amateurs alike in the decades to come. 


Against—or more properly, beside—this tide of man-against-the-word, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale stands as a strong, feminine, woman-against-the-world story to inspire teenage women (and men!) to take on the insidious effects of misogynism like Invisible Man inspires its readers to take on racism.


Like Ellison’s unnamed hero, Atwood’s heroine has been stripped of her name by her society. The namelessness of both protagonists serves doubly to endear them to the reader (this could be me thinking these thoughts, suffering these things) and to highlight the extent and experience of dehumanization. 


Your name belongs to you but is used by others. When others deny you your name, they implicitly disrespect your unique dignity. When grown black men are addressed as “boy” or grown women of any ethnicity referred to as “girl,” the dignity due to an adult human person, signaled by the use of his or her proper name or title (i.e., “sir,” or “doctor,” or “miss,” or “professor”), is mocked. 


Please note that the actual dignity of the individual—as both Ellison and Atwood prove—is inviolable. An entire society can commit atrocities of racism or sexism or classism which damage an individual’s socio-economic “chances” in life, or his/her conception of self-worth. As an adult who has been referred to as a child by those who really should know better, I know that such casual denigration can wound a person’s self-confidence and self-understanding. But the use of slurs—racial or sexual or otherwise—cannot actually remove a person’s dignity. God invests each human being with his imago Dei, and no amount of abuse by other humans (or even by ourselves) can remove the value placed upon and within every human person by God.


In the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator introduces herself as Offred—that is, Belonging to Fred, the man who “owns” her for her fertility. Although we eventually learn that the narrator has found some way to escape the dystopic nation of Gilead (which seems largely to be a post-United States country), she never reveals her true name. The reader knows her only by the slurs assigned to her by others. 


Attwood’s purposes in leaving her heroine ultimately nameless is no doubt akin to Ellison’s choice to leave his hero unnamed. While Ellison’s world in Invisible Man is, in fact, the disturbing world of 1940s and 1950s American racism, Attwood’s Gilead is the not-too-distant dystopian future of 1980s American sexism. 


Painting freely on a canvas of the dystopic genre, Attwood highlights in the absurd the plight of late 20th-century women: society has reduced their entire worth to their ability to reproduce. In the time “before” unlimited access to birth control, abortion and pornography, coupled with pollution of the air, water, and earth has led to a crisis of fertility. In the time “before” of the book, women are as worthless as plastic toys in fast food kids’ meals. Women are “cheap.” They might be beautiful or self-possessed, they might have jobs or money, but they are not respected or cherished for their uniqueness as women; they are not cared for in their fragility. 


In the time “now” of the book—the time of Gilead, when Offred has become a “Handmaiden”—a woman’s societal rank is completely determined by her relationship to a man: is she his wife? his servant? his prostitute? If she is fertile, if she can bear a child, she is precious to the entire society for her fertility. In a world plagued with barrenness, she bears fruit for the good of the nation. In the “now” of the book, each woman has a very specific worth, like tableware of varying usefulness and craftsmanship: this one is worth all the dignity of a Jezebel, this one a Wife, this one a Handmaid, this one an Aunt, this one an Econowife. Women are valuable and treasured, but as commodities, not as human beings who really should be priceless.


Through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, the reader is made increasingly aware of the absurdity of commoditizing women, either as “cheap”—valuing a woman for her sexuality divorced from her individuality and fertility—or as “treasured”—valuing a woman for her fertility divorced from her individuality and vivacity.


Hulu’s new episodic series adopts Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for today. Now set in 2015 in a Gilead which feels like today but never really happened, Hulu’s adaptation changes some things, no doubt, in response to what the show’s writers see plaguing women today as different from the 1980s.


The 2015 edition of Gilead is still a totalitarian Christian(ish) dystopia—characters are plagued by extraordinarily questionable interpretations of eisegeted Old Testament passages, Catholic priests are still be killed off (presumably for questioning the whole faith-without-reason, Scripture-without-tradition policy which has set Gilead on such a despicable path), and flashbacks to “before” still show a world where women worked and played freely but children were rare.


Hulu rushes to show that women’s rights are not the sole pursuit of privileged white women: the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Offred was married to a black man in the time-before; her best friend is a black lesbian; extras of rainbow ethnicities fill the background of busy scenes.


While Atwood’s text laudably decries the ranking of women according to the lightness of their skin but proceeds with an all-white cast of characters, Hulu’s series attempts to sweep racial tensions under the rug through the device of a biracial family and sassy black friend. If only contemporary America was so easily appeased.


Hulu’s series does believably contextualize Gilead’s “before” and “now” in contemporary America in its dealings with sexuality. Several lesbian characters are depicted both as well rounded individuals (i.e., they are not defined merely by their sexual orientation) and as sympathetic characters, and Offred has a name.


Offred’s name, in Hulu’s time “before,” was June. Why Hulu chose to name this character is a mystery, and not the good kind.


The dystopic society of Hulu’s series has been simplified for portrayal on the screen rather than the page: gone are the Econowives, all knowledge of life outside the highest ranking levels of society is obscured. Clear indicators of where the series takes place mark out significant political themes: we catch sight of the Arlington metro station, hear about the war in Florida, and the Commander visits DC, negotiates with the UN, and e-mails Canadian newspapers. 


The Christian(ish)-ness of Gilead is tacitly linked to a misogynistic right-winged version of politics which seems somewhat like the administration ruling contemporary America. 


Of course, this is what the best dystopias do: show you the evils lurking just beneath the surface of your own world.


In its hurry to identify Gilead with Washington, though, Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale has forgotten an important lesson from Attwood’s book: pornography and abortion and birth control undermine the dignity of women by commoditizing their bodies in the same way as Gilead’s absurd laws of forced sexual intercourse upon and limited politico-economic engagement undermines women’s dignity. 


If a woman is valued merely (or primarily) for her sexuality: whether by thrusting upon her the obligation to be readily available for sex while sparing men the emotional and familial obligations of potential fatherhood OR as a vessel which might one day hold a child, then her personhood is denied, she is rendered nameless in her society, denied even the respect due a concubine when she becomes “walking ovaries”—contracepted or not.


Although Hulu’s Offred speaks that famous phrase about “walking ovaries,” in the four episodes Hulu has aired so far, they seem to have forgotten this essential insight of The Handmaid’s Tale. In their quest to update the story for a 2017 audience, they’ve forgotten that recognizing and respecting women’s dignity is NOT equivalent to the right to “choose” abortion or contraception. 


A woman’s worth is in her humanity, in her inviolable dignity as a creature made imago Dei, not her sexuality.


Stay tuned for Part II.  The Holy Ruckus has more about "The Handmaid's Tale" in an upcoming blog by Chloe Morrill. 

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