How did a thriving democracy become a restrictive Christian theocracy?
As the 1990 film describes the process, a small cadre of religious men led a military coup to take-over what they increasingly viewed as a Godless country. Because wide-spread sterility had set in, these men believed that God had sent America a “plague of barrenness, a desert of infertility.”
God’s reasoning, they surmised, was that the Lord didn’t approve of abortion, birth control, artificial insemination, test tube babies or homosexuality. These men thus usurped control of the United States, relegated minority citizens to death camps, made homosexuality a “gender treachery crime,” and greatly curtailed the rights of women, particularly fertile women.
In the future imagined by The Handmaid’s Tale (1990), the rich, white elite have gamed the system to consolidate political and personal power. These upstanding “Christian” men stride atop of the society’s food chain while their infertile wives are left at home (with ample servants) to pine away for children and motherhood. Meanwhile, these same men can lawfully engage in sex with fertile “handmaids” so as to conceive children.
Where do these handmaids come from? Well, from anywhere the men can get them, even if the fertile women are already mothers and wives in other, less fortunate families.
Family values only matter, you see, if it’s your family that you value.
“We are weeding out the Godless.”
The Handmaid’s Tale
focuses on a woman named Kate (Natasha Richardson) who loses her family at a border crossing at Canada and is subsequently indoctrinated into “The Red Center
” to serve as a handmaid for Gilead’s security chief, The Commander (Robert Duvall).
At the handmaid training facility, Kate meets Moira (Elizabeth McGovern), a lesbian who is also being re-trained in the new faith as a kind of nun/sexual partner. At one point, Moira plots an escape from the facility, and Kate helps her.
Meanwhile, the Commander is married to a bitter, loveless woman, ironically named Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), who longs for children, not so much for personal happiness or fulfillment, but so as to keep up with the Joneses.
All the wealthy neighbors are becoming mothers you see, and showing off adorable little infants at lovely afternoon garden parties…
Even as Kate attempts to learn what has become of her own biological daughter, she endures state-sanctioned sexual slavery with the Commander. Unfortunately, the Commander is sterile, which means Kate will ultimately be blamed for the failure to conceive a child. She could be rendered an “un-woman” for her failure, and sent to a work camp.
In this world, you see, it is always the woman’s fault when something goes wrong for a man. Gang-rape victims merely “lead on” their attackers, and those who have had abortions (for any reason…) are widely termed “sluts” and “whores.” Those who accept handmaidenship are encouraged at one level. “You’re the lucky ones,” they are told by their “aunts” (trainers): “You are going to serve God and your country. Amen.”
Yet on another level, the handmaids they are derided as “tramps” by so-called respectable family women. They can never be accepted as fellow human beings because the upper class (infertile) women resent their ability to have children, and their intimacy with their husbands. Handmaidenship is thus both enslavement and a trap. The women who serve as handmaids are saddled with bright red uniforms; a kind of scarlet letter-styled nun’s habit symbolizing their conflicted place in the culture.
When Kate realizes she will face severe punishment — perhaps even death — if she fails to conceive a child for the Commander, she makes love to the Commander’s driver, Nick (Aidan Quinn), with the full blessing of Serena Joy. Without a choice, Kate then becomes part of a political conspiracy to topple Gilead. The message here is eminently worth noting: these restrictive “family”-oriented laws of Gilead only serve to encourage duplicity and treachery, and actually tear families apart rather than bring them together.
In the end, Kate and Nick attempt to flee Gilead and the house of Commander, but not before a night of bloody violence ensues…
“You can give birth for our country.”
In brief snippets and in TV footage, images of the U.S. Capitol and flag appear throughout The Handmaid’s Tale, a deliberately feminist-minded dystopian vision.
We have seen this war on women escalated in 2011 on a variety of fronts. There has been a Congressional effort to redefine rape to better protect the rapist, the Tea Party attempt to eliminate government funding for family planning, and even, in South Dakota, the proposed expansion of the definition of “justifiable homicide” to protect those who murder — in the name of God, apparently — abortion providers.
Cumulatively, these proposals are not about cutting debt, creating employment, or even reducing abortions, but about limiting the freedom of women to control their own bodies.
The attempt to redefine and whitewash rape is particularly loathsome, as was the not-intended-to-be-factual-statement by Senator Kyl that “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does” involves abortion. That self-admitted lie does not acknowledge the abundant good work done by Planned Parenthood regarding cancer screenings for women in poverty, and for women without health care. You can absolutely hate abortion with every fiber of your being and at the same time still appreciate the work Planned Parenthood does saving women’s lives. Being pro-life means being pro-life in all circumstances, not just for the unborn, right?
The Handmaid’s Tale imaginatively and chillingly speculates about the logical outcome of a world in which such draconian laws and beliefs about women and their bodies ultimately prevail. Women have become totally subservient to men and to the needs of men in Gilead Their bodies, even, have become the playground for men to use and abuse as they see fit. A handmaid cannot refuse her “owner.” And in the sanctified sex act of the handmaid (always begun after a Christian prayer…) the man need not consider the women’s pleasure, comfort, or even, actually, consent. No foreplay is required, either…just ejaculation. The basis for this new kind of conception is, of course, the Bible, and the story of Rachel and her handmaid. There’s always a religious basis or cover for the laws of Gilead, for the men of the republic to hide behind.
Perhaps the real value and worth in The Handmaid’s Tale comes in its depiction of these “morally-upright” men who believe they have done God’s work on Earth by creating this theocracy. As audiences see from the the depiction of the Commander, he is a hypocrite who thrives on instilling fear in the less fortunate. He keeps forbidden items (like women’s magazines) in his office, and frequents a bar where illegal liquor is consumed, and where young women serve as full-time prostitutes.
For me, this has always been the most important flaw in many of our nation’s most prominent right-wing moralizers. Not that they are anti-abortion in philosophical stance, per se (that’s an individual moral decision I would never judge), but that they are, by-and-large, flaming hypocrites. Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde and Bob Livingston all wanted to prosecute President Clinton for his marital infidelities when they, in fact, were guilty of conducting the same infidelities. Yes…the infidelty is certainly wrong, but what’s far worse is the hypocrisy concerning it.
The list could go on and on. David Vitter. John Ensign. Larry Craig. Mark Foley. Jimmy Swaggart. Ted Haggard. All of these men loudly and self-righteously preached traditional morality while, in secret, flaunting it. To me, this is a crime much worse than a mistake in judgment and having an extra-marital affair (and asking for forgiveness).
In the film, the Commander is of the same stripe. He rails against “all those people on welfare,” against “the homos” and “the blacks” and the “pressure groups” who were in control of Congress. But look closely at this man: wallowing in drink, prostitution, and state-sanctioned sexual slavery. Like so many of the real-life public figures listed above, the Commander’s problem is not his personal belief or value system, it’s his total and complete hypocrisy regarding it. While claiming to be a Christian, he clearly doesn’t remember the message of Matthew 7:5 “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is very powerful in detailing the effect of a theocracy on women’s rights, and in acknowledging the hypocrisy of so many self-stated “moral guardians” in our midst. Unfortunately, except for a few relatively powerful scenes (like the three-way, religious-minded sex act between Duvall, Richardson and Dunaway), The Handmaid’s Tale is not a particularly engaging or artistically-rendered film.
The lackluster, almost dull, cable-TV-styled presentation of a thought-provoking story renders The Handmaid’s Tale
stale and uninvolving on a gut, emotional level. On a cerebral level, one can detect how the details of the story dovetail uncomfortably with contemporary reality, but beyond that recognition, the movie plays, uncomfortably at times, like a burgeoning Victorian romance between Nick and Kate. Or as the Washington Post’s
Rita Kempley described it, as “less a reproductive horror story than a blanked-out bodice ripper, another femme fatality
I mean, there’s clearly a mixed message here. Kate is ultimately “rescued” by Nick, also a man — to whom she is apparently in full romantic thrall. And then, in the film’s finale, she spends her time locked in a trailer outside Gilead, again a kind of kept woman. Perhaps that’s the film’s very point; that even outside Gilead, Kate — as a woman — will never have control over her own destiny.
But I just wish the movie played that poignant final note with a little more oomph and conviction before fading to black. This is supposed to be the Handmaid’s tale. The very title of the piece promises a personal viewpoint, and so the audience wants to feel and understand what Kate goes through, not merely observe life in Gilead passively, and from some safe distance.