The Handmaid’s Tale , by Margaret Atwood, was first published in 1985, when I was twenty-four years old. I read and loved it then; I reread it at least once in the next three decades and loved it; I recently reread it again, and still loved it. The book was made into a film starring Natasha Richardson in 1990, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, and directed by Volker Schlöndorff . On April 26, Hulu will release a miniseries based on the book, starring Elisabeth Moss.
The premise of Atwood’s speculative novel is that the United States has been taken over by a fundamentalist Christian theocracy and is now known as The Republic of Gilead. Women, people of color, and non-Christians have lost all their rights; many have been exiled or killed. There have been various environmental disasters, uncontrollable diseases, and a war is ongoing. Infertility is rampant. In this system, if you are a surviving woman, you can be a Wife (a woman married to one of the men in power); a Martha (an older servant-woman); an Econowife (a woman married to a lower-class man); an Aunt (an enforcer and trainer of the Handmaids); and, what the heroine is, a Handmaid (a fertile woman whose job it is to bear children for the Commanders and their Wives). You can also be a Jezebel, i.e., a prostitute; or an Unwoman, and be sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste until your skin falls off. This is, moreover, a world of strict gender binaries. Queer people of any kind are known as Gender Traitors and hanged.
Once a month, when she is most fertile, the Handmaid is brought into the bedroom of the Commander and his Wife for what is called the Ceremony. She lies down, face up, with her head on the stomach of the Wife while the Commander has intercourse with her. Should she become pregnant, the Wife and the Commander claim her baby as their own. Should she not become pregnant after three tours of duty with three different Commanders, she will become an Unwoman. The Handmaids wear long red dresses and winged white headgear, like nuns’ habits. They are strictly maintained and controlled, like valuable cattle; they are not allowed to read; they are known by the name of their Commander (Offred, Ofglen, and so on); their only worth is as baby-making vessels, the means of reproduction for the ruling class.
That image of the Ceremony, the two women yoked into one, the surrogate subsumed by the oppressor, her physical interiority literally stolen from her, has never left me since the day I first read it.
Atwood was writing during the rise of the Moral Majority. (The Commander’s Wife is a dead ringer for Tammy Faye Bakker.) Then, and now, she has said that there is nothing in the book that hasn’t happened somewhere at some time in history, which, as we know, repeats itself. Recently, there has been renewed talk of its prescience, given our current Trumpian moment and the ferocious power grabs of the radical right. The Handmaid’s Tale is often called a feminist novel, and, certainly, it is. Certainly, it is a comment on patriarchy, based as it is on the idea of a country entirely controlled by fundamentalist, white, straight, Christian men.
But it’s odd—and odder still, or maybe not, that it was Mary McCarthy , disdaining the book for The New York Times in 1986 , who first pointed this out—that the book is almost entirely populated by women. Women are the chattel, but they are also the enforcers, the trainers, and, for some, the beneficiaries of the theocratic regime. This is the seesaw of power among women that Atwood explores so well, and that she continued to explore in her next novel, Cat’s Eye , which concerned the terrifying dramas of control and erasure among adolescent girls. In both novels, men are largely offstage. To read The Handmaid’s Tale only as an indictment of patriarchy is to miss quite a large part of its point.
In the Ceremony, the Wife is the head, the top of the social pyramid, sexless and authorized; the Handmaid is the sex organs, subjugated, controlled, and under constant surveillance and suspicion. It is a brilliantly condensed, primal, unforgettable image of the particular way in which women often oppress other women: via surrogacy, co-optation, the collapse of individual identity, and a brutal, hierarchized division of intimate heterosexual labor. The head is simultaneously split from, dependent on, and despising of the body; the body nameless, instrumental, and also highly attuned to the whims of the head, on whose good favor it depends. The Wife aggrandizes herself at the Handmaid’s expense, and yet this narcissism is only one aspect of this dynamic; the reader can smell the Wife’s envy and rage, her spite towards the culturally invalidated, yet rudely alive, woman so very close to her. These are not the dynamics of othering. On the contrary, these are the dynamics of a peculiar form of hyper-identification, which women have often used to steal from women below them in the social order.
Toni Morrison’s 1992 Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination , also limns this sort of surrogacy and vengeance. The book concerns the use of what Morrison calls “The Africanist presence” in canonical American literature to produce and create American whiteness. Her reading of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl examines how the process is enacted specifically between women. Here, the middle-aged white mistress, Sapphira, is convinced her husband is having an affair with a young slave named Nancy. As Sapphira becomes obsessed and abusive toward Nancy, Morrison writes that Sapphira “escapes the necessity of inhabiting her own body by dwelling on the young, healthy, and sexually appetizing Nancy . . . The surrogate black bodies become her hands and feet, her fantasies of sexual ravish and intimacy with her husband, and, not inconsiderably, her sole source of love.” As in Atwood’s book, one woman exploits another by simultaneously feeding on her vitality while shaming and erasing her. Morrison writes that Sapphira “has employed these surrogate, serviceable black bodies for her own purposes of power without risk.” (As a side note of interest, it was Atwood who reviewed Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved for The New York Times Book Review , and gave it a rave.)
So much of the discussion around The Handmaid’s Tale has had to do with what men do to women, but not with what women do to each other, and precisely how. It goes beyond complicity; it is psychic and physical consumption, possibly for its own sake. We have a language for the damage of Othering, but what is our language for the ravages of Same-ing?
In 1985, I understood perfectly well that Atwood was writing about the ways that women control other women, often by making particularly venomous use of love and sex, a place where you can always count on catching at least a few, or many, women out of cultural bounds. In The Handmaid’s Tale , the Aunts talk a lot about “safety,” by which they mean “control.” One of the Aunts explains, “There is more than one kind of freedom—freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” Atwood was alluding to the Venn diagram where the rhetoric of the far right and the rhetoric of some feminists—like the anti-pornography feminists of the 1980s—overlapped, in this area of “safety,” which seemed to me, then and now, like soul-killing prudery. I was out and proud in 1985; I was a feminist; I cut off all my hair with the kitchen scissors; and I wanted to take a flamethrower to anyone who sanctimoniously informed me about what it was or wasn’t “safe” for me to do, think, imagine, or say. I felt especially invaded by anyone who went on about what “all women” want or feel or do or like. Which women, where, and who got to say? What definition of “woman” was being used, and by whom? It felt like someone putting a bag over my head. Then and now, when I hear someone talking about “all women,” my immediate impulse is to run. Indeed, the women I’ve known who were most vicious toward other women were also the ones who spoke with the greatest sense of authority and perpetual woundedness about what “all women” were like and what would or wouldn’t offend them. There is always the latent threat in such statements that if you aren’t offended/outraged/harmed by this or that, you are either a traitor to your gender or not a woman at all—an Unwoman. Fine with me.
Right around then, I had also had the experience, twice, of being used as a queer human shield for other women. In college, my best friend was ostensibly straight, as was a very old friend from childhood. Both became involved with other women for a time; both then ran home and told their parents about me, but not about themselves, on the principle, I guess, that I had signed up for the shame beat-down they didn’t want to experience, although they did want to test what their parents’ reactions might be. (In those days, most family reactions to coming out, including mine, ranged from bad to horrendous.) I was their involuntary trial balloon, the canary in the mine of their family dynamics.
For the first time, but not the last, I realized that the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t identify with me. The problem was that they could, all too well. For the first time, but not the last, I understood that slut-shaming, although we didn’t have that phrase then, wasn’t about being different than the other girls. On the contrary. (Indeed, thirty-some years and many personal and professional experiences later, my advice to anyone who wants to slut-shame me is, Take a number .) For the first time, but not the last, I understood that the idea of a particular collective or tribal affiliation, in this case “being a woman,” can be a bit of a trap, a license for various kinds of theft. Those two young women so long ago weren’t my enemies; they were my intimates, with whom I had much in common. It was because we were in many ways alike, or thought we were, that they felt entitled to use me. And it may have been something else, too, a jealousy that I was able to say what they couldn’t, go where they wouldn’t, be proud where they were ashamed, and their actions were an ingenious form of revenge.
It is interesting that this particular kind of use has never been the issue in my long-term relationships with women; we knew we were different, sometimes radically. Assumptions of sameness, of sororal collegiality, were where the landmines lay. It is interesting, too, that all these years later, after things of far greater consequence have gone on in my life, I still remember the sting of realizing that other women would let you take the punishment not only for what you were, but for what they were. In fact, they’d volunteer your name.
And if I’m being completely honest, although it would be cozier to cast myself as a brave victim, I must say that, even in 1985, I had experienced some of the toxic pleasures of being an Aunt. If I hated any imposed or received ideas about what women were or could do, I was equally entirely sure of my definitions of lesbianism, who did or didn’t qualify, and ruthlessly contemptuous of those who didn’t, which was mostly everyone. Woe betide the straight girl (a common phrase in my set then was “little straight girl”; also “boring”) who earnestly confided her summer camp kiss with another girl . We laughed, or worse, at girls like that; worse still, I enjoyed it. I have sometimes wanted to write an essay called “When I Was Righteous,” because, in those years, I may have had little mainstream social approval, but I got to feel right, right, right all day long, about my particular tribe, my place in it, and who was authorized to be there with me. Exclusion is the secret, or not so secret, vice of many tribes. Back then, what I felt towards most women who weren’t lucky enough to be free and new like us was pity. I loved feeling superior to them; indeed, I loved it far more than anything having to do with challenging men or their power in the world. If that isn’t Auntism, I don’t know what is.
As my life has gone on, and both my own world and the rest of the world has widened so much in ways of gender and of love, I don’t qualify anymore for my own youthful terms of validation. But I still remember the nasty sweetness of Righteousness, of harvesting my confidence from looking down on other women. Perhaps because of being aware of this ugliness within myself, perhaps because I’ve been booted out of a few social compounds for various infractions, at this age I am wary of tribes, of righteousness, and of certainties about identity. I am no longer capable of believing in those kinds of rules and closing those circles. I may always be tribeless now. It may mean that I am kinder than I used to be, but I would be lying if I said there isn’t loss in this.
Let me be clear that I am not saying that the relatively minor cruelties of these incidents and mindsets are the same thing as slavery, which is what both Atwood and Morrison are writing about. I am not equating them. But let me also be clear that I’m not giving women a pass by saying that it’s all down to the men who pull the puppet strings. It’s never that simple, not even in Gilead. As Atwood writes in her new introduction to the novel:
Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even—and, possibly, especially—in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none .
What Atwood leaves out of this cogent analysis is her own brilliant insight into the particular way this power is often created and exercised between women: via a tight rope of identification, whether conscious or unconscious. The Ceremony haunts me not only because it is a metaphor for what a corrupt state can do, but also a metaphor for what a corrupt intimacy can do.
Recently, or maybe not so recently, I’ve begun to wonder if identification with an “other,” which we presume leads to empathy, isn’t the solution, but perhaps the problem, or at least part of it. A few weeks ago, twenty people stood in Astor Place with mirrored cubes over their heads as part of a project for the Tribeca Film Festival, which this troubled year is taking as its theme “seeing yourself in others.” The actors in the cubes could see out, but the passersby saw their own faces reflected in the mirrors, their heads on the bodies of anonymous others. One of the actors, Linda Delores, said of the experience, “Most people don’t know I can see out; they’re taking pictures or videos as if I’m not here. It’s the first time I felt that way— that I was somewhere and not there.” I doubt that alienated experience of the actor is what the organizers intended, but it raises the question of our modern reliance on identification, on an experience of sameness, as the basis of social justice. Must we be knowable to each other, must we be transparent to each other, in order to treat each other decently? Do I have to be able to “identify” with you, or you with me, to enjoy basic civic respect? Do I have to see my face on top of your body, or vice versa, for us to believe in one another’s humanity?
Here in our own time of upheaval in every direction, I feel increasingly uneasy with relying on, or claiming, some sense of sameness and “knowing what it’s like.” I don’t know what it’s like to be you. You don’t know what it’s like to be me. Perhaps we should be free to be mysterious to one another, and to ourselves— semi-visible, semi-comprehensible, untranslatable, opaque, nonparaphrasable, what used to be known as private . No one in Gilead, not even the Commanders, has any privacy; everyone is expected to be fully knowable by, and responsible to, their categories. Waywardness, ambiguity, bewilderment, risk, and the pleasures of open-ended exploration are the first casualties of cultural warfare, as much now as in 1985. Maybe even more so.
Recently, or maybe not so recently, I have begun to wonder if conversations that begin in negative capability, in not-knowing, in, even, the assumption that we’ve already failed and will fail repeatedly to grasp the Umwelt of someone else, anyone else, whether that person seems to be in one’s demographic or not, might be more honest and more human, even more loving. I have grown so tired of declarations, including my own.
In The Handmaid’s Tale , when the heroine is briefly reunited with her old lesbian friend Moira, now a Jezebel, she says, “Tell me everything.” It’s not a command, but a kind of question— Who are you now? Where have you been? It’s the place I’d like to begin every conversation, not only with other women, or friends, or lovers, but with anyone. Maybe it will turn out that we have some things in common. Maybe not.