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The Handmaiden’s Tale: Conservative’s Dream, Feminist’s Horror

Note: If you haven’t watched The Handmaid’s Tale (SBS On Demand), and plan to, this post does not include spoilers. I will give a vague idea about what the series is about, but it won’t give the plot away.

The Handmaid’s Tale mesmerised and repulsed me in equal measure. Yes, it is fiction. I get that. But art reflects life, and the life this series reflects is a little too apparent in the attitude of many powerful people in our society to make me rest completely easy in ‘that could never happen to us’ fiction watching comfort. So, what have I learned about Conservative ideology from the fictional dystopia of the Republic of Gilead? Read on to share my horror.

The rights of women are hard fought and women should be proud of how far we’ve come. But, we have a long way to go, and we should never rest on our laurels to assume our rights cannot be un-done. Mike Pence, one impeachment away from the Presidency of the United States is a staunch anti-abortionist. President Trump won the presidency after a lifetime of misogynistic, sexually lewd and disrespectful behaviour towards women. A president who owned beauty pageants, who says he would date his daughter if she wasn’t his relation, who boasts about grabbing women on the pussy and forcing himself on them, and who thinks a compliment to France’s First Lady is to tell her she’s in ‘good shape’, is the same man now removing women’s rights to maternity care from health insurance.

These are two men with power over the lives of women. They were elected by both men and women who at least disregarded their attitudes towards women, and at most support these attitudes. And don’t for a moment think those men are over there in the US, and not here in Australia. Case in point: Tony Abbott. And Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull has continued Abbott’s legacy of disregarding the needs of women and undermining women’s rights in a myriad of seemingly small but individually devastating ways, such as through cutting funding to women’s domestic violence shelters and trying but thankfully so far failing to cut maternity leave pay.

The men who vote for, and cheerlead for these politicians are the same types of men who troll the internet for hours every day, writing abuse on Clementine Ford’s Facebook page, and supporting the army of conservative commentators who bully women who have opinions, such as Yassmin Abdel-Magied. These men, their ‘shock-jock’ idols, and their political heroes, would relish the opportunity to live in Gilead, where women aren’t allowed to read, own property, work or choose their clothes. The women of this fictional land, reduced to homemakers and childrearers, are meant to appreciate their freedom from the demands of modern society, allowing them to fulfil their ‘biological destiny’ as baby-makers. Yuck!

Why would these men relish such a world? Why would men, who campaigned to ‘lock Hillary up’ willingly take society back to the dark ages if it meant putting women back in their place, below men on the pecking order of moral authority, back in the kitchen, out of the workplace, away from decision-making, to be heard only when spoken to? There are obviously many theories about this, but the one I subscribe to is fairly simple: these men have weak characters and a low opinion of their own abilities. They don’t want to compete against women – for jobs, for respect, in an argument, in life – so the quicker women get out of their way, the better. And of course, if these same men can ensure there’s a woman slave waiting for them when they get home from work, dinner on the table, children looked after, house clean, cold beer in the fridge, well, that’s their ultimate fantasy come true.

Women like me, who dare have careers and raise children, who write political blogs, who have opinions and challenge patriarchal views, we would be hung-drawn-and-quartered in Gilead. Unless of course they needed our fertility; then we’d be raped monthly as surrogates, with the baby ripped from our arms in the birthing suite. It sounds extreme, but look how quickly men go to rape threats when challenged in online forums. Look at the way many men and women in Australia responded to our first female Prime Minister, subjecting Gillard to a barrage of misogynistic abuse, burning her at the rhetorical stake, campaigning to ‘ditch the witch’.

Watching The Handmaid’s Tale felt like a preview of what is at the end of a very slippery slope. And when you realise how many Conservative forces are pushing our society towards the slope, it is a confronting, and motivating force. We must push back. Women’s rights need to be constantly defended and aggressively fought for. The Conservatives know what they want. The Handmaid’s Tale should scare anyone against that vision to make sure we don’t proceed any way down the slope towards it.

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  1. Freetasman

    Thanks you for your post Victoria.
    It reminds me two woman for what I have great respect and admiration, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg.
    So many years have passed after the death of them and we still having the same problems.
    Perhaps the wheel will start turning soon, the last document from the Vatican ( bring some hope when said, quote from the article in the link: It also criticizes conservative American Catholics who have aligned themselves with fundamentalist Protestants on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, saying that what really united the groups was a “nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state”. End of quote

    Time will tell

  2. Ginny Lowndes

    It’s pretty much any catholic country similar to Ireland or even Australia a couple of years ago where people were blinded to what was going on & babies were ripped out of women’s arms.

  3. helvityni

    Different strokes for differently coloured folks; at least Clementine feels it’s her right to express her views and fight back when abused by scary-cat nameless trolls.

    Yassmin is measured with different yard-stick; she expresses a caring opinion, outrage follows; she apologises for caring for people in Nauru,Syria etc…; it’s not enough, she loses her job and will leave the country.

    Where are our female politicians, they ought to step up and defend these abused women, the males will not.

  4. auntyuta

    You say: “The Conservatives know what they want. The Handmaid’s Tale should scare anyone against that vision to make sure we don’t proceed any way down the slope towards it.”
    I thought even these powerful, so called conservative men were for the most part not all that happy in that fictional state of Gilead. The not so powerful men in Gilead were mostly occupied in very dreary, soul killing jobs. To me, the most scary thing is, what happens after a nuclear war. Can you imagine what sort of life women and men would have after a nuclear war, when infertility among women and men might be very common and large areas would be uninhabitable because of radiation?

  5. Kyran

    Back in 1979, Bette Midler, playing ‘Rose’, says;
    “What are we ladies? What are we? We are waitresses at the banquet of life! Get into that kitchen and rattle them pots and pans – and you better look pretty good doin’ it too, ‘else you gonna lose you good thing. And why do we do that, I’ll tell you why we do that? We do that to find love – Oh I love to be in love – don’t you love to be in love?”

    Back in 2006, Health Minister Abbott continued the abuse of TGA rules to ban RU-486. For no other reason than to garnish the support of Harradine, an anti-abortion campaigner, in passing legislation in the senate.
    Way back, in 2017, we have a woman’s right to choice declared as illegal in two states, with four separate regimes for the provision of that right across a country of 24mill people. As it is state based, a woman’s geography dictates her rights.
    We have different state based approaches for the rights of protesters at clinics, delusional f’wits, as if they were somehow comparable to the rights of the women.
    We have wages disparity that, at the very best, is unchanging. At the very worst, it is entrenched into the ‘economic’ rewards for labour, where women are earning 16% less than men.
    We have DV (whilst not exclusive to women, they are undeniably the most effected) at unbelievable levels, averaging one life a week and affecting one in three females over the age of 15, yet attracting no national plan to address it.

    We have under-representation at all senior levels of government and business bandied around every so often and, most disgracefully, extolled by the likes of Bishop and Cash as a ‘merit’ issue rather than an equality issue.

    It seems entirely appropriate to link to Ben Pobjie’s most recent effort.

    “The price of freedom, they say, is eternal vigilance.
    This has never been more true than in today’s globalised digital world where the price of our freedom to enjoy the internet is eternal vigilance against the pearl-clutching killjoys who are forever trying to spoil our fun.”

    “Half of women surveyed for the study believe offensive online content isn’t taken seriously enough.
    In contrast, 64 per cent of men surveyed — and 73 per cent of men aged 18-29 — believe people take offensive content too seriously.
    It demonstrates the truth of the old maxim: “Chicks be shrill, dudes be chill.””

    I think it’s satire. We have been on the ‘slippery slope’ for decades. Buggered if I know how you degrease such a slope, let alone reverse the slide so you don’t reach the bottom.
    On a brighter note, Ms Yousafzai turned twenty on the 12th July.
    Thank you Ms Rollison and commenters. Take care

  6. Roger

    Victoria, thanks for a thoughtful article. On the topic of clinging to patriarchal power, your insight rings true: “They don’t want to compete against women – for jobs, for respect, in an argument, in life”. Fear, not love, is driving the conservative agenda. They want to control competition and have rigged the rules to suit. Co-operation and fairness are foreign concepts as are empathy and understanding. The mainstream manipulators (male-dominated), on behalf of the political and business world (male-dominated), have an agenda. Anything that increases too much women’s power in the workplace is to be sabotaged. Anything that raises the awareness of the broader population is also to be thwarted. One can already observe that kind of freedom-averse paranoia in China, where the Communist Party strives to control the internet. Interference in the free flow of information is not for an altruistic purpose, it’s all about control.
    A slab of dumb concrete looks impenetrable and stable and is very good at keeping nature at bay, for a time. However, in time, it disintegrates and life reasserts itself. No matter how many backward-looking men (or women) band together in political and business ‘think tanks’ and media war-rooms with the purpose of keeping the status quo and their relative advantage, change is going to happen anyway.
    This video gives a hint to one possible future: Peter Russell – ‘The White Hole in Time’

  7. Michael Taylor

    Spot on, Victoria. Power to you. ?

  8. diannaart

    Thank you Victoria for your thoughts “The Handmaid’s Tale” brings to light.

    Margaret Atwood , recently interviewed on the TV series of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

    In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.

    Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?

    At the end of the novel, Atwood writes, while the events of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are set slightly into the future, all that is depicted has occurred in some form, in our world; past and present.

    The story is not anti-male, it is anti-authoritarian. As auntyuta noted, the lower ‘class’ men do not far well. I have always said that men have more to fear from other men, than they do from women. Atwood’s novel gives some graphic examples of this (no spoilers).

    Women, being the only ones capable of giving birth to the future (masters and slaves) are the most targeted for control, it was ever thus.

    I recommend reading the novel and watching the series – both are riveting, disturbing and a warning.

  9. S G B

    I defended Yasmin on those god awfull posts where she was subject to some bloody terrible remarks.

    I got attacked for my trouble. What got me the most was the shear level of vitriolic language directed at this vibrant young woman.

    Honestly I.had no idea that australians could be so ignorant.

  10. kerri

    Equally frightening in The Handmaids Tale is the overweening dominance of relgion and its unashamed belief in the dominance of the male of the species. At first I found it hard to believe the Tale but when looked at from the US religion obsessed society it seems plausible.

  11. diannaart

    Happening as we speak:

    after nearly six months in office, Mr. Trump has already surpassed George W. Bush as the American president most hostile to reproductive rights and measures to promote sexual health. There is a deeply insulting irony in this: American women are being stripped of their sexual and reproductive autonomy not by a moralizing puritan but by an erotically incontinent libertine.

    This will be true whether or not the Republicans’ health care plan ever passes — though that plan, with its multifaceted attack on obstetric and gynecological care, is a particularly bald expression of contempt for women.

    @ kerri

    The use of religion in Gilead was by a tiny percentage of privileged people, mostly males. Women such as Mrs Waterford also played a part in drawing up the policies which were a blend of religious belief and fascism. Mrs Waterford was, herself, later repressed by her own involvement of the totalitarian state.

  12. philgorman2014

    Thank you Victoria. The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply disturbing and a timely warning. Patriarchy continues as the default setting in most societies. There are few places where women enjoy genuine equality and the current tides in world events are not promising.

    The Handmaid’s Tale should be required reading and/or viewing in High Schools. It darkly reflects the barely concealed desire for male dominance and control that characterises our own culture. Don’t suppose that a patriarchal oligarchy can’t be resurrected here.

  13. doctortrish47

    Twenty years ago, I wrote my doctoral thesis on the meaning of losing a baby to adoption. I cited The Handmaid’s Tale in my work because Margaret Atwood’s book reminded me of how women were treated in unmarried mothers’ homes. Read this book or watch the series with the taking of babies for adoption in mind, and the issue becomes very real and too close for comfort.

  14. HeatherCam

    Thanks, Victoria. Lest we forget too about what happened to Julia Gillard in her position of power. I am presently enduring the family spinning it and accusing me of abusing my own mother because I’ve stood my ground about gender equality in the family. Of course I knew she did not agree. I shall be brave and watch The Handmaid’s Tale. It will probably remind me of my childhood and give me lots of Ah! oh! moments.

  15. claudiop

    Victoria you nailed it. I share your feelings of revulsion and alarm.

    But, perhaps, there’s a further, insidious agenda currently at play in Trump’s America. On the one hand, MGM/Hulu must have calculated that the original, subversive Margaret Atwood 1985 novel of a dystopian near future as a cautionary tale was a safe bet to profit from. But Hollywood isn’t just about money; it also exerts a quiet cultural power. An opiate for the masses; “this could never happen here” . At the same time, it desensitises and normalises the incremental deprivation of civil liberties and personal abuses instilling a cognitive dissonance of denial in its target audience; propaganda, pure and simple.

    And then, given that the plot paints the conservative political and Christian evangelical classes in a very bad light, why hasn’t there been a hue and cry from the extreme-right Trump administration and militant mobilisation from the US ‘moral majority’ Christian evangelicals? Clearly, The Handmaid’s Tale series must suit them, both in its content and its timing of release.

    “But dwelling on the story’s plot of violent overthrow of the nation will blind us to the Christian Right’s crucial strategy of working within the nation’s institutions by rewriting their history and claiming for them divine purpose.” (Christopher Douglas

    Apart from desensitisation and normalisation of ‘terror threats’, it’s possible that the Evangelicals/Trump administration ploy is the old red herring/’look over there’ technique. Perhaps that’s what’s really going on.

    While we’re all feeling outraged by the Handmaid’s series’ plot and telling ourselves that it can’t happen to us here in Australia; Turnbull’s state-corporatist regime (aka LNP) and the Christian conservatives are getting on with the job of not only demolishing the ABC, the Human Rights Commission, the environment, the rule of law, our civil liberties, and the welfare state, but also promoting ever-greater inequality, class divisions, the demonisation of the most vulnerable, racism and xenophobia, and foreign wars.

  16. diannaart

    @ claudiop

    I don’t know what, if anything, the Trump administration has to say about “The Handmaid’s Tale”, but I do know the TV series is a Canadian production just as its author, Margaret Atwood is Canadian.

    I very much doubt your “red herring” conspiracy. If anything, it is a timely reminder to all who value equality and freedom that we must remain ever vigilant.

  17. Leah

    Yes Mike Pence (and what he represents) as president is a truly horrifying prospect for women in the USA – and for everyone who does not conform to his rigid biblical “norms” too.
    This essay on the Texas Taliban is very much about the same topic:

  18. paulwalter

    Just reading, in Arkansas you will have to now notify your rapist if you seek to terminate.

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