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The Handmaid’s Tale - What’s Come True and What Hasn’t (Yet)

As the shock of the supreme court overturning Roe v. Wade spread through the US, many turned to comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale. The horrific dystopian series, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about fertile women being turned into child-bearing slaves, struck a nerve when it started airing in 2017, as the election of Donald Trump suddenly made the story feel a little less far-fetched. But a few years later, The Handmaid’s Tale’s brutal, medieval-feeling Republic of Gilead seems downright possible here in the USA – and a lot sooner than we could’ve ever imagined.

Transcript

Is America truly becoming Gilead? How much of The Handmaid’s Tale’s terrifying fiction has already come to pass? Maybe more than you’d think.

“We don’t put anything in the show that hasn’t happened somewhere. So everything, no matter how dark it is, it’s happened.” - Elisabeth Moss, The View

As the shock of the supreme court overturning Roe v. Wade spread through the US, many turned to comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale. The horrific dystopian series, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about fertile women being turned into child-bearing slaves, struck a nerve when it started airing in 2017, as the election of Donald Trump suddenly made the story feel a little less far-fetched.

“The brilliance of Margaret Atwood’s book is it’s been relevant for over 30 years. It was relevant in ‘85 when it came out and, unfortunately, it remains relevant now” - Moss, The View

But a few years later, The Handmaid’s Tale’s brutal, medieval-feeling Republic of Gilead seems downright possible here in the USA – and a lot sooner than we could’ve ever imagined.

So let’s look at what from the story has come true so far in the US, and what hasn’t…yet.

Forcing Women to Carry Pregnancies

In the puritanical regime of Gilead, which takes over the USA, fertile women are turned into handmaids, raped by powerful men called “Commanders,” and forced to give birth to babies who are taken away and placed with the Commanders and their wives.

All this sounds far too bleak to be imaginable in the US – but elements of it are already happening in some states.

Women being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term? Check. Even if they’re rapedor even still children themselves? Incredibly, yes – unless they can afford to travel to a place where abortion’s still legal.

Some forms of contraception are even said to be next up on the anti-abortion agenda, and in Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (the case that overturned Roe), the court should “reconsider” the Griswold v. Connecticut ruling, which declared the right to contraception as protected. No doubt taking away rights to contraceptives would substantially add to the unwanted pregnancies women could be forced to carry.

In a Handmaid’s Tale flashback of pre-Gilead USA, we see how our current state of affairs led to Gilead’s status quo. Janine – a single mom struggling to make ends meet – can’t afford a second baby and schedules an abortion at a place that actually turns out to be a “crisis pregnancy center.”

In today’s America, countless of these anti-abortion centers use scary misinformation to talk people out of abortions, collect women’s personal information with no HIPAA obligation to keep it private, and already outnumber actual abortion clinics in many areas. In the first episode of Handmaid’s Tale, June and Emily walk by someone who’s been hanged for working in an abortion clinic. While this isn’t happening in the US, people are being prosecuted for aiding abortions in any way in Texas, Idaho, and more states soon to follow, while women who’ve aborted or miscarried can even face criminal charges of murder.

Challenging LGBT Rights

Within Gilead, same-sex relationships are outlawed, termed “gender treachery,” and brutally punished, sometimes with death. In the US today, a record number of new laws across the country like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill are targeting LGBT rights and restricting gay and transgender youths’ access to protections and discussion involving their sexuality or identity.

“You’re injecting these concepts about choosing your gender, that is just inappropriate for our schools.” - Governor Ron DeSantis, NBC News

And Clarence Thomas also wrote in his Dobbs opinion that the court should “reconsider” past cases Obergefell v. Hodges, which ruled the right to same-sex marriage is protected, as well as Lawrence v Thomas, which ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. In other words, he’s suggesting many states could revert to a time where same-sex marriage is no longer legal and homosexuality is even criminalized. This is basically what we see happen in a Handmaid’s Tale flashback when Emily and her wife are confronted by ICE agents who tell them that their marriage is, all of a sudden, no longer recognized.

“The document is no longer recognized. You are not married. It’s forbidden.” - ICE Agent, The Handmaid’s Tale, 2x02

Storming the Capital

Gilead took control of the US by bombing the White House, while a relatively small number of men with guns stormed the US Capitol and declared martial law. It definitely seemed like nothing that could really happen… until Jan 6, 2021.

Evidence that Trump supported that event, as well as his blatant attempts to overrule the results of the 2020 democratic election – backed by a significant portion of the Republican party – make it clear that such a coup or seizure of power is more than possible in the US’ near future.

Theocratic Inner Circle of Male Power

Gilead is ruled by a theocratic inner circle of male commanders with all the power. In our current climate, an increasing number of political candidates are calling for an end to the separation of church and state; the Supreme Court is issuing decision after decision at odds with the majority wishes of the US population; and gerrymandering across the country is ensuring that an ever-smaller percentage of voters are dictating who’s elected (assuming those elections will even be respected). All of this makes Gilead’s council of unelected men seem less and less unrealistic.

“America was not initially founded as an 18th-century enlightenment republic. It was initially a 17th-century theocracy.” - Margaret Atwood, Indigo

Gilead’s outlook is also inspired by historical precedents in the US – like the Puritanism and “witch” trials in our 17th-century roots, and the rise of the Christian Right in the 80s during the time Atwood was writing.

That tendency keeps bubbling up in America from time to time.” - Atwood, Indigo

Stealing Children from Parents

One of the most evil things Gilead does is to steal children from their parents (both newborns from the handmaids, and older children from parents who are deemed “unfit”).

Obviously separating parents and children could never happen here… except that it already has (and is reportedly still happening).

The Handmaid’s Tale raises some terrifying ideas of what it could be like if the government were to expand the criteria for taking children away on supposedly “moral” grounds. In one flashback, June is interrogated for giving her daughter medicine before sending her to daycare.

“Did you medicate her to bypass the school’s fever policy? So you wouldn’t have to miss work today?” - ER Nurse, The Handmaid’s Tale, 2x01

She’s judged for working instead of staying home with her child, and she’s ultimately deemed “immoral” because her husband was married to someone else when they first got together.

Fertility Crisis

In the days before Gilead, the world is undergoing a major fertility crisis and Gilead seizes on people’s panic, pretending its policies are the only way to increase birth rates.

The global birth rate has declined in our world too – around 50% over the last 70 years – and in the US, the birth rate declined nearly 20 percent from 2007 to 2020. Whereas in Handmaid’s Tale it becomes physiologically impossible for most women to have children, in our world there’s a more complex mix of factors - like the increased cost of raising children, changing cultural standards, and people having families later.

“A new CDC report looks at fertility rates for women finding families are getting smaller and women are having babies late in life.” - John Carlin, WSLS 10

Gilead’s response is to remove all women’s opportunities outside of childbearing and force them to have kids they don’t want.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead also uses the climate crisis as a justification for its policies, and Margaret Atwood has said that women will suffer disproportionately as a result of climate catastrophes.

Imprisoning “Immoral” Women

In addition to hangings or making women become handmaids, Gilead imprisons women who are seen as “immoral” – i.e. adulterous or promiscuous, LGBT, or abortion patients – by sending them to the “colonies,” where they’re exposed to life-threatening radiation and worked basically to death.

This plot actually has a historical precedent in our country. In the early 1900s during WWI, the “America Plan” locked up women thought to be promiscuous in order to protect soldiers from STDs or from being “tempted” by sex workers. And again, it’s echoed in the initiative to criminally punish abortion patients.

Taking Away the Right to Own Property

In its early days, Gilead takes away women’s rights to hold jobs or own property – suddenly freezing all assets belonging to women. This is a key plot point that hasn’t happened in the US, but it’s terrifying to imagine how effective that would be at immediately disempowering all women.

“You can’t really predict the future, but you can speculate on what might be possible.” - Atwood, France 24

And it’s not inconceivable if you look at other countries in the world: women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan are banned from working or receiving higher education; and according to The World Bank, as of 2019, “Women in half of the countries in the world are unable to assert equal land and property rights despite legal protections.”

Forbidding Reading

In Gilead, women are forbidden from reading.

Today, unlike in some other countries, US women’s rights to education remain intact, but US school curriculums and public libraries are seeing record numbers of challenges or bans of books dealing with topics like gender identity, racism, and sexuality. Politicians like Ron DeSantis and Harry McMaster objected to schools reading the book Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, while Glenn Youngkin ran an ad featuring a parent upset that her teen son’s class was reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Senator Ted Cruz took major issue with the book Antiracist Baby.

Senator Ted Cruz: “Do you agree with this book that is being taught with kids that babies are racist?”

Ketanji Jackson Brown: “Senator…”

- PBS NewsHour

Using High-Profile Women to Give Legitimacy to Anti-Women Agendas

In flashbacks to pre-Gilead USA, we see Serena Joy campaigning for Gilead’s vision of women staying in the home as subservient wives and mothers.

“I am blessed to have a home and a husband to care for and follow.” - Serena Joy, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1x06

This backstory is reminiscent of right-wing female personalities like Ann Coulter, Tomi Lahren, or Phyllis Schlafly who gained platforms by promoting regressive gender ideas. Most recently, Amy Coney Barrett is the female addition to the Supreme Court who helped usher in the end of Roe. V. Wade.

Senator Amy Klobuchar: “Is Roe a super precedent?”

Judge Amy Coney Barrett: “I’m answering a lot of questions about Roe, which I think indicates that Roe doesn’t fall in that category.”

In The Handmaid’s Tale, as soon as Serena has served her purpose of helping the rise of the Gilead regime, she’s cast aside and given none of the power she expected – so it’s a reminder that if you campaign against the rights of all women (or any minority group you belong to) you won’t be the exception who escapes the consequences.

Conclusion

Other flashbacks to pre-Gilead US focus on June’s mother Holly, a feminist activist, and in those days, June isn’t particularly political or eager to follow in her mother’s footsteps. But as she experiences the brutality and injustice of Gilead, June becomes a total rebel and badass –

“They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” - June, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1x10

– showing that sometimes you don’t know the power you possess until you’re truly pushed to take a stand.

There are still countless, crucial major differences that are keeping the USA from becoming Gilead, but the fact that many of these comparisons actually do work is beyond scary. Like June, so many are outraged by the decisions being made for us, but from that hurt comes the need to act to protect the country we love and want to be free for all.

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