The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, is a book, movie, and now a new Hulu television series about a dystopian future in which widespread sterility has put men in charge of women’s fertility.
The story has implications in today’s political climate where laws are being passed restricting women’s ability to decide their own course of reproduction.
In the story, Gilead is a patriarchal totalitarian theocracy in which toxic and nuclear waste have rendered much of the population sterile. The few women who are fertile are given to men in high government positions to bare their children, a recreation of the Biblical story in which a sterile Sarah gave Abraham her handmaid. The subjugated women are forbidden to vote or read and are known only by the name of the man they belong to. The main character, Offred (Of Fred) yearns to reunite with her daughter and escape to Canada.
Examples of male control over female reproduction
A good research paper topic is to write about the many examples of legislation and cultures, mostly run by men, that govern the reproductive activities of women. For example, major religions, like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have traditionally harsh restrictions on women’s sexuality and reproduction. In America, there was the pre-1965 ban on birth control. More recently, Texas was considering a law to require women wanting an abortion to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound of the fetus. When he was governor of Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence, a born-again evangelical, pushed for draconian anti-abortion laws, defunded Planned Parenthood clinics, and in Congress, voted against equal pay for women.
Renewed popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale
Another research paper idea is to discuss the renewed popularity of dystopian books about the death of democracy, such as George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. While some call The Handmaid’s Tale leftist propaganda aimed at Trump (it’s a 30-year-old book!), others say it’s a call to action. In an eerie scene, a group of women activists in March 2017 dressed in the red robes and white bonnets featured in the book and attended a Texas Senate meeting to protest two bills that would strictly curtail a woman’s access to legal abortion. Two armed guards stood ominously around the women as they sat quietly in the stands.
Atwood says The Handmaid’s Tale is not anti-religion. “It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether,” Atwood remarked in “Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump,” posted at The New York Times March 10, 2017. Asked if the book is a prediction: “Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either,” she said.
In “Margaret Atwood, author of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ talks Trump, dystopian politics and fake news,” by Kari Paul, posted in Market Watch April 1, 2017, Atwood commented on the book’s relevancy today, “We are in an age of yet more autocratic regimes, thought police, double-speak and fake news — all things Orwell wrote about,” she said. Her answer to those threats: “Vote…Enjoy the experience while you can. The primary lesson is don’t get complacent: don’t think you don’t have to vote, and don’t think what you do doesn’t matter.”
Could it happen now?
For your research paper, you could consider the question: “Could it happen now?” Atwood wrote the book in 1985 when televangelists of the religious right were gaining popularity and political clout. Writing in “The Politics of the Handmaid’s Tale” in The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2009, Gorman Beauchamp said: “Historical analogues render Atwood’s scenario not altogether implausible…Atwood stated that she did not include anything in The Handmaid’s Tale ‘that had not already happened or was not underway somewhere’…in Iran or Romania or East Timor, but in the United States?”
For more information, check out Questia’s library on Women’s Health.
What are some other ways The Handmaid’s Tale is pertinent to today’s politics?