The Handmaid’s Tale is a difficult show to appreciate right now. After following the plot of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book in its first season, its second season piles on a series of additional horrors, all set in the future nation of Gilead — a religious theocracy that kills and tortures women who refuse to submit to male ownership. As my colleague Laura Hudson writes, “its portents are so terrifyingly familiar that they have become excruciating to watch.”
The Handmaid’s Tale’s premise — that you can’t permanently stamp out sexism, just send it more or less into remission — is perpetually timely, as is Gilead’s basic disregard for women’s bodies and choices. But for all this, The Handmaid’s Tale’s vision of religious oppression feels strikingly at odds with how misogyny works today.
Atwood’s Gilead is a dystopia written in the ‘80s for the age of the Moral Majority and feminist sex wars. Its leaders couch their misogyny in the language of protecting women from the dangers of pornography and objectification, which were issues for right-wing and left-wing women alike. Gilead’s women have given up “freedom to,” meaning individual autonomy, for a theoretical “freedom from” being victimized. Their world is circumscribed by scripture, including a Biblical origin story for handmaids and brutal punishments for Christian fundamentalist boogeymen like abortionists and gay or lesbian “gender traitors.”
None of these ideas have disappeared; Vice President Mike Pence supports giving women “freedom from” sexual harassment by keeping them away from men, for instance. But the white supremacist “alt-right” and more generically nationalist “alt-lite” coalition, which have helped define the current political landscape, are strikingly secular. As Chris Stedman pointed out at Vice, “unlike far-right American movements of years past, you don’t hear much talk of God or religion at today’s alt-right rallies.”
President Donald Trump’s Christian affiliation is perfunctory at best, and his administration has been an exercise in debasement for evangelical supporters, who have ended up defending pedophilia and offering sexual “mulligans” to excuse alleged infidelity. Trump’s famous boast about groping women would have been perfect fodder for Gilead’s scare-tactic propaganda.
Instead, would-be patriarchs have claimed to oppose religious misogyny the way Gilead’s founders opposed pimps and pornographers, by appropriating good-faith criticism of the world’s most Gilead-like religious sects (specifically, those involving Muslims) to excuse misogyny closer to home. Alt-lite celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos has bemoaned fundamentalist Islam’s oppression of some women, while promoting death and rape threat campaigns against others. Atheist vloggers fostered the 2014 anti-feminist Gamergate movement, which launched the present careers of figures like Mike Cernovich, a man who has claimed that “the only rape culture is Muslim rape culture.”
Would-be patriarchs have claimed to oppose religious misogyny the way Gilead’s founders opposed pimps and pornographers.
Sometimes, this is just disingenuous rhetoric meant to shut down criticism. But sometimes, it’s an argument for locking down borders and rolling back civil rights to fight the overwhelming, existential threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban ordered government agencies to collect and release information on “honor killings” of women in the United States, a thinly veiled request to publicize gendered crimes by Muslims. Some alt-right members have called for a “white sharia” to supposedly beat extremists at their own game, stripping women of all economic and political power and forcing them to bear children for white men. There are few grand scriptural justifications for this — just naked calls for racist male supremacy, and the end to a peaceful modern society that supposedly feminizes white men.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead originally was white supremacist, though Hulu’s showrunners dropped this element from the TV series, a decision that’s been criticized for downplaying the legacy of racism. But even the book’s mythologically justified racism, which had Gilead deporting black citizens because of the Curse of Ham, would seem toothless today. Many religious people may well be racist, but today’s most effective racists wave the banner of scientific authority, pointing to IQ tests or spurious just-so stories about evolution. When Christianity makes an appearance, it’s as an example of Western intellectual greatness, not divine truth.
In the same way, today’s most outspoken misogynists argue that biology — not God — has made women inferior to men. Various sexist “manosphere” philosophies revolve around hyper-simplified models of animal behavior, where alpha males preside over an inherently violent and dominance-based society. “Involuntary celibate” mass shooter Elliot Rodger, who may have helped inspire this week’s massacre in Toronto, advocated a bizarre eugenics program where men would evolve to a higher form by killing all women. If women were allowed to choose mates and bear children, he explained, their under-evolved brains would “devolve humanity completely.”
Relatively few people espouse such direct racist or sexist hatred, but in a milder form, these aren’t particularly fringe ideas. The Bell Curve, a book that encourages policy-makers to accept that certain races are doomed to intellectual inferiority, made author Charles Murray an academic celebrity. Jordan Peterson, who has been called “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world,” uses lobster biology and Jungian psychology to argue that male dominance hierarchies are the core of human civilization. (While urging male fans to “toughen up” to attract women, he’s mused that feminists who support Islam “unconsciously long for masculine dominance.”) Detractors of the #MeToo movement have repeatedly pointed to their belief that men are “meant” to pursue and make unwanted advances toward women. With or without a god in the picture, plenty of people believe it’s a sin to fight the universe’s “preordained” plan for humanity, where men dominate women and white people run society.
The Handmaid’s Tale also reserves plenty of scorn for those outside the regime who failed to stop Gilead’s rise, or who forged alliances for political gain. In the 1980s, this meant radical feminists fighting exploitative pornography. Today, there are any number of uncomfortable potential targets — from technologists whose work is repurposed by hate movements, to free speech advocates who defend fascists out of principle, to progressive politicians who center the “white working class” in their rhetoric. (In the name of equal-opportunity criticism, I might add: writers who condemn toxic social movements without formulating better alternatives.) You can mount moral defenses of all these groups, which is exactly why probing their weaknesses would be compelling. Dystopias cut deeper when you can imagine sympathetic people abetting them.
Soft biological determinism doesn’t inevitably lead to harsh oppression, but that’s not the point. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood imagined how seeds of xenophobia, misogyny, and authoritarianism could utterly corrupt a popular ideology with many well-meaning supporters — because a Gilead can grow in any group that lets its principles take root. That includes Evangelical Christianity, but also a modern secular rationalism that’s being co-opted by white male supremacists, speaking the language of science and logic.
It’s not hard to envision a world that’s as cruel to women as Gilead, which is why watching The Handmaid’s Tale is so exhausting. But despite all its brutality, the show softens a more painful truth: misogyny doesn’t just persist, it evolves.