The Handmaid’s Tale Is Gripping — But Is It Realistic?

I recently received an email from a reader with this question:

I’ve just reread Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and am now watching the miniseries and as I’ve been watching, I keep thinking, “I wonder what fundamentalists would think of this story. Do they look at it and think, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re aiming for’? Or are things taken just a bit too far with the whole having-a-handmaiden-to-provide-with-children?” You were the first person I thought might have some insights into this.

I do think that most even hardcore fundamentalist Christians would think that the handmaid-having-a-baby-for-your-wife thing is going too far, at least right now … But the rest of the world of The Handmaid’s Tale–is that what the world they’re dreaming of? Or is there anything in that world (besides the handmaids) that goes too far? Would they look at that book/show and think it’s horrible or would they look at it and see things they mostly want, just with an added thing that goes too far?

This is actually something I’ve been thinking about, too, as I’ve watched the first episodes of the Handmaids Tale on Hulu (I read the book years ago and have found the adaption excellent thus far).

I remember, as an evangelical teen and young adult, being upset when encountering what I considered unfair stereotypes of what evangelicals ultimately wanted—even when, looking back, there was some truth to them. I suspect that, had I watched this adaption at age 18, I would have blown it off as completely unfair and unrealistic—particularly the handmaids part—and, unfortunately, it would likely have made me only more dismissive of the Left as ignorant and out of touch.

However, the Handmaid’s Tale has to be understood not simply as the fulfillment of evangelical or fundamentalist policy objectives in the U.S. (i.e., what they would like the country to look like) but also as in some sense post-apocalyptic.

There was a nuclear disaster. The future of humanity is in question. There is more than one factor in play here.

Let’s take a moment to look at specifics, underneath my likely overall dismissal of a story like The Handmaid’s Tale, at age 18. My full response might have been a mixture of  “okay that makes sense” responses to legislated morality and “wait no that’s ridiculous” reactions things that stemmed more from the nuclear catastrophe than from evangelical beliefs. Banning women from having their own bank accounts? As an evangelical teen growing up in a conservative homeschool community, I would likely have found the idea intriguing. Requiring fertile women to serve as handmaids, bearing babies for wealthy leaders with infertile wives? Um. What?!

One thing I dislike about the Handmaid’s Tale is how little we learn about individual lives outside of the world of the commanders and their servants. There are others, we are told, but we don’t learn what their lives are like. The women aren’t allowed to work. Those who have sex outside of marriage are either sent to the colonies (whatever exactly that means) or (if they’re determined to be fertile) forced to serve as handmaids. But these women do lead lives. They have husbands, some few of them are able to have children, and those that can’t have children keep their homes.

What we have, here, is a familiar tension within evangelicalism and fundamentalism—social control v. free will. This is a deeper question, a theological question. Should individuals be compelled to live moral lives? Or should is it better to let them choose to lead moral lives, which requires allowing them to choose not to? The answer to this question is going to influence one’s response to the social controls imposed in the Handmaid’s Tale. Hanging gay men seems extreme—but it does prevent the individual from spreading what many evangelicals see as a contagion.

Here, again, I think you have to understand the setting of the Handmaid’s Tale. There is a war on. There is a resistance. In these situations, there is frequently a higher level of military or paramilitary control exercised over a civilian population.

There are two questions, really. First, what would a fundamentalist think of the Handmaid’s Tale? Second, is the Handmaid’s Tale realistic in its portrayal of what fundamentalists would do? I suspect that those evangelicals and fundamentalists who prefer social control to the moral chaos caused by allowing free choice—those who think, perhaps, that the Puritans had it about right, with their strict rules—would approve of many of the social controls included in the Handmaid’s Tale. I suspect, however, that the Handmaids might still lead them to dismiss the portrayal and the product of an ignorant liberal mind intent on a smear campaign.

But let’s return to the handmaids, and turn to the second question. How would evangelicals and fundamentalists respond to mass infertility, in a community or society where they had complete social and political control? Anyone still fertile would be pressured to reproduce as many times as possible, within the bounds of marriage. But would fertile women who refused to conform be rounded up and forced to serve as handmaids for infertile couples? That seems like a bit of a stretch.

I’ve heard of fundamentalist men who use the Old Testament to justify polygamy in the present day, even taking multiple wives, but to the extent that this does happen it is extremely rare, and very fringe. Most evangelicals (including fundamentalists) hold that things changed when Jesus came onto the scene, creating a “New Covenant” with new rules. A Christian polygamist would not be accepted in any church I am aware of. But then, such individuals would likely home church.

I could see evangelicals or fundamentalists, having gained social and political control, banning things like adultery, divorce, and premarital sex. I could see individuals who violated these rules being jailed, as a deterrent. (My own evangelical mother told me a few years ago that she thought premarital sex should come with a jail sentence.) Still, in a culture struggling with extreme infertility, what would authorities do with fallen fertile women who had been jailed? Surely they wouldn’t let their fertility wasted.

What of artificial insemination? Perhaps fallen fertile women would be artificially inseminated, their children put up for adoption for godly infertile couples. That said, many fundamentalists in particular (and evangelicals in general) oppose artificial insemination. This was especially the case in the 1980s, when the Handmaid’s Tale was written. Of course, fundamentalists have long opposed surrogacy as well. Here’s an image from the Fundamentalist Journal, by Jerry Falwell, in May 1983:

Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 11.58.31 AM

Here’s an interesting question—what would happen in the U.S. if some sort of disaster led to mass infertility a la the Handmaid’s Tale, without any fundamentalist Christian takeover? If nothing else, social pressure would change, and women who were fertile would be frowned upon if they didn’t have more than one or two children. But as the depth of the problem became clear, would more change? Would our government bend the force of such a catastrophe, and move beyond voluntary measures?

Years ago I read an online story about a future world in which abortion and hormonal birth control was banned. In it, women created a system for distributing the pill, and for obtaining abortions. There were specific signals and networks—and if I remember correctly, the book covered a case where a woman was caught, and taken away, and—I think—executed. This story struck me as realistic, given how many evangelicals believe both abortion and hormonal birth control involve murder of innocent human beings.

But the Handmaid’s Tale goes beyond this level of dystopian realism. It doesn’t limit itself to the things fundamentalists have pledged to do, if they have their way. Would the book have achieved such notoriety if it had not been centered on a plot point so out there as to appear automatically unrealistic to modern fundamentalist viewers? I’m not sure. The handmaid certainly adds sensationalism to the story—but it means many fundamentalists will find it unrealistic as a portrayal of their goals.

One last note on realism. Margaret Atwood was influenced in her telling by the Iranian Revolution, which would have seemed much closer at the time she was writing than it does today. Iran became a totally different country after that event than it was before. A fundamentalist strain of Islam took over the country, and women’s roles and freedoms changed completely. Perhaps when viewed in that light, Atwood’s story becomes more realistic. But would fundamentalists confronted with the story be willing to accept what that realism means? Likely not.

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