Saturday, May 20, 2017
Thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale
For quite a while now I have found the numerous dystopic novels and movies that are polluting entertainment media nauseating. Sure, I'll put it kindly and say I understand the fascination in doomsday entertainment because the rank and file masses of America are nervous about their relative positions in both the economic and geopolitical realms. Strange looking folks and the world in general is a scary place for a bunch of people who are so enamored with their own existence that they don't have the time nor curiosity to try and delve deeper than the Twitter-based explanations offered up by narcissistic con men.
Fear comes from the less evolved reptile-remnant part of the human brain and if the leaders of our species over the centuries have perfected one thing it is appealing to that basic instinct. Doomsday entertainment feeds that fear and probably reinforces the attitude that we're all screwed and any attempt to resist the tides of circumstance and change for the worse is futile. All that being said, I have discovered an exception to the vast majority of stale and derivative doomsday entertainment that floods our consciousness.
Way back in what is now seriously considered the “good old days,” around 1988, I discovered the book The Handmaid's Tale by the acclaimed author Margret Atwood. It tells the story of a woman only known as Offred who is a reproductive slave to a powerful, but infertile couple in a country called the Republic of Gilead. Short synopsis, set sometime in the near future the United States government is overthrown by a secret society called the Sons of Jacob who then replace it with a theocratic military dictatorship. Being only slightly flippant, Gilead isn't some authoritarian knockoff of the current Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, or Russia, no the Sons of Jacob have gone full totalitarian. In the Atwood book, 1990 movie adaption, and the current series on Hulu, the Republic of Gilead makes Iran look like a free love and thinking party and North Korea almost tolerable.
Because of pollution and a whole host of other man-made environmental disasters, fertility rates have crashed so the powerful elite in Gilead force women who can have children to be their broodmares. In this fictional terror, while civil liberties are dead for all but for women it's worse. The Gilead leadership has rolled back civilization to the point women are once again the property of their fathers or husbands. They cannot control their own bodies, have bank accounts, work outside the home, or even read. Any deviation once discovered by the authorities is usually met with a death sentence.
What makes The Handmaid's Tale an exception for me is NOT because it paints a picture of Christians as potential Nazi-like thugs. No, in all three incarnations it is more than readily pointed out in each of them that the Gilead leadership heavily persecutes any Christian not willing to mindless follow the approved orthodoxy. This being a prime example why separation of church and state is enshrined in the United States Constitution. What intrigues me about Handmaid's Tale is the overarching attitudes and beliefs of the dominate males in that fictional society because I can hear similar echos in our society.
Offred's chief antagonist in someone known as the “Commander,” he is the husband of the couple using her to produce a child for them. He is also a powerful member of the ruling elite and in the Hulu series is one of the men who orchestrated the overthrow of the United States government and the founding of Gilead. Something only implied in the novel and vaguely referenced in the movie. But it is something the Commander said at the end of chapter 32 that perplexed me:
“The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore . . . I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy... . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. Do they feel now? I say. Yes, he says, looking at me. They do.”
While turning off to sex might be a little bit of stretch, but what American men do like to whine about is how women are too pushy or that they have to compete with them in them in the workplace. As for being too pushy where it does intersect with Handmaid's Tale is how some men do not feel right or manly if they are not in control. A seriously sick documentary I found on Netflix recently had to do with men trying to develop a sexual robot to takes the place of real women. I was only able to watch fifteen minutes of the documentary before I was literally sicken but the central idea all men appearing in it shared was that they wanted to be in control.
Yeah, I admit some women can be real and total pains but no more than some of my fellow males can be complete asses. See, the problem here is that while women have made great strides in society they are still woefully underpaid, compared to men with the same jobs and experience, and still face inherent sexism because guys still overwhelming rule the country.
The statement I would make to my erstwhile brothers is that if pushy women bother you or if you feel that even trying to make a mark in society is pointless instead of complaining and being a slacker you up your damn game. Get an education, or go back to school, turn off ESPN or put down the game controller and get involved with some cause and make the world a better place. Hell, if that isn't manly enough for you find the nearest military recruiter and join the one of the Armed Forces. Because I was in the military-National Guard-right after the attacks on 9/11 and there was absolutely NO sudden rush by all the jocks, rednecks, and other assorted males to join the fight against terrorism. So lacking in red-blooded American males, several of the recruiters I knew started pursuing Mexican-American migrant workers who frequented two of the huge flea markets in my area. Getting people to join back then was so bad one full-time recruiter, a hapless sort who frankly didn't have the IQ of a toaster, had to quit his job because he couldn't make monthly quotas.
Long story short, instead of bitching about mean women, do like I was taught in the army, act like men, and improvise, adapt, and overcome. Don't let a lack of imagination or persistence blind you to the fact that instead of men being oppressed by women the vast majority of male whiners are lazy, spoiled douchebags.
The second thing that troubled me about Handmaid's Tale was the concept that the United States government could be overthrown. After a great deal of thought, and exposure to a good deal more of history, I came to the conclusion that while such an event is highly improbable the United States is not immune to the forces that destroyed every now dead civilization. The dustbin of history is filled with empires and nations whose subjects and citizens thought were invulnerable and would exist forever.
American society is rife with faults and serious issues that most refuse to address, but the one that could be our undoing is is simple lack of participation in civil affairs. It is suggested in the Hulu series that even after the events that lead to the United States Constitution being suspended most were happy to pursue their usual affairs. In fact, in the series it wasn't until Offred and her friend couldn't purchase coffee that they became aware that things were out of control. Oh, a demonstration was quickly organized to protest against the changes but by that time the police, or militia were ready to open fire on the people with machine guns.
That last paragraph was aimed largely at my fellow liberals who either voted third-party or stayed home back in November of 2016. NO, I am not saying Trump will ultimately declare himself dictator, but it seems awful funny how it was only once he won the electoral college that so many realized how much a disaster him occupying the White House would become.
Finally I would be remiss if I didn't mention the religious nature of the fictional Gilead. Excuse me if this statement offends but Americans wear their religion way too much on their sleeves. Abraham Lincoln is said to have called American's “God's almost chosen people” and unfortunately, there are many these days who view the world as if we were. Some religious types hold such extreme views on the proper way to live and the world in general that they would in fact be quite happy living in Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead. One individual I know tried quite hard to draw me into a religious-based conversation on what it would take to “save America.” Before I could leave the room one of things I learned America had to be saved from was Canada's far more liberal emigration policy which let in dangerous dark-skinned types. Right before I was able to leave something about a wall along the northern border was mentioned.
I have no problem who those who have a strong faith, former President Jimmy Carter is a true Christian and we would all do well to try and follow his example. The same goes for Pope Francis, all things considered I believe him to be a truly positive force in a world overrun with hate and institutionalized injustice. The same goes for countless others who practice different faiths. The eternal problem though is that there are many around the world who believe they have an inside line on how God wants people to believe and act. These types crave and ruthlessly pursue power just to impose their view of God's will on everyone else.
As doomsday entertainment goes The Handmaid's Tale in all its forms is several levels above the usual tripe. In many circles the novel is considered a literary masterpiece. The 1990 movie version did its best to adapt the story to the big screen but there was no way you could have directly pulled the screenplay from the book. It is the Hulu series that excels in painting an expanded and terrifying picture of a nation that went truly and utterly insane. The actor Elizabeth Moss, who plays the character of Offred is totally credible as a person whose freedom, dignity, and family has been stripped away all because a small group believes they know God's will.
In actuality, I view Atwood's story less as entertainment and more a warning. No, I do not think we are on the verge of a right-wing religious theocracy taking over the country. But one thing is certain, Americans, of all walks of life especially those with the most privileges are going to be forced to make some difficult and uncomfortable choices in the coming years. These choices will either continue the expansion of possibilities for all people or send the United States down a dark corridor that leaves us among the other dead societies that came before us.