Book Club in the Time of Trump: The Handmaid's Tale
I can't remember what year exactly it was that I first read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood because since then, it's been a ubiquitous part of my life. I have thought about it at least once every day since meeting Offred for the first time; it feels like I've thought about it once an hour since November 9th, 2016. We are always two steps away from living the material realities of The Handmaid's Tale; these days, it feels like we are one single step, a hair's width away.
In truth, it is a ubiquitous part of my life for more reasons than my obsession with it, and that of everyone's life who isn't a straight, cis, white man. The point I feel like Atwood was trying to make is that we're already Gilead. We have been Gilead. And we'll continue to be Gilead. It is for this reason, and that The Handmaid's Tale released on Hulu last month, that we read it through April and we're talking about it now, as episodes continue to release. Like last month, I'm going to write questions for you to discuss with your own book clubs, and I'm going to answer those questions myself to give you a jump if you need one. When you're discussing, remember to give your comrades-in-reading the benefit of quotes and page numbers.
Where did you see flashes of our present reality in this book?
I mean, everywhere, right? That’s the point. But gosh, the infantilization of women feels so much like how people treat the femmes around me, even in my politically aware, feminist queer community. Throughout the book, women are compared to children constantly. It almost feels weird to cite examples because it’s so pervasive. On page 21, Offred speaks of herself as a child: “It’s an event, a small defiance of rule, so small as to be undetectable, but such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself, like the candy I hoarded, as a child, at the back of the drawer.” Or how Aunt Lydia always calls the Handmaids “girls” (page 28). Or how Offred perceives the household treats her as a child after she asks Rita a question about the Handmaid before her on page 53: “But Rita clamped her lips together. I am like a child here, there are some things I must not be told. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, was all she would say.”
The attacks on the intellectuals feel particularly poignant in the age of “alternative facts.” Atwood begins to layer it in early: “Doctors lived here once, lawyers, university professors. There are no lawyers anymore, and the university is closed.” That’s on page 23. The intellectual class is completely absent as Gilead devolves into religious ritual above scientific fact. The halls of a University are taken over by Eyes, by the government, and bastardized. It feels so much like the current climate of anti-intellectualism. I wonder how many people won’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, or books like it, because they do not want to be perceived as knowing things.
Which pieces of the book made you react most viscerally? Which have stuck with you? Why?
The scene in which they shut the credit cards down and fire all the women…that is always with me. I am always watching for it. But the moment that made me write ARE YOU SHITTING ME? in all capital letters in the margins of my book came after the Commander forced Offred to come to The Club with him. She remembers a time from before:
That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted me to make love. Why didn’t I want to? Desperation alone should have driven me. But I still I felt numbed. I could hardly even feel his hands on me.
What’s the matter? he said. (182)
BITCH SHE JUST LOST HER JOB BECAUSE THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T WANT WOMEN TO OWN PROPERTY ANYMORE WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE MATTER YOU USELESS SACK OF MEAT? Which brings me to my next question—
Who, in your opinion, is the most dangerous man in The Handmaid's Tale?
All of them. The most dangerous man is all of them. I almost just want to say end of story, next question, but no. Let me tell you why. Most of the men are obvious villains: The Commander repeatedly rapes Offred and helped devise and prop up the oppressive regime. The Eyes are the cause of constant terror. But I'd argue that even the men who are portrayed as "good" are dangerous, and cloaked in their goodness, they are more dangerous.
Luke flips immediately to a patriarchal position, telling Offred that he'll take care of her, not to worry. Offred even suspects he likes it this way:
He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.
He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, anymore. Instead, I am his. (182)
Nick, surly and mean, puts Offred in several extraordinarily dangerous positions and intrudes upon her space without consent regularly. On page 81, just before the ceremony begins:
Nick walks in, nods to all three of us, looks around the room. He too takes his place behind me. He’s so close that the tip of his boot is touching my foot. Is this on purpose? Whether it is or not we are touching, two shapes of leather. I feel my shoe soften, blood flows into it, it grows warm, it becomes skin. I move my foot slightly, away.
”Wish he’d hurry up,” says Cora.
”Hurry up and wait,” says Nick. He laughs, moves his foot so it’s touching mine again. No one can see, beneath the folds of my outspread skirt. I shift, it’s too warm in here, the smell of stale perfume makes me feel a little sick. I move my foot away.
The men are callous and patriarchal, all. God, I’m glad I’m gay. And then there’s Professor James Darcy Pieixoto in the final chapter, just as misogynistic as anyone in Gilead. He makes a joke about the Underground Femaleroad, calling it the Underground Frailroad (301). People laugh and groan at this sexist joke. His tone is patriarchal, explaining. He thinks he’s so much cleverer than his historical subjects, yet he completely misses the suffering, the danger, the point. He is proof that Atwood’s central thesis is that it’s always the same, for women. This dystopia is already present in our reality, has been present in our past, and will be present in our future.
If you've seen the Hulu series, how is the experience of watching different from the experience of reading?
The book is violent from the beginning, sure. But it is a violence purposefully made palatable by the orchestration of Gilead. It is quietly violent. The moment where this breaks, at the Salvaging, is saved for the final 100 pages and we've slowly burned with Offred for more than 200 pages of gorgeous prose. Conversely, we are hit with the Salvaging in the first episode of the show. It is graphic. We see blood, bodies. Rending. Having this played out...I mean, maybe I just don't have the imagination for gore. But I find it far more disturbing to watch it than to read about it. We see a queer woman hung for queerness. That's hard. It gave me nightmares. But in all fairness, that is a change from Atwood's plot. So perhaps the better question is:
If you've seen the Hulu series, how do the changes made in the adaption process change the experience of reading the book?
I feel like the most immediately noticeable change is the treatment of race. In the book, the idea of race is dismissed in one single line. The rest of it is about white people, and indeed, our keynote speaker in the final chapter spells it out clearly for us: white supremacy played a huge role in how Gilead was able to form. The idea that the "caucasian" birthrate is the valuable commodity here resembles the attitudes of Republican political figures today. In the series, however, birth is portrayed as overriding the white supremacist concerns the characters clearly possess in the world of the book. This right here is the reason I think everyone should both watch AND read this story.
I wholeheartedly agree that the adaption to the small screen should've made this change. It would be absurd to remake such a radical and important tale with an all-white cast. It's fucking 2017; nothing should have an all-white cast. And anything that gifts us with a nigh near perfect portrayal of Moira by Samira Wiley is a good adaption decision. But it does change some of the reasoning and, indeed, some of the warning. White supremacy is at the heart of our current dystopic reality. It's something that we need to hear over and over again. I think they should've made the change; I also think we should be critical of the change, and this is why watching the show isn't enough engagement with this narrative. It's why my requirement for men talking to me is book AND show.
They've also given us another queer character in Ofglen, and a heartbreaking story of queer persecution that feels so realistic in a world where gay men are being rounded up in Chechnya. This has changed the experience for me, personally. Not only does Moira remain the smartest, most politically astute character, she is joined in her small rebellions by Ofglen. I'd like to think that, in a world where women are no longer allowed to own property and gay people are being publicly hanged, queer women would be at the forefront of the revolt. These duel portrayals make me feel powerful in this, a political-historical moment in which I often feel powerless.
And then there's the name. We're never given Offred's name in the book; we are given it in the first episode of the show. Even though the show feels more violent, more brutal, the women feel like they hold more cards, more power. And I suspect it's largely due to thinking of our protagonist as June, a being unto herself, instead of being Ofsomedude, property of his. Tonally, a butt ton of acting and writing decisions make sense in the miniscule healing for control, the survival of Ofglen, a bunch of stuff, if Offred retains her name from before.
May’s Pick: Persepolis
This month, we’re going to read Persepolis, a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi, wherein she writes and draws about coming of age against the backdrop of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Originally published in French, this is the first translation we’re going to read. And it’s something many may have read before—but we’re going to contextualize it in The Time of Trump. Be aware! We’re reading Persepolis in its entirety; that may mean two books for some English translation versions. Make sure you have The Complete Persepolis, or that you have books one and two.
Ali Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where she teaches digital storytelling. She’s writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow her on Twitter or on Instagram.