How The Handmaid’s Tale Taught Us to Resist
10 Lessons from Margaret Atwood’s Near-Future Dystopia
It’s nothing new to mention how eerily relevant Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale is to our current political landscape. Set in the Republic of Gilead—formerly the United States of America—the novel tells the story of Offred, handmaid to a highly placed Commander in the new regime.
Atwood’s world is one birthed out of a coup orchestrated by a far-right Christian movement. The president is shot, congress is gunned down, and newspapers are censored. Roadblocks are erected and travel is severely restricted. Non-Christians and “gender traitors” are rounded up and sent to clean up toxic waste in the colonies if they’re lucky, executed if they’re not.
Forbidden from holding property, working outside the home, reading, or wearing anything but the most concealing uniforms, women in Gilead literally belong to men. With birth rates at an all-time low, a class of fertile women known as handmaids are assigned to high-ranking men for reproductive purposes.
It’s a bleak existence for all but the most fortunate, and it’s telling that since the election of Donald Trump, in a time of shrinking civil liberties, sales of the novel have soared by 200%.
When discussing the increase, Atwood recently mentioned that the novel was based on real historical moments, adding that history often repeats itself. This is undoubtedly true, and the novel has already proven itself terrifyingly prescient. The Sons of Jacob blame their early violence on “Islamic fanatics,” and the last section of the novel, an academic lecture delivered years after the fall of Gilead, makes clear that it was the racist policies of the pre-Gilead period, their “racist fears,” that “provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.”
At this point it’s clear that far-right, white supremacist sentiments bubbling under the surface paved the way for Trump’s success in much the same way as the Gilead coup. Though the details might differ, Trump’s administration has already restricted immigration and travel, reproductive freedom, and environmental protection, and shows no signs of stopping. If The Handmaid’s Tale so successfully anticipated our current predicament, what can the novel teach us about resistance? What can be learned from Offred’s struggle?
1. Do not ignore a threat
“Luke and I would watch her sometimes on the late-night news. …We thought she was funny. Or Luke thought she was funny. I only pretended to think so. Really she was a little frightening. She was in earnest.”
It was when voters didn’t take Trump seriously that he began to win. Because no one believed what he was saying, it became impossible to understand the impact he was making. It was a mistake, and one with consequences we’ll likely feel for a long time.
But we know better now. We know exactly what Trump’s “not a Muslim ban” really is. We know not to make Betsy DeVos’s job easy. We know that sitting back and letting the Office of Government Ethics die is not an option. The election was a wakeup call, and none of us can afford to go back to sleep.
2. Gather information
“I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.”
“Our big mistake was teaching [women] to read. We won’t do that again.”
In Offred’s world, control is maintained by severely limiting what women are told, whom they can talk to, and where they can get information. Propaganda films are shown to convince viewers of the horrors awaiting them outside the regime, public spaces are bugged, and reading, even of grocery store signage, is forbidden. The biggest threat to the Gilead regime, it would seem, is knowledge.
Use that power. With the conflation of falsehoods and “alternative facts,” it’s more important than ever to stay up-to-date with what Trump’s administration is doing. Determine whether you’re getting your information from trusted sources with sound reporting and verifiable claims. Do not share sensationalist, unchecked information even if it confirms a preexisting opinion. Call out false claims, and hold others accountable to the truth. The President cannot be trusted to do this, so we must set a higher standard.
3. Call things by their real name
“We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths. In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.”
Names matter, and words matter. The decision to strip the handmaids of their names, referring to them instead as property of men (literally Of-Fred), was a purposeful, dehumanizing tactic, meant to remove any sense of independent identity. Calling executions “salvagings,” and prison guards and indoctrinators “aunts” made objection more difficult, resistance harder to justify.
It’s imperative to use real names. We are now in an era of “post-truth” and more than ever we need to realize that the words we use have real impact on people’s lives. They are not alternative facts, they are lies. It isn’t “locker room talk,” it’s sexual assault. The “alt-right” are really neo-Nazis, and the words immigrant and refugee will never mean the same things as murderer and rapist. Journalists disseminating what Trump would rather conceal are not “fake news.” The Bowling Green Massacre never happened, and cannot be used as shorthand for imagined Islamic threats. Language has always been an essential part of resistance, and using it properly, to say what we really mean, has never been more important.
4. Never stop resisting
“They suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. …I didn’t go on any of the marches. Luke said it would be futile.”
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
Maybe if Offred had joined protests in the early days of the coup, if more people willing to proactively stop injustice before it had a chance to flourish had joined her, the Gilead regime would never have had the opportunity to establish itself. But they didn’t, and now the best course of action is to endure, and to never stop resisting. It’s the mock-Latin message left for Offred by a previous handmaid, a joke that translates as “don’t let the bastards grind you down,” that sustains her as Gilead threatens to wear away any sense of independence.
It’s what oppressive regimes want, for us to become so weighed down by what’s happening that we stop fighting. Continued opposition to cabinet appointments and executive orders has surprised the Trump administration. Trump has faced more resistance than he could ever have imagined, and has had to scale back many of his plans. We have to keep going. We can’t let the bastards grind us down.
4. Care for each other
“There can be alliances even in such places, even under such circumstance. This is something you can depend on: there will always be alliances, of one kind or another.”
“It’s lack of love we die from.”
Many of us are vulnerable. Hate crimes against Muslims in the US have been rising steadily. “Bathroom bills” similar to North Carolina’s have been proposed in several states. Repealing the Affordable Care Act will leave millions without any health insurance. The US Army has approved the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline, despite massive protest.
At this point we cannot afford to only look out for ourselves. Only in standing together for the rights of everyone will anything be achieved. In Gilead, “friendships were suspicious,” and any communication between potential allies was curtailed. But despite these efforts, news of loved ones was passed along, and an underground railroad became a way of taking those in danger, including Offred, out of the country. Friendships, alliances, and coalitions keep us strong. Caring about issues that don’t directly affect us keeps us strong. White allies should be attending Black Lives Matter protests. Those able to pay for health care should still be fighting for universal access. We should all care about pollution and access to drinking water even if our homes are not at risk. Not In My Backyard politics have no place in a unified movement. We need to love each other.
5. Care for yourself
“I must endure, keep myself safe for later.”
It’s easy, however, to feel overwhelmed, to feel as if there is just too much happening, too much to fix. Resisting injustice also means knowing your own limitations, and stepping back when you need time to recharge. Taking care of yourself is the best way of ensuring you won’t burn out.
It is all right to unplug, to take time away from the constant barrage of news taking over Facebook homepages and Twitter feeds. Focus on getting enough sleep, exercising, and going to therapy or cultivating a network of people who can listen and support you as you talk about how this administration is affecting you. Practice self-care in any way that feels right to you. It might be something as trivial as Offred stealing butter to use as face cream (a small attempt at reasserting ownership of her body), or as drastic as when she steps away from the Mayday movement, scared as the list of reasons she could be executed keep mounting. Whatever it is, keeping yourself healthy and happy long term is still your first priority.
6. Always make it personal
“Women can’t add, he once said, jokingly. When I asked him what he meant, he said, For them, one and one and one and one don’t make four.”
“What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for another.”
The conversation between Offred and the Commander points to a crucial lesson: large-scale change always begins as small-scale resistance, and it is how individual people are affected by injustice that makes it worth fighting. Gilead’s greatest misstep was in assuming that women were interchangeable, that they could stamp out any traces of individuality and treat an entire group of people as a disposable resource.
Resistance has to be personal. It has to mean something emotionally, or else there’s no point to it. While it’s important to feel like what you’re working toward is part of something bigger, problems become much more manageable if they’re shrunk down. Try helping out close to home first. Make as big an impact on a small portion of the country’s problems as you can, and remember that grassroots organizing has a proven track record, for both sides of the aisle.
7. Don’t assume those in power cannot be relieved of it
“There is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power. There is something delightful about it… it deflates them.”
If Trump’s many Twitter tantrums have proven one thing, it’s that he cannot stand being the butt of a joke. This is a president who spends much of his time watching television, who comes from the world of television, and who very much wants to be seen in a positive light. In the months and years to come, using comedy to take him down a peg can only help. While it’s important to take the actions of leaders seriously, remembering that they’re only human is crucial. They have flaws, they have weaknesses, they can be fought, and we should use any of the means at our disposal, particularly humour, to remind us of that.
9. Don’t underestimate your strength
“I have a fork and spoon, but never a knife. When there’s meat they cut it up for me ahead of time, as if I’m lacking manual skills or teeth. I have both, however. That’s why I’m not allowed a knife.”
We all have different capabilities, and it’s by playing to our strengths that we can effect real change. Are you able to go to protests and demonstrations? The Women’s March on Washington gathered millions of people together, all over the world, and sent an undeniable message. Are you able to give financially to institutions like the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and Planned Parenthood, or subscribe to newspapers and magazines that do good work? They need your help. Do you have specialized knowledge that you can use to help others? Those with language and translation skills or legal knowledge, for example, will be in high demand. Can you volunteer your time, fundraise, or talk to people door to door for an organization of your choice? Are you able to call your member of congress to make your concerns known?
For much of the novel, Offred feels at a loss. The paranoia and distrust bred by a Big Brother-like regime has left her helpless, incapable of any action that might jeopardize her life, or the lives of her missing loved ones. But while she may not be capable of the more active resistance of the Mayday movement, it is her testimony, bravely told, that survives the fall of Gilead. We all have skills we can contribute, and it takes all forms of resistance to build a movement.
10. Tell your story
“If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending.”
“If I’m ever able to set this down, in one form or another, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction.”
It is Offred’s story that will survive the dangers and indignities of the regime, and her bravery in telling it will ensure that future generations will know, and perhaps learn from, her suffering.
We get to decide what our stories look like. We get to decide and show that we are more than the racist, sexist, homophobic stereotypes that Trump and his ilk traffic in. Tell your story. Do not be quiet about the ways these new policies affect you and your loved ones. We need these testimonies, these human stories behind the legislative decisions. They breathe life into a fight that would otherwise be too abstract, too dry, to sustain itself. Our stories need to be heard, if only so we know that we are not alone. There is strength in acknowledging each other’s pain, and it’s Offred who says it best: “I keep going on with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance.”
Maybe that’s why The Handmaid’s Tale has had such a lasting impact. The focus on quiet resistance, on not giving in to despair and hopelessness despite enormous pressure to do so, on listening to an individual’s story and empathizing with what they have had to endure, that’s what the novel—and hopefully the upcoming miniseries—does so well. If we listen to each other and work for each other, maybe we stand a chance.
(image via Hulu)
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