On Being a Good Ally: The Handmaid's Tale And the Specter of Fascismby Adam Theron-Lee Rensch
Virtually every critical review of the new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has drawn parallels between the series’ fictional totalitarian theocracy, Gilead, and the policies and ideological proclivities of Donald Trump’s administration. In many ways, these comparisons make sense: the world of The Handmaid’s Tale contains the brutal objectification of women, widespread loss of civil rights, the manipulation of facts to control the political narrative, and an authoritarian state that fetishizes a return to religious or “traditional” values (read: Making America Great Again). It is a society amenable to a figure like Trump, but even more so to the likes of Pence, Bannon, and the broader alt-right movement, whose commitment to such extreme views is anchored by sincere conviction and not mere narcissistic opportunism.
The timing of The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t have been better, and it offers a seductive narrative that is almost impossible to resist. Media critics and liberal pundits have practically scrambled to frame the series as a cautionary example of what could become of the United States if Trump and those propping him up push through their radically conservative agenda. The problem, however, is that such apocalyptic prophesies work only on a very limited level, and overlook how a society like Gilead becomes possible in the first place. It is one thing to note similarities to the worldview of someone like Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian with reprehensible views of women (and anyone who isn’t heterosexual). It is another thing to sound the alarms of “fascism” without articulating the material and social conditions that allow and perhaps encourage such a transfer of power.
I say this not to normalize the extremist views that The Handmaid’s Tale and Trump’s administration share, but rather to highlight what seems to me a fundamental problem in drawing a straight line between the fictional society of Gilead and its possible actualization in Trump’s America. While the series is undoubtedly an impressive adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, it is worth noting the ways in which it departs from the text’s detailed account of the formation of its dystopian setting. In doing so, it becomes apparent that our present model of “progressive” politics, with its emphasis on liberal appeals to identity, does not offer a way to resist the rise of extremism, and in fact becomes an unwitting ally.
The first and more complicated aspect of the novel that is missing from the series is the role of class. While not a novel about class, Atwood’s novel nevertheless establishes a clearer distinction than the series does between Handmaids—the property of the wealthy—and the Econowives, the property of men with less influence and status at the time of the governmental coup that established the foundation of Gilead and its authoritarian state. To some extent, this may be forgiven: the series is concerned with, and generally limited to the perspective of, the Handmaids. These women belong to the more important figures of Gilead, and unsurprisingly would have little contact with those women situated in a lower class. In Atwood’s novel, however, the latter make a crucial appearance and offer a rich understanding of Gilead’s politics. As Offred, the narrator of the novel, describes them: “There are other women with baskets, some in red, some in the dull green of the Marthas, some in the striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy, that mark the women of the poorer men. Econowives, they’re called. These women are not divided into functions. They have to do everything; if they can.”1
What is striking about this description is the detail that Econowives “have to do everything.” Whereas Handmaids serve only one role—reproduction—Econowives must not only reproduce but likewise perform the labor of Marthas, the servants that wealthier men employ. And, as Offred states later, “The Econowives do not like us,” meaning Handmaids, undoubtedly because within the class structure of Gilead Handmaids are more privileged—though “privilege” is a relative term in a society that treats most women as property. But the point is that the novel presents a class structure, or at least the glimpse of one, that helps explain one aspect of how Gilead as a society maintains and reproduces itself: a small class of privileged Commanders that control a society of those less privileged, the latter of whom must be exploited to a greater degree. The Econowives thus come to embody the precarious position of the worker under late capitalism: women who, by virtue of their class position, must perform a multiplicity of roles to survive. It is precisely this that leads to their resentment of the Handmaids—only marginally more privileged—and likewise prevents the forging of a broader alliance that might lead to viable resistance. Atwood’s novel, to be fair, does not delve into class disparities, and for this reason one can see why the creators of the series chose to streamline the tale and leave out the Econowives. Nevertheless, the general absence of class in the series is telling, and speaks to a broader resistance in liberal discourse to the centrality of class to the concentration of political power.
At the end of Atwood’s novel is a section titled “Historical Notes,” a fictional transcript of an academic conference in the distant future (June 25, 2195). Here, a historian offers a standard lecture on Gilead, just as one might offer a lecture on medieval Europe today. Atwood’s decision to include this is both structurally necessary—it is needed to explain how Offred’s story can be reproduced for the reader, given that women in Gilead are not allowed to write—and brilliant in its clear, retroactive account of the history leading up to the novel’s events. It is in fact this section, the details of which have been largely left out of the series, that presents a true “cautionary tale” that resonates with the political landscape of Trump’s America and, more broadly, the rise of right-wing extremism in Europe.
The lecture, given by a professor named James Pieixoto, says that “to institute an effective totalitarian system or indeed any system at all you must offer some benefits and freedoms, at least to a privileged few, in return for those you remove.” This remark is made in reference to Aunts, women in Gilead who act on behalf of the state and execute its oppressive ideology. As those who helped orchestrate the social structure of Gilead knew,
the best and most cost-effective way to control women for reproductive and other purposes was through women themselves. For this there were many historical precedents; in fact, no empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group. In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called “traditional values,” or for the benefits they might thereby acquire. When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting. There was, too, a negative inducement: childless or infertile or older women who were not married could take service in the Aunts and thereby escape redundancy, and consequent shipment to the infamous Colonies, which were composed of portable populations used mainly as expendable toxic cleanup squads, though if lucky you could be assigned to less hazardous tasks, such as cotton picking and fruit harvesting.
Two things are worth noting about this passage. The first, briefly, is the mention of various forms of labor performed by “portable populations,” an obvious nod to the precarious work historically performed by immigrants and persons of color. Such work, kept out of sight, is necessary for the everyday functioning of more populated cities where the wealthy live. Second, Atwood’s recognition that “control of the indigenous by members of their own” is a subtle but powerful explication of how those in power manage to maintain it, namely by fracturing a population and forcing its members to compete for freedoms that will allow the broader structure of oppression to remain in place. While here the population concerns primarily women, we might extend this analysis to how variously identified groups compete for political representation in our so-called democracy in a way that allows the wealthy to seize and maintain control. In this way Atwood’s story suggests the complicity of liberal identity politics in the oppression it seeks to combat.
Atwood does not say this in so many words, but one of the virtues of her novel is the teasing out of contradictions involved in an individual’s recognition of herself in society, and how these contradictions can be exploited. This becomes all the more relevant if we seek a connection between Gilead’s fictional theocracy and the blossoming alt-right movement in America today. As many liberal Democrats see it, one ought to express an unconditional solidarity with other members of one’s identity group—an idea evidenced by the reception of the series, which has largely been understood as a portrayal of feminist resistance and not as the tragic outcome of gross inequality that forces women to turn on each other to achieve a semblance of dignity. For a crass electioneering version of this, recall Madeleine Albright’s remark that there is “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” as though one’s identity as a woman renders all other aspects of her existence irrelevant. The implication, of course, was that women should express their solidarity by voting for Hillary Clinton, with no mention of the fact that many women disagreed with Clinton’s foreign policy and lukewarm approach to social policy. The simultaneous vilification of Sanders supporters as “Bernie bros” doubled down on this stance, framing any criticism of Clinton’s policies as sexist or “too concerned” with the economy. Meanwhile, Trump exploited populist fervor and, remarkably, stoked the opposition between Clinton and Sanders by feigning outrage at Sanders’s treatment.
The recent snap election in the United Kingdom, which left virtually every major media outlet humiliated after an unexpected wave of support for Labour, bore witness to similar claims of cultism lobbed at Jeremy Corbyn. The crucial difference between the elections in the United Kingdom and the United States, of course, is that in America right-wing extremism won due to our arcane election rules, whereas in England Theresa May and the Tories suffered one of the worst electoral losses in their parliamentary history. As I write this, Corbyn has signaled his intention to oust Theresa May and become the next Prime Minister; if successful, it would prove—if Labour’s gain of 33 seats hasn’t already—that the only real way to combat right-wing extremism and the specter of fascism is with a truly leftist platform that has at its core a commitment to fighting wealth and income inequality. The response by many on the progressive and radical left in America was a recognition, at times wistful and at others embittered, that “Bernie would have won.” Such claims are impossible to falsify, but the sentiment cuts to the heart of leftist infighting in the United States, and appropriately encouraged more of it. The claim that “Bernie would have won” was quickly framed by those in the Democratic establishment, most prominently Joan Walsh at The Nation, as cultist and de facto sexist. Even Ben Jacobs, the Guardian reporter who was assaulted by Greg Gianforte, tweeted, “I am always astounded how much Corbyn fans on Twitter sound like Trump fans on Twitter.” Being physically assaulted by an opportunist billionaire, it seems, is still not enough to recognize the craving for a truly progressive platform. And Corbyn, like Sanders, is hardly a radical leftist, even if he happens to be one of the few politicians willing to speak out against the inhumanity of the War on Terror.
One of the biggest obstacles facing a truly leftist platform in America, as Sanders experienced, is not the conservative right—whose base Sanders in fact energized and won support from—but rather the Democratic establishment and the liberal “left” more broadly, including the centrist media. Again, Sanders’s platform was, like Corbyn’s, social-democratic and thus only “radical” relative to the conservative tilt of American politics, but the point is that the real threat to democracy is actually not Donald Trump, whose astonishing incompetence prevents him from organizing anything remotely like a coherent agenda. Fascism, should it come to American, will not happen in a dramatically staged coup by radical Christians, despite what reviewers of The Handmaid’s Tale want to suggest. Such scenarios are a liberal fantasy. The real threat to American democracy is in fact the astonishingly out of touch Democratic party, which stubbornly insists upon status-quo economic policies and appeals opportunistically to the identity politics crowd with parroted phrases like “being a good ally.”
This is not to say we should not be good allies; but we should question what being a good ally means. The claim, by now standard among the liberal left, that a radical platform is “economically reductionist” because it privileges labor over identity should be recognized for precisely what it is: red-baiting. Rather than offering a truly progressive vision for resisting the oppressive logic of capitalism and the right-wing elites that profit from it, such remarks are conservative at best, and dangerous precisely because they direct attention away from the true cause of suffering—a corrupt, profit-hungry state and its policies of austerity and violence. There is no question that overthrowing the ruling class and creating a just society involves championing and defending those who are attacked on the basis of their identity, and those of us who are privileged enough to be spared such treatment have a duty to support policies that would correct such injustices. But this does not mean forsaking a truly anti-capitalist platform—one that would in fact disproportionally benefit women and persons of color. This is what it means to be a good ally, and that is how we prevent a society like Gilead from ever becoming anything more than a beautifully crafted work of fiction.
- All quotes from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: First Anchor Books, 1998).
ContributorAdam Theron-Lee Rensch
ADAM THERON-LEE RENSCH is a writer and musician based in Chicago. Currently, he is an English PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is finishing his first novel, A Beginner's Guide to Learning How to Die.