I am troubled with one dilemma: should I be hating all the bad men, or should I be hating the women who support the bad men? When I parallel the core moral of The Handmaid’s Tale to reality today, I find myself realising that evil is in fact plural. Like the paradox of the Beast in the Book of Revelations, a monster who is both controlled by the whore of Babylon while at the same time giving her the power, are people evil only when they are together?
The Handmaid’s Tale is disturbing, disturbingly real and made me, as a woman, feel incredibly uncomfortable. It reminded me of my own experiences and that of so many women, encountering those men who threaten and insult, who made me feel the need to defend or question myself, men who saw me as a sexual object to use for one or two weeks until satisfied, men who made assumptions about me that they turned into fact, men who lie and such men defended by foolish women.
The series is more real than meets the eye.
This is not a story about religion despite the clear references to Christian extremism. It is an example of when the social and economic climate becomes challenging, the masses resort back to the strict confines of religion. A dystopian society forms almost naturally when fear shifts the balance of powers and extremism is usually accompanied by followers who revert back to the past as a psychologically motivating ideal that guarantees ‘order’ within the disorder taking place in the present. Despite carrying with it a very fictitious understanding of history, the ideal is that the way things were before were better than the way things are now.
The same psychological motivation there is when those in power with extremist ideologies have an enemy to hate, someone to blame, someway of acknowledging the superiority. This is where evil becomes plural. The “Other” helps balance the conscience, to make a person think that their evils are morally worthy and that they are in fact doing a good thing. In some cases, it is those from another religion. In other cases, it is those who are homosexual. Women. Disabled person. Political party. The list goes on. Humanity thrives in hatred.
The actors are all incredible and believable. The story is set in the Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States) in our current time but with a global existential crisis when a disease that has made people infertile threatens the existence of the human population. It is rare for women to give birth to children, most being born as an unbaby or with severe defects. It is disturbingly real not only because the possibility of a totalitarian society forming after such a global disaster, but that women could very well be treated as property when and forced into sexual servitude.
Let’s have a look at the real numbers, shall we?
The global number of people trafficked per year for labour and sexual exploitation is staggering, with 75 per cent of the 20.9 million exploited being women and children; 4.6 million are victims of sexual slavery. In 2012, accounting 14 per cent of all homicides were deaths resulting from intimate partner or family member abuse, with 50 per cent of all female homicide victims – a total of 43,600 women – killed from domestic violence. 95 per cent of perpetrators of all global homicide were male. It is estimated that globally, 35% of women have experience violence either physically or sexually. Women with intellectual disabilities are regularly victims of physical and sexual abuse that forced sterlisations continue to be performed and the impact on children who witness or experience domestic violence includes “a range of behavioural and emotional disturbances. These can also be associated with perpetrating or experiencing violence later in life,” as well as an increased risk in health issues.
Psychological abuse stands at the forefront of violence against women and children and is used as a tactic for several reasons; the first is to control the victim through feelings of guilt, confusion and fear and the second is to deflect blame and responsibility for their own actions. The worst scene that found me wrenching my teeth in anger was in Season 3, Episode 3 “Watch Out” when June was asked to find Darwin’s Book and undermined in front of all the men, and notwithstanding all the institutionalised rape and the horrors endured by the women, that particular scene really explained the superiority complex the men have against women.
Masculinity and the concept of gender itself is a social construct. An environment that promotes notions of masculinity through defined attributes such as physical strength and domestic power are merely constructions of masculinity that compels men to focus on an ideal for the sake of social acknowledgement. Men start feeling emasculated when they fail to live up to this “image” and develop a sense of insignificance that in order to overcome the sense of subjective powerlessness, he becomes aggressive, envisioning a different version of power. This is also the case with sexual violence and why 58% of trafficking cases globally account for sexual exploitation, not to mention the crime of sexual violence as a weapon of war. As with definitions of masculinity, notions of feminine purity often shift the blame to victims of sexual violence.
The Handmaid’s Tale is real. It is real for many women who are forced into marriage, who are deprived of an education, who live without choice and with the constant threat of fear. Many women are murdered like Du’a Khalil Aswad, a 17 year old Yazidi girl who was publicly stoned to death and filmed for rumours about being a relationship with a boy from a different religion. It is real. It happens all the time and the only reason why Handmaid’s Tale is frightening is because it is happening in the West.
Those women in the series that support the horrors that take place have left me concerned and questioning feminism and indeed I will ponder that question further. While scenes can be long and repetitive, it intentionally stirs within you a hopelessness and anxiety while channeling the very disturbing nature of power. It made me feel anger when someone is treated as a something or as inferior, and happy when women are empowered enough to fight back for their freedoms. While it makes one question the nature of terrorism and learning to understand a different side to the fight against corruption, I have come to see that the elimination of all violence is through the equal balance of power. Without it, we are doomed to suffer.
 See United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012
 See United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), The Global Study on Homicide 2013
 World Health Organisation, Violence Against Women: Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Against Women Fact sheet (November 2016) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
 See Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, Simon Watson, Carrie Mae Weems, Constructing Masculinity, Psychology Press (1995)