The Handmaid’s Tale: A Timely Warning

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Timely Warning


Zack Breslin




The television show The Handmaid’s Tale (based on the chilling dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood) is nearing the conclusion of its third season and while the show is perhaps not quite hitting the heights of earlier series it remains essential viewing. For those who haven’t seen it (don’t worry, you’ll find no spoilers here), The Handmaid’s Tale, tells the story of the fictional theocratic state, Gilead, which has replaced a United States that has collapsed against the backdrop of political instability, declining fertility and environmental catastrophe. In Gilead, the state forces fertile women to become child-bearing slaves (Handmaids) to a Christian Fundamentalist elite. It is a dystopic society in which all the power is held by men and women are, for the most part, in complete servitude.

Of course, the best dystopias are the ones that we can actually envision happening. They highlight negative aspects of our society and amplify them. Does The Handmaid’s Tale fall into this category? Could something like Gilead emerge in the real world? Sadly, there are some parallels between fact and fiction. For one, the ascension to power of the theocratic fascists of Gilead comes against the backdrop of a rising environmental crisis and increased political instability, just as we experience today. Furthermore, the basis upon which the Handmaids are enslaved is that they are fertile whilst the majority of women in this fictional world are not. In the real world, the West is experiencing its own (seldom spoke of) fertility crisis. Might we take analogies with The Handmaid’s Tale further? Does there exist the future possibility of a totalitarian anti-women state?

There is certainly an argument to be made that women’s rights are being eroded in places where a more progressive agenda toward women previously existed. In the United States, there is a real danger of the Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion (Roe v Wade) being overturned, with the Supreme Court now operating with a clear Christian, right-wing majority. Recently, in Alabama legislation was passed that would make abortion, under any circumstances including rape, punishable by jail; its legality will eventually be tested in the Supreme Court. In the United Kingdom, austerity has disproportionately targeted women, with Philip Alston, the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, stating; “If you got a group of misogynists in a room and said how can we make this system work for men and not for women they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place”. Worldwide, the equality agenda seems to be on the back foot. According to the 2019 SDG Gender Index not a single country is set to achieve gender equality by 2030.

Worse than that, there are growing movements online which seek to denigrate and subjugate women. These movements have on occasion inspired violence. One such group of men, known as incels, short for “involuntarily celibate”, channel their sexual frustrations and their sense of sexual entitlement into an ideology that sees the world as fundamentally unjust toward men who are not conventionally attractive. These beliefs are manifested in a deeply misogynistic view of women and incel forums regularly host calls for violence, including rape, against women. These calls have been heeded, with several mass murders being linked to the incel community.

Of course, violence against women is not usually the result of weird men online advocating it. Rather, it is an almost normal experience for women, of whom 1 in 3 will face sexual or physical violence in their lives, most likely from somebody they know, and quite likely with no repercussions for the perpetrator. Sexual violence is, in effect, decriminalised. Recent research has shown that in England and Wales, “only one in 65 rape cases reported to police result in suspects being summonsed or charged”. Where charges are brought, conviction rates are shockingly low.

Attacks on reproductive rights, continued sexual violence, economic policies that disproportionately harm women, online movements of misogynists that encourage massacres of women; all this amounts to a situation whereby it is hard not to conclude that women are under systemic attack in many places across the western world.

What’s gone wrong? Decades ago, there appeared to be a slow but inexorable process that might one day lead to full gender equality. From the 1960s onwards, more and more women entered higher education and better paid jobs. Women gained reproductive autonomy with a liberating new innovation; the contraceptive pill. This was accompanied by a renaissance of feminist thought which, according to writer Roger Osborne, “became a serious intellectual and social force that made everyone, from historians and literary critics to journalists, artists and legislators, reassess their attitudes and their outlook on the world”. Throughout the western world, conservative laws banning divorce, contraceptives and abortion were removed. The men were still in charge, but women were gradually becoming less oppressed.

Much of this occurred during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Capitalism, the post-World War 2 era that ended around the mid-seventies. This era was characterised by high economic growth that was matched with rising wages and generous welfare programmes that benefited men and women alike. It was, by today’s standards, a highly egalitarian (in terms of wealth distribution) society in which the rights of women made remarkable progress, albeit from a very low base. The Golden Age did not last long, a mere three decades. Subsequently, social democracy was replaced with a set of policies that sought to undermine worker power and to redistribute wealth back to the elite. The ideological basis for this, neoliberalism, remains to this day the governing ideology for global and national economic relations.

The end of the Golden Age of capitalism and the onset of the neoliberal era did not directly stop the slow but steady progress to a more gender equal society. But as women’s participation in the workforce continued to grow throughout the eighties and nineties, mainstream feminism perhaps came to be more oriented toward professional success rather than personal liberation. At the same time, many types of well-paid, traditionally male oriented, work began to disappear as de-industrialisation, globalization, and automation all accelerated.

Collective nostalgia can be a powerful force and perhaps many men, particularly those who rail against feminism, subconsciously (or consciously) blame the relative successes of women for their own newly found economic insecurity. If the equitable Golden Age of capitalism proved fertile ground for the advancement of women’s rights, might the subsequent age of inequity prove to achieve the reverse?

I think it is fair to say that with slower economic growth, and with the proceeds of this growth accruing overwhelmingly to an ever-narrowing elite sector of society, many people feel resentful and economically insecure. This is arguably the cause of the rapid growth of far-right forces on the world stage, with some people who perceive their traditional identities as threatened turning to politicians who tell them that they are right, that their identities are threatened. The idea that white people are being replaced or oppressed, for example, is one manifestation of this. Another is that feminism has gone too far, and that men are now the oppressed group. These ideas and movements have been growing for a long time, decades in fact. But recent years have seen an acceleration of these troubling trends and we are now, tragically, at a point where many of the worlds major countries are led by men who are, under some understandings of the term, fascists.

Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the US, Putin in Russia, Modi in India, Duterte in the Philippines; the world is increasingly finding itself home to an array of extreme nationalists and populist bigots, many of whom could be characterised as fascist, men who exploit economic inequality for their own ends. Even the EU is not immune, with governments in Italy and Hungary displaying somewhat fascistic leanings and other European countries having far-right movements which are growing in strength and popularity. While there are differences between these disparate governments and movements, there are also many similarities.

One such similarity is that they all share a wholesale rejection of feminist values. Putin’s Russia has watered down legislation preventing domestic violence. Trump’s America has found itself siding with anti-women regimes such as Saudi Arabia in stymying UN agreements on women’s reproductive and health rights. Both he and Brazilian President Bolsonaro have publicly suggested that some women are not attractive enough to have suffered sexual violence, as has Duterte who has also publicly and shamelessly encouraged his nation’s soldiers to use martial law as a cover to perpetrate sexual assault. In Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is giving off a distinctly Gilead vibe and his government is offering inducements to Hungarian women to bear more children. In Spain, the growing right-wing force, Vox, is trying to overturn gender violence laws. There are further examples; suffice to say that the new proto-fascist leaders and parties that are beginning to gain ascendancy are not just racist and homophobic, they are also highly sexist. They are deeply suspicious of feminism which they view to be a conspiratorial attack upon men.

Misogynistic values are now recognised as a kind of “gateway drug” that is used to lure insecure men into support for the far-right. If these movements continue to grow, and continue to enjoy electoral success, you can be certain that there will be further diminishments of women’s rights. Anti-feminism will be a core part of 21st Century fascism should it continue to flourish. We may not find ourselves living in a replica of Gilead. We will, however, have created our own dystopia. A dystopia in which the hard-won rights of women have been destroyed.



Zack Breslin is the News Editor at The Scum Gentry Alternative Arts and Media. You can read his blog on Irish politics at or follow him on Twitter at @zack_breslin to keep up to date with his latest writing projects.

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