Oppression and Abuse: The Handmaid’s Tale

As you know from a previous post on the Netflix series, Mindhunter, I enjoy watching captivating television shows.  Since I reference true life news features, television series, documentaries, and music in my classroom lectures, I consider this another part of my academic preparation.  (I know this may be a stretch for some to consider.  However, most of my sociological classes feature a lecture or two on the media because of its presence in our culture.)

Thus, I decided to watch and analyze, The Handmaid’s Tale.  It is a series based on a novel by Margaret Atwood and is featured on Hulu. I never read the novel, have not read any reviews of the series, and did not talk to anyone about it prior to watching.  Therefore, my discovery of the show was completely unbiased.  I had no idea what to expect. Currently, on episode 9, I have already learned that this society is a male-dominated, state-ran society. Women have no rights whatsoever. The society is more oppressive for women than a 1950s American patriarchal family.  Also, homophobia is rampant.  Homosexuality is not considered acceptable because of religious reasons and because no conception can occur from a relationship between same-sex partners.  In the series, immediately before the change of the formerly known America into this totalitarian society called Gilead, there was a dying society due to a low birth rate.

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Due to this, some men formed secret societies and decided to make a change by controlling women and eliminating homosexual relationships.  They rounded up all women of child-bearing age to serve (have sexual intercourse with) wealthy, powerful men.  This takes place in front of their wives to make it less intimidating for the wife to eventually (hopefully) end in pregnancy. This would repopulate the new society and supposedly meet their religious guidelines. The handmaids are also at the mercy and control of the wives.  While watching this Hulu Original, I began thinking about this society through a few different lenses typically discussed in “Introduction to Sociology” courses:

  • Gender Relations
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Religion
  • and, Socioeconomic Status.

Gender Relations: For starters, at one point in time, women could not vote in America.  The women’s suffrage movement was a long battle for women to gain the right to vote, and finally have a voice, which eventually did happen (as we know.)  Many younger generations of women do not realize how much of a struggle this was for women to gain access to the political arena by having a voice.  Also, at one point in history, it was acceptable for a husband to deem his wife insane and have her committed to life in an asylum.  There were numerous reasons for this but pretty much any time a husband was not pleased with his wife, he could have her committed.  In fact, Pouba & Tianen (2006) state, “Between the years of 1850-1900, women were placed in mental institutions for behaving in ways that male society did not agree with” (p. 1). So, is the society of Gilead so far-fetched that it could never exist? No, it isn’t. In fact, there were some elements that have already existed if you take time to read history.

Sexual Orientation: As far as sexual orientation, gays and lesbians in this world known as Gilead are ostracized and deemed unfit for society.  One of the child-bearing females was in a lesbian relationship before being captured to serve as a handmaid.  When some of the leaders in this society realized the woman was spending too much time with another handmaid, and was previously in a lesbian relationship, they performed a female circumcision on her so she would never experience pleasure again. While this ritual is still performed in some parts of Africa and Asia (often without anesthesia) based on culture and religion, it has never been a part of American culture.  Although, some immigrants from other countries who live in America may see this as normal (Burstyn, 1995).  I may be somewhat ethnocentric about this, but I don’t see where female mutilation should ever take place.  It is inhumane and abusive. In fact, there have been social activists in America and other countries fighting to end this physical and psychological trauma so my opinions are not an outlier.

Therefore, considering all of the above aforementioned elements, are humans capable of forcing sexual choices on another human being?  Of course, we know this has happened.  If you pull out your Nazi Germany history facts, you’ll remember gay men and lesbians were banned and were also victims of the Nazi regime (Introduction to, n.d.).  Also, it wasn’t too long ago that homosexuals were abused, battered, or even murdered. In fact, only recently has same-sex marriages been legalized in the United States to the disgust of some religious followers.

Religion: Oddly enough, religion is supposed to be the backbone of every action in Gilead.  However, the lure of lust and sexual freedoms are still present in this society.  On one episode, the main character Offred, was secretly led from her home by her owner, Fred Waterford, to an underworld society similar to a brothel.  Thus, the guise of religion being of utmost importance was certainly not genuine.  Without going into too much detail pertaining to this scene, not only were the men not confined to sexual intercourse with their assigned handmaids, but they were also obviously not being loyal with their wives either. In another scene, one of the leaders was literally identified by his handmaid as requiring her to perform in sexual ways that were not outlined in the religious foundations. He called her a liar even though she was telling the truth.  Regardless of your religious preferences, you can appreciate the fact that no one is perfect and we all have the ability to sin.  However, these abusive, beyond command-and-control leaders were being hypocritical just like some are in current-day America.  This year, an Indianapolis Youth Pastor was arrested for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl and possessing child pornography (Sanctorum, 2018). Last year, an Indiana Pastor was charged with child molestation, child solicitation, and sexual battery (Miller, 2017).  Obviously, this is not an occurrence in every religious institution but it does happen.  It happens so much that a google search is limitless.  Religion is a major agent of socialization in America and has the potential to impact our decisions, ideas, and how we raise future generations. It is a powerful force.

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Socioeconomic Status: Another important part of our society, and the Gilead society, is socioeconomic status.  In sociology, we discuss how the education system, the political system, and healthcare, as well as other institutions have problems with equality between the haves (those with a lot of economic wealth) and the have nots (those without economic wealth).  In Gilead, this is true with a division among the people based on wealth. This section does not even warrant an explanation on when, how, and if this occurs.  This divide is so rampant it does not require lengthy explanations.

In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction and is not based on an actual society. However, it can be quite scary when you realize the many elements that mimic those in our society especially those that are oppressive and abusive.  I recommend budding leadership students and sociologists watch this series and analyze.  It can be quite eye-opening and sometimes has elements that are too close for comfort.

 

Sincerely,

Mel

References:

Burstyn, L. (1995, October). Female circumcision comes to America. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1995/10/female-circumcision-comes-to-america/306051/

Introduction to the holocaust. (n.d.). In United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved from https://www.ushmm.org/learn/introduction-to-the-holocaust

Miller, J. R. (2017, October 19). Pastor allegedly molested girls after luring them with candy. New York post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2017/10/19/pastor-allegedly-molested-girls-after-luring-them-with-candy/

Pouba, K. & Tianen, A. (2006, April).  Lunacy in the 19th century: Women’s admission to asylums in United States of America. Oshkosh Scholar, 1, 95-103.

Sanctorum, M. (2018, February 15). Former youth pastor charged with child exploitation, possessing child porn. WishTV.com. Retrieved from http://wishtv.com/2018/02/15/former-youth-pastor-charged-with-child-exploirtation-possessing-child-porn/

Image Locations (in order):

https://pixabay.com/en/sunset-silhouette-evening-dusk-3087474/

https://pixabay.com/en/cross-religion-gold-glass-block-3183635/

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