Extremist Judeo-Christian beliefs have won America’s culture war. Now women have no rights. They are slaves to men and the biblical, patriarchal society in which they live. The Handmaid’s Tale is the first-person account of one of these enslaved women.
Massachusetts Becomes Saudi Arabia?
More than thirty years have passed since The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, but many still think of it as the go-to book for feminist fiction. It makes numerous “best of” lists, the kinds with 99 other books everyone should read before dying. Even so, The Handmaid’s Tale frustrates me a lot—and not only because it contains run-on sentences and needlessly abandons quotation marks. (This is no train wreck like José Saramago’s Blindness, but it’s bad enough.) Simply put, if you can ignore whether you agree or disagree with Margaret Atwood’s ideas about politics, religion, and women’s rights, the plot and setting make no sense.
The religiosity of the Reagan era inspired Atwood’s dystopia, in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over society. While that premise does give me the heebie-jeebies, Atwood’s taken the idea to a literal extreme to make a point. This ruins the foundation of The Handmaid’s Tale because most American fundies would balk at this world. Atwood imagines the extreme of the extreme and in the process completely misunderstands American evangelicalism.
I’m a heathen bastard and no fan of religion. Fundamentalism has hurt people, particularly women, for millennia. Extremism continues to hurt people every day, especially in some parts of the world, especially in some states. Even so, it’s hard to accept Atwood’s dystopia when it’s set in the U.S., in the near future—and in Massachusetts, one of the most progressive states in the country, one of only sixteen states in the union with state constitutional protections for abortion (since 1981, I believe). Massachusetts is a liberal bastion when it comes to American women’s reproductive rights, so it’s an odd setting for this brand of nightmare. In recent decades, Massachusetts is also one of the least religious states, so it’s an odd setting for a theocracy, too.
Atwood chose Massachusetts for its puritanical history. I can embrace the connection to the Reagan administration, in the same way I can embrace Orwell’s fear of communism in 1984, but to imagine an unchanging, puritanical Massachusetts requires a bit too much.
Societies Don’t Change Overnight
The Handmaid’s Tale is told in first person by a woman who’s lived in our present day (more or less), as well as in this dark fundamentalist Tomorrowland. She’s gone from wearing flip-flops and sundresses to a full-body religious habit, color-coded red to match her subservient role. She was married once, had a child. Now she’s another’s property, one of the handmaids sent from one man’s house to another. The hope is that she will become pregnant when a prominent man’s wife cannot. Her life has been flipped and made forfeit. She lives in fear and depression and abuse. This is meant to make me unnerved, and it does.
Simply because an author wants to comment on society doesn’t mean he or she can ignore important, logical story elements. The logic part should be emphasized here, I think, given this is supposed to be science fiction, not fantasy. (Although Atwood does insist The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, because that further legitimizes her story…or something? Never mind that sci-fi and fantasy are types of speculative fiction.)
There’s a question I have that never gets answered, not properly at least. How did this happen so quickly? How did we go from “burning bras” to having every part of our lives regulated? Why did it take Massachusetts decades, centuries, to reject puritanism, but only a few years(?) to reject liberalism?
Rights can erode, but you don’t see it happen on such a large scale and so seamlessly, and not overnight. Nothing happens overnight, especially not governmental takeovers in relatively stable, secular societies, which is the book’s scenario.
Societies evolve, one way or another, usually rather slowly. Civil, moral, and regime changes don’t sneak up on you. It wasn’t the case in Germany before Hitler, in China before Mao, in Afghanistan before the Taliban, in Syria before its civil war. It’s not the case in 2016, with people like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump leading in GOP primary polls. The world may be disappointing and horrible sometimes, but it is rarely surprising.
If Atwood had built her dystopia on a chain of events that occurred over a longer period of time, or explained how everything unraveled so quickly, I might have been on board with the premise. That isn’t how The Handmaid’s Tale is written, though. The explanations for the sudden changes are fantastical, at best, dependent on evil, digitized money—be careful with the mobile payments and bitcoins, ladies!—and misogynistic, conservative conspiracies that readers are to believe could bring millions of people to a stupefied halt and change culture in the blink of an eye.
I don’t buy it.
You can change laws all you want, but society, culture, has to be willing to follow the most drastic changes. (This is why the American Drug War has never worked, why prohibition of alcohol never worked, why banning abortion didn’t work.) Why was modern American society so willing to enslave women?
Atwood chucks a plot point at you here or there, hinting at a larger, more complex world through her main character. There’s a vague fertility crisis (of course). There’s conflict somewhere between some people about some stuff, but details are never given. Some of this can be excused, what with the limited point of view, but not all. Plot holes aren’t mysterious or clever. They’re just plot holes.
By the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, I feel the book is less an exploration of religious extremism and feminism than it is a narrative written for shock value. It’s an irrational feminist’s fears exposed, that the world is out to get you at every turn—especially the men, especially the women controlled and brainwashed by the men. Nowhere is safe. Overall, the summary for this book could be this: Almost anyone with a penis is mostly unfeeling and evil, deep down. (The rest are idiots, I suppose.) He doesn’t care. He will betray you at the first opportunity. Even when you’re dead and gone, he will chuckle at your misfortune and demise. No, this isn’t sexist or a generalization. Of course not. Not at all.
Except it is.
- For a slightly more accurate portrayal of American Christian fundamentalism and its very awkward relationship with women, see Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke. It makes several nods to The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale—and better understands its villains and their behavior.
- Two nonfiction books, Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul and Ned & Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast: The History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, will show you what it’s really like to live in a society where women are chattel.
- Some think that because I dislike this book I’m not a feminist, or am a bad feminist. I hate to break it to everyone, but Margaret Atwood is not feminism’s god, and The Handmaid’s Tale is not a religious text. If I must attach labels to myself, feminist would be one of them, and I’ll say and think whatever I damn well please. And as a feminist, I hate how one-dimensional the men are in this book, just as much as I hate how one-dimensional women are in far more books, TV shows, and movies. Deal with it. Or don’t. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Thanks to a medical procedure known as “neurografting,” colloquially called unwinding, every harvested organ and body part of a teenager can be used on another person’s body. Stealing kiddies’ fingers and brains is a whole industry. Few believe it’s wrong. Some don’t even believe it’s death. Unwind is the story of three teenagers who have been signed up for unwinding by parents or guardians. They’re unwanted, someone can’t afford them, or they’re a religious “tithing”/sacrifice to God. Through the will to survive—or sometimes thanks to blind luck—these three soon-to-be-unwound teens find themselves on the run.
The “Abortion Debate,” if It Made Even Less Sense
When I first came across the summary for Unwind, I thought it sounded like it would be awful, but I couldn’t ignore that it had maintained a star rating of four (out of five) with 7,500 ratings on Goodreads (nearly five years later, that’s exploded to more than 124,000 ratings). That left me wondering if the hive mind knew something I didn’t about this young adult book. So, I set out to give it a try.
In the first few pages, readers come across this:
THE BILL OF LIFE
The Second Civil War, also known as “The Heartland War,” was a long and bloody conflict fought over a single issue.
To end the war, a set of constitutional amendments known as “The Bill of Life” was passed.
It satisfied both the Pro-life and the Pro-choice armies.
The Bill of Life states that human life may not be touched from the moment of conception until a child reaches the age of thirteen.
However, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, a parent may choose to retroactively “abort” a child on the condition that the child’s life doesn’t “technically” end.
The process by which a child is both terminated and yet kept alive is called “unwinding.”
Unwinding is now a common and accepted practice in society.
One hopes there’s almost no need to point out how illogical this premise is, but I’ll do so anyway.
- No one who is anti-abortion will ever think that, instead, killing teenagers is a form of legitimate compromise. If someone considers the former murder, then he or she will most certainly consider the latter murder, too. This isn’t a “grey area,” like the death penalty, euthanasia, or (some would say) abortion.
- No one who believes abortion should be available to women would think killing a teenager for his or her organs wouldn’t be murder. There is a reason the term’s pro-choice. I don’t know of any pro-choice individuals who would think a teenager isn’t a thinking, feeling, fully-alive human being capable of making choices for herself. This isn’t a fetus we’re talking about. And this is exactly why abortion rights activists fight for teenagers to have access to safe, legal reproductive care without hovering, cloistering, occasionally deeply conservative parental consent.
It would take years, perhaps even decades or centuries, of careful, subtle brainwashing to get everyone on board with this concept.
And so there’s the truth of it: Beyond its political agenda, Unwind also happens to be poorly written. The characters are stereotypical, the narrative is choppy, and the plot doesn’t make sense within the context of Shusterman’s own creation.
Clashing with Today’s Science
All lovers of speculative fiction know that the unbelievable can be made believable by a good writer. (Belief in this is one of the reasons I kept trying and wanting to like Unwind.) It just takes the proper balance of realism and “magic.” Shusterman technically knows this. After all, a major inspiration for this story was a horrible, creepy 2006 report of a Ukrainian stem cell scandal. And he repeatedly tries to tie in other real-world examples that may be loosely—usually very loosely—related to his idea.
Unfortunately, Shusterman’s efforts to ground Unwind fall flat for reasons far beyond highly questionable foundations and plot holes. They fall flat because they go against the medical science that exists today in American society—yes, even with its broken healthcare system and shady insurers. If Unwind‘s premise isn’t realistic for the next five years, you’ll have trouble convincing me that this story’s premise can be a reality any time soon. (Although, interestingly, Shusterman never specifically dates his story. For example, a war has passed, and there are “antique” plasma TVs and MP3 players, but the mobile phones aren’t smartphones.)
Unwind was published in 2007, when stem cell research was already widely portrayed in news articles as a revolutionary solution to numerous ailments.
- In 2006, The Independent reported on seven successful bladder transplants, where the bladders were grown from the patients’ own stem cells.
- Since 2008, we’ve done amazing things with stem cell technology. We can grow windpipes and urethras using one’s own stem cells. We can even “spray” new “skin” onto burn victims.
Those are the stories we should tell teens: the stories that show, time and again, that human minds save the day when they methodically and logically work to solve problems.
In reading Unwind, I get the impression Shusterman didn’t research current advancements much, if at all. His projections for the future would be significantly different and more logical if he had. I think, instead, he looked for—and poorly based Unwind on—the horror stories, of which there most certainly are some if you go in search of them. (There always are and will be.) At the risk of making him guilty for his associations, I can’t say I’m surprised a former Goosebumps and Animorphs writer would do such a thing.
Is it any wonder the book takes a pseudoscientific, spiritualistic, paranormal approach to all this?
Liberal/Moderate Parents and Teachers, Beware
I am usually of the “different strokes for different folks” opinion when it comes to books I don’t like, even if I think some are objectively bad. I feel that way about Unwind when it comes to adults reading it—many of whom, I should note, disagree with me about this book having an anti-abortion message. (I’m going to continue to say they’re wrong about that, though. Not many mainstream YA series get sold at far-right/fundamentalist Christian bookstores, but this series does—see here and here—just a few clicks away from the purity rings.)
Shusterman’s novel, when considered for young readers, seems insidious to me. It feels a little too much like conservative propaganda. Add to this that many reviews on Goodreads, by teens and adults alike, proclaim Unwind‘s premise is something that “could really happen” in the near future, and Shusterman is a tiny part of a much larger scientific illiteracy in our culture that embraces straw men in arguments.
Gift this one to teens with caution. The rest of the series will almost certainly be more, not less, political.