Modern Day Handmaidens

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A tale as old as time, a handmaiden left to deal with her master’s sheets Monty Luv via Unsplash, manipulated by Morgan Ortman

Welcome to the horrors of our modern utopia

CW: sexual assault, emotional abuse

In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, which has recently been increasing in popularity and continues to grow its platform. Atwood has published a second book in the series, The Testaments, and has taken the original to the big screen as a television show. What is so appealing about this series that keeps people coming back, wanting more? Is it purely entertainment value or is it the opportunity for conversations to be born out of the plot?

One of the most prominent topics that is covered within this series is the topic of women’s rights. This is a large topic to unpack as it presents itself in many ways throughout the series. Talking about a woman’s right to choose, personal boundaries, freedom, and a right to access medical procedures are just a few that are looked at throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. These topics are ones that we should be familiar with as they are something that women all over the world are forced to live with in some capacity on a daily basis. Whether that means that their rights have directly been taken away or they are helping to fight for the rights of women in other places, this is a fight everywhere. 

Women are considered objects for the pleasure and entertainment of the men around them, and do not have a right to make decisions regarding what happens to their own bodies. One of the most prominent issues that comes to the mind of many is the consistent harassment and barriers that women are faced with in regard to their own reproductive rights. In the United States women are not permitted to have an abortion after a certain number of weeks depending on the state in which they are in. What is known as the “Heartbeat Law” prevents women from having an abortion as soon as the fetus’ heartbeat can be detected on an ultrasound monitor. This can happen as early as five to six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy, a time when many women won’t yet know they’re pregnant and will then be forced to carry the pregnancy to term. In European countries, laws vary from 18-24 weeks before women are no longer permitted to have an abortion, while others will not allow them to undergo the procedure after the first trimester is completed. In Germany, there is mandatory counselling that women must go through before experiencing a three-day waiting period, and only then are they allowed to undergo the procedure. 

Women must fight every step of the way in order to undergo the process. Whether that fighting is due to the legal barriers put in place, convincing a counsellor that they are mentally sound enough to make decisions about their own bodies, or dealing with the potential repercussions from their family, friends, or community, it is extremely difficult and harmful for the women who are going through this process. It is their body, yet they consistently have to try to prove that they are able to make decisions about it in their own best interest. Oftentimes the groups who have made the decisions about these laws are led by men and religious groups who apparently would rather women attempt back-alley abortions, putting their lives at risk (EIC note: so much for pro-life, huh) in order to perform these procedures themselves rather than providing trained medical staff to perform them in safe, sterile environments.

Within the context of The Handmaid’s Tale, women do not have control of their own bodies either. They are sorted into categories such as wife or handmaiden, and what happens to their body after that is determined by the status that they have been given. Those who have been deemed fertile are classified as handmaidens and will be expected to bear children after forced sexual encounters with men in power, as it is their duty to repopulate. Although it is a traumatizing experience for the handmaiden to be taken advantage of by these men, there is no option to reverse the effects of the intimate act. These women are being mentally and emotionally traumatized through these encounters, and are further traumatized by being forced to bear these rapists’ children. 

Not only does this series showcase the lack of control that women have regarding what they can do with their bodies, it also shows how easily men disregard women as people and consider them to be their property to do with what they see appropriate. For example, in this series the women are named based on the names of the men who control them. For example, there is a character who is referred to as “Ofglen” because she is the property of a man named Glen. She is no longer considered to be her own person, capable of making her own decisions, but rather is property to be owned and manipulated.

For women in our current world, we are often forced to follow traditions that demonstrate that we are property of the men around us. No matter how hard we try and fight the way we are expected to act, the traditions that we follow still hold the view of us as property to be controlled. Weddings, which are believed to be beautiful ceremonies where two families are coming together, are actually one man giving away their property to another man; the handing off of the soon-to-be wife by her father to her soon-to-be husband holds the symbolism that she is not her own person. She was and always will be under the control of a man, free to give her away if they choose. Although we are given the illusion of being free to choose, we never really have been. 

Margaret Atwood has done a phenomenal job of creating a story that stands the test of time. Whether it was women fighting for the right to work or the fights that continue about our right to choose, The Handmaid’s Tale continues to be relevant. 

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