Feminism

the Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a straw man, and here’s proof

Quick update: I took a month off after seminary classes ended, and then I had to play catch-up with some of the volunteer work I’ve been doing since the election. That is finally starting to become a manageable about of work, so hopefully starting next week we can get back to regular blog updates!

This was a post I wrote for Relevant a while ago, but they have decided not to publish it (incidentally, the post they did publish was written by a man I dated at Liberty. It’s … insipid, unsurprisingly). The below only covers the first four episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, since those were the only ones available when I wrote it. So, spoilers for those episodes, and for some of the book.

***

The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale I was at Liberty University, taking a utopian/dystopian literature class for an English master’s degree. I practically inhaled it, and it was my favorite of all the assigned readings that semester. In her introduction to the work, our professor noted that Atwood had limited her narrative to things that have already taken place. In Atwood’s words, “I made it a rule … that I would not put anything into it that human societies have not already done.”

When I arrived in class to discuss it, I was surprised by several of my classmate’s reactions. I did not expect everyone to love the book, but I didn’t think that some would react as negatively as they did. Much of the discussion that day was devoted to arguing whether Atwood had written nothing more than a straw man. Several claimed that she simply hated Christianity and wanted to give our religion a bad name—that the whole premise of the book was preposterous and stretched the suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Unlike the other dystopias we’d read, The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t criticizing anything that did or could exist. Christians just could not do this, they said.

I struggled with their reaction because I knew from firsthand experience they were wrong. In the years since then, and especially since Hulu’s release of their screen adaptation, I’ve thought often about the irony that my fellow students made their arguments in Liberty’s DeMoss building, and Nancy Leigh DeMoss wrote in her evangelical bestseller Lies Women Believe that the Civil Rights and Suffrage movements had been deceived by Satan’s lie that “I have rights,” and that pursuing those rights made them like sinful Jonah, “estranged from God” (74-76). The largest academic building on Liberty’s campus shares the name of a woman who thought the Civil Rights movement was sinful, and she wasn’t just critiquing the form of the activism, either, but arguing that it is a sinful lie for us to believe that we—specifically women and people of color—have rights.

As I re-read the book and watched the first four episodes of the show, I’ve also struggled with how to put the feelings I have into words. My response is visceral, but I know I’m not reacting to the events of the plot. I don’t live in a country reeling from a plague of infertility and governed by martial law. However, we do live in a world where many Christians proclaim the same ideas as the Aunts and Commanders, and we must admit that The Handmaid’s Tale is no straw man.

During one flashback to the time before handmaids exist, June (Offred) and Moira encounter a woman while jogging whose face contorts into disgust because of the typical workout clothes they’re wearing. My heart clenched in my chest because I have both given and received that expression. Growing up, I looked at women who dressed “immodestly” with disdain; as an adult, I wore a dress to a concert on a conservative Christian college campus that showed a hint of cleavage and my husband remarked he was surprised that several women didn’t actually spit on me, their faces showed that much revulsion. Later in the same scene, a barista uses degrading terms for June and Moira—again because of their workout clothes—and I couldn’t help but think of the countless articles on how yoga pants are “immodest.” Those articles may not use the same degrading language, but the ideas are the same: only women who want sexual attention from men dress that way.

One of the more heartbreaking scenes is in the first episode, when Jeanine is “Testifying” about being sexually assaulted and blames herself for what happened. The other women agree, chanting “her fault, her fault.” That scene saddens and horrifies me in the same way I’m saddened and horrified when I encounter it in Christian books. In Stasi Eldredege’s Captivating, she talks about how she “put [her]self in a dangerous position” because she’d been drinking and accepted a ride back to her hotel—the same rationale Jeanine uses to blame herself for being assaulted (79). In Real Marriage, Grace Driscoll talks about her own assault in similar terms: her assault is “her own sin” (128), she was “condemned by her sin” (132), and she repeatedly emphasizes the need for her to “repent” for being assaulted (127, 129, 130). This idea is ubiquitous in Christian culture, and I’ve experienced the pain of being blamed—and told to repent—for my rapes more than once.

However, one of the strongest themes woven throughout The Handmaid’s Tale is the teaching that women, and particularly handmaids, are a “precious resource” that must be protected. Aunt Lydia teaches the handmaids at the Red Center that this protection is a sign of just how much their culture privileges women—the handmaids are lucky, so extraordinarily blessed, to be so honored. This lesson is emphasized in one of the more harrowing scenes from the show. During a “Salvaging,” the handmaids are told that the man standing before them is a convicted rapist and they are given permission to do anything they want to him. This action is intended to demonstrate that their country actually does value them, and desires to protect them. If they only obey the system, they will be protected; in the rare occurrence when they are not, they will see true justice—but only if they follow the rules. Stray outside the rules and they are “putting themselves in a dangerous position.”

Christian culture is replete with this teaching, and it can take many forms. In popular books and programs, women are given the rules: do not have close friendships with boys, do not be alone with boys, dress modestly, keep yourself pure, don’t allow “heavy petting,” date with intention, seek your parent’s guidance… In exchange for following all these rules, girls and women are promised the protection of God, their fathers, and their communities. In the churches I grew up in, this principle was called the “umbrella of protection.” As long as we stayed under the umbrella of the men in our lives—God, fathers, pastors—we were insulated from the evils of the world.

As we grow into adulthood, however, the rules shift focus. As long as you submit to your husband, remain unemployed at home, do not usurp the authority of men, and find your purpose “only in Christ,” then we can be happy and blessed. Sexual violence and physical abuse are held up as the specters that keep us in line—you will be happy if you do what we say, but if you don’t, then you will not be protected. Nancy Leigh DeMoss is quite explicit about this in Lies Women Believe, speaking of cases of physical abuse:

A woman can—and must—maintain an attitude of reverence for husband’s position; her goal is not to belittle or resist him as her husband … if she provokes or worsens [the physical abuse] through her attitudes, words, or behavior, she will interfere with what God wants to do in her husband’s life and will not be free to claim God’s protection and intervention on her behalf. (149)

According to DeMoss, we must “reverence” an abusive husband and must not “resist” him: if we don’t, God will not protect us. That the handmaids of the Tale are told exactly this—that they must “reverence” the oppressive system and not “resist” it—should be an opportunity for self-reflection and communal repentance for the ways Christians continue to subjugate women.

There were so many more moments in the show that caused me to flinch, or to relive the times I’ve experienced what was being depicted. So often, though, it wasn’t about the explicit, but the implicit. For my own mental health I watched the show with a friend, and there were many instances when I would pause and read a section from Lies Women Believe or Captivating or True Woman 101 and exclaim “doesn’t it sound exactly the same as what Aunt Lydia just said?” There’s an ineffable quality to the indoctrination the handmaids are subjected to that is more than just familiar to me. It frightens me how recognizable it was, and it should frighten you.

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  • Can’t say I’m surprised anymore, but the lack of self-awareness among Christians criticizing this show still grates me. Why is it so hard to admit that every religion has bad seeds? Why is it so hard to understand that the Aunt Lydias of the world are just as convinced that they have The Truth as every other Christian? To write off such people as Not True Christians is intellectually dishonest at best.

    Of course, I definitely think the Lydias and DeMosses have extremely toxic theology, and I don’t recognize the Jesus they claim to worship, but it’s not my call to say whether or not they represent True Christianity (TM).

    • Consider how they apply a different standard to Islam, in that they use the presence of similar ideas among Muslims as justification for Islamophobia.

  • Edie Hicks

    This article is so on the mark, the sad commentary on how far the religious Christian church has betrayed Jesus, the gospel of Jesus redeemed women from Patriarchy but much of the church doesn’t follow Him they follow the corrupt ego of men.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Thanks for the review, very insightful. I did not know that the author only used real examples in her book.

  • notleia

    They can’t see the forest for the tree of weird threesomes. Oh look, there is commentary about civil rights and societal control and patriarchy and they’re all BUTBUTBUT SEX SLAVERY IS BAD. Yeah, we know, this is a radioactive unfertile dystopia used to showcase– BADMOUTHING US WE NO SEX SLAVERY. Yeah, but what about the other ways women are exploited by soc– BIGAMY BAD NOT APPROVED SEX. What about the nonsex– NOT WIFE SEX BAD.

    • Margaret Marquez

      this comment makes no sense

      • The all-caps sections are a hypothetical response from a Christian trying to argue the show is a Straw Man because it’s showing extreme things like sex slavery.

    • I literally lol’d

  • I’ll never forget the weekend youth conference I attended where, in a sleepover/devotional environment (single-sex, of course, because same-sex attraction isn’t a thing /s), eighth-graders parroted this same stuff. They solemnly described how if a woman had the audacity to run in ONLY A SPORTS BRA, she deserved to be raped. Deserved! Not even euphemistically “put herself in a bad situation.” ARGHHH.

    The rhetoric in those books make me grieve and rage. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • Ysolde

    I’ve heard and seen the same thing. Just look at the Cosby trial which is deadlocked and we see it still playing out and to the same tunes and the same songs. They always blame the women.

  • melaniespringermock

    Excellent thoughts. As someone who studies evangelical culture and its many limiting messages about women (including the awful DeMoss book you mention), I think you are exactly right. Too bad Relevant didn’t publish this, as it’s the best critique of the show I’ve read.

  • Clotilde Barberon

    I feel as if my eyes are opening to a whole world I never knew. I knew about sexist christians, and I heard about this Nancy DeMoss book. But THIS? The extract???? She mustn’t worsen the abuse/the reaction? How are we telling people that men are the better leaders and yet it feels that women must tread carefully around them because, you know, they have no self-control over their sex drive, they are “visual” (forgetting women are also visual, but anyways…), they can have temper you must not trigger, etc… This is crazy. I’m definitely reading more of your blog (discovered it through a comment on the article posted on Relevant, which you mention at the start of your blog). I could word-vomit for another 20 minutes, but instead I’m going to read you.
    And Civil Rights were sinful? Who is this Woman????

    PS: I read Real Marriage, and I wasn’t sure what to think about it. But my mum was a little bit worried. (she didn’t speak English and I read it in English) and the more I thought about it since I read it 5 years ago, the more I find it gross and I ache for Grace.

  • One thing that I notice is that if Muslims said the things that people like DeMoss said, then these very toxic Christians would be jumping on it, going on about how bad Islam is. It is fairly common for Islamophobes to bring this up, and accuse moderate Muslims of not speaking up.

    These Islamophobes gloss over the fact that Christian Fundamentalists tend to do a lot of the same things their Muslim counterparts do, with the main difference being theological. And Christian Islamophobes don’t speak up against Christian oppression, and get offended when anyone does. (But BS that Muslims don’t speak up.)

    • DeMoss isn’t even a fundamentalist. She’s mainstream evangelical.

      • Astinfert

        How much of a real difference is there? I grew up a mainstream evangelical and we always objected to the label ‘fundamentalist’ and we emphasized the happy clappy parts rather than the hellfire damnation parts, but we shared the same basic beliefs, we were really just kinder, gentler (at least on the surface) fundamentalists.

        • From a theological point of view, there’s not a lot of difference. When you start listing out the doctrines that evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists prioritize, there’s very little difference.

          People like to point out the cultural differences– fundamentalists adhere to strict moral codes like rigid modesty standards or never going to movie theaters or playing with face cards, as an example. However, I don’t often point to the cultural differences, since different fundamentalist communities can have very different cultural traditions that may or may not appear similar/dissimilar to mainstream evangelicals.

          What distinguishes fundamentalists from evangelicals, for me, is the ideological framework. Evangelicals are confident, fundamentalists *know*. Fundamentalists are absolutely 100% bedrock certain about their beliefs, and they severely punish those who are not as certain about the theological creeds as they are. Evangelicals think the creeds are important, but they’re going to spout lines like “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” A fundamentalist thinks that line of thinking is borderline heretical.

          It’s not about the content of the theology — which overlaps significantly between the two, see complementarianism as an example– it’s about the method they have for understanding and applying it. A fundamentalist has a lot more riding on being right, so questions and doubt are totally suppressed. Evangelicals, on the surface, encourage “questioning” as long as you ultimately come to the same answer as them, but a fundamentalist finds any sort of questioning at all heretical.

          • Chuck Geer

            “What distinguishes fundamentalists from evangelicals, for me, is the ideological framework. Evangelicals are confident, fundamentalists *know*.” This statement is very accurate, but there are cases in which the two are so similar that there is negligible difference between the two.

            This past election was classic case-in-point of this. The #1 factor in determining whether someone was a Trump voter was their predisposition toward authoritarianism. In talking with both evangelicals and fundamentalists after the election, I have found this to be the case. Especially after the terrorist attack in California last year, people were wanting a “forceful” leader who “takes charge.” [Note: I personally believe Trump to be the quintessential pansy, but he does have the image of a “take charge” leader, and as we all know, image is everything. {/sarcasm}]

            One other common factor between evangelicals and fundamentalists is their disdain (and at times hostility) for issues of the intellect. “Conservative Christians” (as a whole; there ARE exceptions) don’t like to think. I tried to engage a few concerning Trump’s proposed (during the election) tax cuts along with his unwillingness to cut spending. I tried pointing out to them that if tax cuts were an automatic panacea for economic growth, the Great Recession never would have happened. (Bush 43 cut taxes but also increased spending which lead to the Great Recession.) Basically, all they came back with was, “We desperately need economic growth.”

          • I tend to apply the label instead of relying on people to self-identify correctly. I think there are a lot of people out there who would call themselves evangelicals but are actually fundamentalists, and vice versa. There’s also another group that people in my line of work call “fundiegelicals” which have a framework that’s a unique blend of both, but that blending makes them unique.

          • Chuck Geer

            Agreed 100% here.

    • Lucy

      And of course, the moderate Christians who do speak up about Christian oppression (including the writers of this blog) tend to be silenced, and I bet the same happens to moderate Muslims, yet of course the fundamentalist Christians know that moderate Muslims look worse if they are made out to not speak up at all than if they are made out to be silenced, which they almost certainly are in theocratic Muslim countries. And here, moderate Muslims do speak up and fundamentalist Christians selectively ignore that.

  • By the way, I commend you for calling “the other Handmaid piece” insipid. Could have gone so much deeper, to say the least. Relevant’s content over the last year or so has at times impressed me, and I had hope they were going in a bolder, less conventional direction. But then they publish a piece that reaffirms them as just another pseudo-evangelical magazine, always playing it safe so as not to offend any delicate sensibilities. I’m glad that Relevant reached out to you originally, but really, what did they expect? You don’t exactly mince your words about this sort of thing 🙂

  • Madeline Costa

    I love this and I appreciate you bringing up specific passages from Christian books. They need to be criticized still since so many of them are very popular and I hear women repeating the lessons. I also cringe when I hear “umbrella” since my dad often used this with me and I thought it was very constricting, but was too scared to challenge him. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • The Mom

    The Dad had to endure a sermon recently that pointed out all the bigotry in Christian circles… everywhere but here, of course. He hung his head in frustration as he shared the details. I genuinely like most of these people, and the unwillingness to see breaks my heart.

  • One of the most poignant things for me, in discussing this with (primarily men) who have seen it, is bringing up the reality of Luke’s culpability, in his own way, to what eventually befalls Offred. When Moira and June try to show him what’s happening, he blows it off or tries to say it’ll all be okay. He’s patronizing at best to the very real fear the women in his life are talking to him about, because “it can’t happen here” even as they attempt to show him that it IS happening.

    Then, by the time he acknowledges the need to run, it’s too late – for his wife and his daughter, it’s far too late. Even for him, in a way.

    Men I know who’ve even TRIED to watch it hated how Luke is “made out to be weak” and I try to point out, “These are the exact arguments we hear ALL THE TIME when we try to point out the increasingly dangerous-to-womens’-health-and-autonomy laws being passed by a GOP hellbent on making it as hard as possible to be a woman in America” and receive that exact. same. patronizing tone in return. It’s not that bad, making mountains out of molehills, it’s not like they’re REALLY going to take rights away, etc.

    Except for my husband – who watched that initial scene (the scene at June’s house/apartment after all the women were fired/lose access to their money) and spent about an hour afterwards just FURIOUS that Luke wasnt taking it more seriously or online buying airline tickets right then and there.

    All of the ex-fundies I am friends with (quite a few, since I live in the nadir of the Bible Belt) either watch Handmaid’s Tale with horrified recognition or can’t watch it all because it has too much triggering stuff from their fundie childhoods for them to easily handle.

  • Martha Anne Underwood

    As a Christian, I think this show is revealing about how Christians see women and their role. I haven’t watched it yet, just read about it. I am not sure that I can watch it because I would be screaming at the characters about how ignorant they are. The “Handmaidens’ Tale” points out that women are not valued in our churches, even though in my own Episcopal Church,there are women clergy but they don’t always get the respect they deserve. More people than not do respect them however the ones who don’t can really make me mad. In my Christian faith, rape is a crime of the man, not the woman.

    No woman asked to be raped no matter what state she is in (drunk or sober) and the man responsible should go to jail for a l——-ong time, not just receive a slap on the wrist. Men who rape use their penises as a weapon just like a man who kills people, uses a gun as a weapon.

    As for civil rights, people of color deserve the same civil rights as those of us who are white. People who are LGBTQI also deserve the same civil rights as straight people.

    • Chuck Geer

      I read your post here and I cannot forget of a case of statutory rape that happened back in my high-school days (which was a fairly long time ago) near where I lived. [NOTE: the information I am about to share is second-hand information which would be considered heresay.] The girl in question was 14-15 years old. The man in question was an IFB minister who was notorious for his sexual appetite. The girl was forced to acquiesce to this minister.

      The minister committed statutory rape according to the law. But did he get into trouble for statutory rape?! Nope. Since the girl admitted that she slept with other boys, the judge refused to convict the minister of statutory rape. Basically, the judge forced the minister and his family to move to another venue in another state.

      I don’t know if I will ever see this movie. I would probably be reminded of the sexual double-standard of the town in which I grew up. If you were a boy and you didn’t hump everything that wore a skirt, you were gay. However, if you were the girl who acquiesced to the boy, you were a slut who would not be welcomed into a church unless and until you received a good tongue-lashing from the elders of that church about the need for sexual chastity. Did the boy ever receive a similar lecture?! Much more often than not, no.

  • Chuck Geer

    Concerning Nancy Leigh DeMoss, she is now married to Robert Wolgemuth. I think it is quite interesting the changes in her point of view concerning marriage since she actually got married.

    I always thought that because she was never married until 2015, she had no business whatsoever giving marriage advice before she got married. Samantha did a superb job of pointing out how unworkable her solutions were in the real world. DeMoss is now coming to realize this. Will DeMoss cease being complementarian?! I rather doubt it. Still, hearing about her change after actually getting married is interesting…

    • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

      I missed the fact that DeMoss wasn’t married. Wow.

      • Chuck Geer

        Well, now you know. LOL.

    • I’m curious about how she’s “changed.” Do you have an article or interview where she talks about this you could link to?

      • Chuck Geer

        Samantha, what I was primarily thinking of was this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/2017/04/single-mothers-must-stay-home/

        Here is the link to the original Lori Alexander article: https://thetransformedwife.com/nancy-wolgemuths-better-understanding-of-keepers-at-home/

        Here, from what I could gather, Lori Alexander got upset that Nancy Wolgemuth seemed to change her mind that women should work strictly from their homes.

        If a Lori Alexander gets upset that a Nancy Wolgemuth is becoming more “liberal” (please note quotation marks), that says a lot about Alexander. Like I said earlier, I honestly don’t think Wolgemuth is going to stop being complementarian. There’s way too much money and “reputation” riding on that.

        • Chuck Geer

          I will also frankly admit to having disdain for Wolgemuth. A few years ago, a pastor’s wife gave me a copy of “Seeking Him: Experiencing the Joy of Personal Revival” as a birthday present. After reading this pile of trash, I was thoroughly angry and depressed. If you didn’t have daily prayer and devotions as she did, you were never going to have “revival.”

          Also, she basically admitted at one point (you have to read between the lines) that she blackmailed a minister because he at one time viewed pornography. Regardless of how one looks at the issue of viewing porn, she should not have been able to blackmail him as long as he was not harming anyone else. She was nothing more than a busybody in that case.

        • This honestly doesn’t seem like that much of a shift to me. She’s never herself “worked from home” so it’s not like she had some sort of strict interpretation on that passage at any point in her career. The only thing that’s seemed to happen– based on the quotes Alexander pulls– is that DeMoss/Wolgemuth has added a few more exceptions than she previously allowed for.

          This doesn’t represent a change to me. She’s still spouting the same bullshit, she’s just made a few more allowances than she had previously.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    That article in Relevant really was tepid. Why did they take an article by a male author on something that deals mostly with women’s issues? Maybe that didn’t even occur to them. Sometimes I think evangelicalism is improving, and then I read an article like that.