This is the second article in Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s Faith & the Arts series.
The Hulu Original series, The Handmaid’s Tale, is almost excruciatingly painful to watch, but not so much for its aesthetic as for its premise. Based on the 1985 novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, the story places us inside the oppressed regime of a misogynist, totalitarian theonomy: the new state of Gilead has overthrown American democracy and prevailed.
We follow the protagonist, Offred (whose real name is June, but she is the property of Fred), a handmaid specifically used for her reproductive agency in a landscape where—for unclear reasons—sterility has become a problem and children are a valuable commodity for those in power. Ritualized sex and procreation that completely dehumanizes the handmaid, valuing her only for her fertility, becomes the right and approved method of procreation for privileged couples. The consistent display of state sanctioned misogyny pulls no punches, which is what makes this sometimes a difficult and almost effortful show to watch.
When the United States is overthrown, June (Offred) is separated from her husband and child and subjugated to sexual slavery as a handmaid, whose only value is her capacity to give birth. Social constructs that define moral ideas such as right and wrong suddenly conform to a distorted view of religious propriety, and the terrors of this oppression are made known: loss of freedom, the public execution of rebels, the tearing apart of families, religiously sanctioned rape, and more.
The Chaucerian story of June/Offred and her complete subjugation to a misogynist culture that uses its morality as a prop for power, whether consciously or not, is worth watching. Yet there are three basic mistakes one might make. One might think it is an attack on Christianity; it is not. Or, one might confuse its plot with its theme and dismiss it (e.g., no religious-right pro-lifer is calling for handmaids to live in the home for the purpose of ritualistic rape). And lastly, one might pervert its intent and enjoy it as a kind of pornography of misogyny; in which case, if this is how you enjoy the show, this article is probably not for you.
While The Handmaid’s Tale definitely promotes human rights and the dignity of women, it would be a mistake to assume that it is an anti-Christian tract. Atwood herself has always claimed that both the book and the series illustrate the consequences of a distorted interpretation of Judaeo-Christian religion as applied to contemporary politics. In an interview with Layton Williams of the magazine Sojourners she says, “I don’t consider these people to be Christians because they do not have at the core of their behavior and ideologies what I, in my feeble Canadian way, would consider to be the core of Christianity…and that would be not only love your neighbors but love your enemies.”
The series speculates on the prevailing dictatorship of a fundamentalist regime which, like all fundamentalisms, completely distorts the genuine tradition. Rigidity is mistaken for integrity; resentment pretends to be faithfulness; dogmatic adherence to doctrinal or political assertions that are not dogma replaces faith in the person of Christ even amid the experience of uncertainty; pietistic social “issues” and subsequent proclamations of outrage substitute for an ethic of love that actually embraces one’s enemy. A whole host of cognitive distortions results. These include black-and-white thinking, attribution errors (those who disagree do so for moral reasons, unlike us), and confirmation bias (one seeks to prove hypotheses true rather than prove them false). They repress any legitimate questioning of basic assumptions, whether conscious or not. This is the perfect cocktail for totalitarianism.
Yet, interestingly, The Handmaid’s Tale strikes many contemporary conservative Christians in America as precisely anti-Christian, namely because of a confusion and conflation between ethics constructed around underlying power relationships in political discourse and the dogmatic ethics and morals as revealed in the witness of Christianity throughout history and in the Holy Tradition of the Church.
In fact, one might go so far as to say that, in the last forty to fifty years, the latter has been completely if not irrevocably displaced by the former, even though they are often in sharp contradiction to each other. Even many Orthodox Christians in the United States might be surprised to know that the inferiority of women as the weaker vessel due to Eve’s transgression in Eden does not imply everything—at least not in terms of dogma— that many people think it implies. For instance, the idea that wives are to submit to their husbands without any reciprocal submission dominates many parishes, often (perhaps unconsciously and not always) signified through head coverings, in the same way that Offred’s role as a handmaid is defined by the strict observance of a dress code in Gilead, which also includes a head covering.
But the real subtext of the series has less to do with the symbolism of power constructs like head coverings than it does with devaluing women as genuine human persons with dignity, while simultaneously assigning an exchange value to women simply as sexual commodities. The ramifications of this reality in our present culture should not be ignored, and the instances of implicit misogyny definitely do not need to be affirmed or rationalized by Orthodox Christians. Our tradition, even expressed in and by the Theotokos, who cooperates with God as the living icon of the whole human race, and not just as a gendered female, implies considerable intrinsic dignity for both women and men.
The series takes on specific themes that are relevant to Christian witness in a nation where the conflation between the rationalizations for political power and authentic Christianity is a real danger. The ascendancy of the current United States president, for instance, and the well known theonomic tendencies of the US vice-president, continue to be strongly supported by a contingency of religious people who are unclear about the difference between power politics and dogma. They well could be the progenitors of a real Gilead right now, or in the not-too-distant future.
Eric Simpson is an Orthodox Christian and writer who lives in Southern Oregon. He has written for The Huffington Post, In Communion, St. Katherine Review, and other publications.
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Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,
who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise
by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit.
Through them Thou hast drawn the world into Thy net.
O Lover of man, glory to Thee.