More than a Handmaid

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Last night, after putting Sam to bed and catching up with Kyle and Kat about how their days went, I settled in to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my alltime favorite books, not just from a feminist perspective (which is hugely important, and I’ll get to that in a bit), but because Margaret Atwood is a fantastic writer, the kind I dream of being. She has such a remarkable command of the English language, and her prose is rich and engrossing. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books that, even when you just read a chapter or two, makes you wonder what day it is when you finally put it down; you’re that pulled into the world.

The story, for the uninitiated, features a dystopian world in which the abuse of religion in a political setting has led to severe oppression of women, who are seen as nothing more than various appliances, their function delineated by their societal caste, and their caste determined by their age and whether or not they have functioning ovaries.

In other words: their worth is 100% determined by whether or not they can have children.

A lot of other factors go into how women are treated in this society, but it all revolves around their fertility and behavior. If you’re infertile (as many women in this society are; the society doesn’t allow for the possibility of male factor infertility, which is a contributing factor in roughly a third of all infertility cases), your behavior is everything. “Good” women might get to be Wives; “bad” women are designated as Unwomen and sent to the Colonies to clean up radioactive waste until they wither away and die.

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(I’m sorry, this isn’t funny at all, I’m a terrible person)

That said, a “bad” woman with functioning ovaries has a special role in this society, that of a Handmaid. The Handmaid’s only purpose in life is to conceive and bear children for Gilead’s high-powered men. She undergoes testing to monitor her menstrual cycle and, once a month, participates in a Ceremony, in which she lies on the Wife’s lap while her– well, let’s be honest. Her owner rapes her in the interest of conceiving a child. If she can’t conceive and deliver a living child over the course of two years, she’s assigned to another house. If she fails to conceive over the course of three separate assignments, she’s considered an Unwoman and goes where Unwomen go–to the Colonies, to die a slow, agonizing death.

It’s such a rich world, and I could honestly spend hours on end writing analyses of it, discussing it in its overall societal and historical context, marveling in horror that nothing that happens in the book hasn’t happened somewhere in our world at some point in history… but that’s been done. I wanted to talk about fertility and infertility and struggling to grieve my infertility as a feminist.

(yes, a super light topic for your Thursday; tune in next week when we discuss the nuances and nature of the soul and theories surrounding the nature of man based on readings from Plato and Aristotle that I will assign after class)

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Part of the truth that The Handmaid’s Tale is set to remind us of is that women are not their ability to conceive and carry children. Throughout the course of history, in various settings (see: Henry VIII and his six wives, a desperate bid for a male heir that saw his rotation of partners not as individuals but as potential brood mares), the lie that women are only as good as their ability to procreate has been told again and again and again. We are not our ability to conceive and carry children.

We’re not even our desire or lack thereof to conceive and carry children. I have a bunch of friends who are childfree by choice, including Kat the Fantastic. They don’t want to have kids now or ever; they’d have the whole system removed, if they could (admittedly, so would I, if that wouldn’t make it… yanno, impossible to have biological kids). Some of them talk about maybe eventually mentoring or adopting older children and teenagers about to age out of the system, but most of them are perfectly content to live their lives without ever raising a child, and that’s awesome.

So I believe all of that, wholeheartedly. I am not my ability to reproduce or my desire to reproduce or just the person who reproduced (though I’m happy to be that person). I’m so much more (writer with a wry sense of humor, imaginative gamer, traveler who wishes that traveling didn’t cost dollars, eventual collector of many cats, wife and friend). I’m aware of all that. I’m aware that I’m good at my job, and I’m aware of how frustrated I am by how much it defines me. I’m aware that I really love food, and I’m aware that I really love food way too much. I’m aware that I make things awkward in my house when I start singing along with Hamilton while wearing headphones and forgetting half the lyrics.

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(we get past about this point and I’m like “I can’t hear that fast.”)

I know who I am, and it’s so much more than a pair of ovaries that don’t know what they’re doing, than a uterus that’s an absolute asshole (how’s that for an anatomical conundrum), than wanting to give Sam a sibling or having wanted Sam in the first place. I know all of that.

But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I’ve been talking with Kat a lot lately about infertility. She’s childfree by choice, as I’ve mentioned before, and she doesn’t get the desire to have kids. I’ve ended up describing it a lot in terms of a good metaphor I’ve found: climbing Mount Everest.

Look, climbing Mount Everest is 100% not for everyone. For the life of me, I cannot imagine wanting to climb it instead of just reaching out of a helicopter and booping the peak during a fly-by. Training to climb the tallest peak in the world is beyond physically demanding, and even if you’re in peak physical health, the climb is dangerous and stressful. People die on that journey so regularly that the various corpses along the trail have become landmarks (if you have a strong stomach for that sort of thing, google “Green Boots”). I look at it, and I’m utterly grateful that climbing Mount Everest is not mandatory, because I will be A-okay my entire life without doing it.

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(pictured: not me)

But some people really want to climb Mount Everest, I mean really want to. They don’t just wake up one morning and say, “What-ho, I think I shall climb this mountain and be done in time for lunch.” They train for years, scaling the most dangerous peaks in the world to prepare for the climb. If and when they eventually get to Everest, they do everything they’ve trained to do, everything they’ve learned over years and years, sometimes even decades of practice.

And sometimes, they still don’t make it.

Sometimes, the weather is just too bad to attempt the climb. Sometimes, travel plans fall through and they can’t get to Nepal at all. Sometimes, they make it partway up the mountain but have to turn back. Worst case scenario, they become another body for future climbers to use as a landmark on their journey to the peak (but let’s hope that doesn’t happen). And holy crap, that must suck! These people put so much time, money, energy, and health into preparing to climb Mount Everest, and then something happens that prevents it from taking place.

(can you see where I’m going with this metaphor? Because if not, I don’t know how to help you, I’m sorry)

So in this context, it’d probably be something of a jerk move to tell someone who’s really wanted to climb Mount Everest and tried so hard and invested so much, “It’s alright, you don’t have to climb Mount Everest” or “you’re more than your mountain climbing.” Like yes, this is true, I get it and agree with it, but as the metaphorical climber, I really want to climb Mount Everest and I am extremely bummed that I can’t do it.

(I should emphasize again that you couldn’t get me to actually climb Mount Everest if you dragged me up there like some sort of freaky human backpack)

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(pictured: freaky human backpack)

It boils down to another one of those things that’s hard to navigate about infertility, especially looking at it from a feminist perspective. I’m 100% aware and understanding that even though a lot of my life is currently orbiting fertility treatments (largely by necessity), my ability to reproduce and my desire to reproduce are not the only things about me. I’m also aware that I can and do live a full and happy life without having another child; that if we go through all six cycles of IVF and every single frozen embryo we transfer is a dud and somehow we can’t adopt in the (sort of distant because adoption costs more dollars than we have) future, I’ll be okay. I’ll recenter myself and be alright.

But in the moment, I’m sad and frustrated and disappointed, and it honestly boils down to exactly that: having a child (another one) is something that I really want to do. I like being a mom; I like it a lot. It’s not all of who I am, but it’s something that I thoroughly enjoy, like I enjoy being a wife and a friend and a daughter and a sister and myself as not defined by any other human being. I don’t feel like my inability to conceive and carry a child means that I’m worth less as a person or worthless as a person; I know that it doesn’t.

It’s still frustrating, though. The whole world gives you messages of “you can do anything you set your mind to,” and “don’t let your dreams be dreams” and the truth of the matter ends up being that, no, you can’t necessarily do everything you want to, even if it’s something that doesn’t hurt anyone, even if it’s something that everyone should be able to do.

Getting back to The Handmaid’s Tale, and deviating slightly. It was interesting to me how viscerally the show portrayed the emotional toll of the infertility crisis that’s part of the background of the story (tl;dr – pollution and disease have resulted in plummeting birth rates, something that an Aunt–one of the women in charge of training Handmaids–blames on “sluts”). People can’t get pregnant or stay pregnant, and if they manage both of those things, the babies they have end up having such severe birth defects that they don’t survive. In one scene, the main character–Offred, then called June–has just given birth to her daughter. She makes her way to the nursery with her daughter and her daughter’s nurse and finds it empty, where it was full the night before. “Where are the other babies?” she asks, and the nurse sadly remarks, “Two are in the ICU, and the others are with God.”

Later, a woman–I like to think she was the mom of one of the babies that were with God–tries to steal June’s baby, killing the nurse and absconding with June’s daughter in her arms. The scene is fraught with screaming, June and her husband Luke screaming to get their child back; the baby screaming for her mother; the police screaming at the woman to get her under control; the woman screaming for her lost child.

As June goes into the hospital to give birth, protesters stand around the doorways, screaming and praying and doing general protest things. They’re all desperate to have children.

When June finds out that she’s pregnant, she speaks of it in hushed tones with her best friend Moira. Moira is thrilled for her, but June is having a hard time being excited because her chances of miscarrying or giving birth to a baby that eventually dies are so high.

Once the world goes to hell, June is renamed Offred and serves Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy. The show hasn’t quite gone there yet, but in the book, Serena is desperate to have a child, so desperate that she breaks the rules entirely and allows Offred to sleep with their driver and Guardian, Nick. Most of what we’ve seen so far in the show is subtler (and I haven’t seen the third episode yet–I started watching too late last night to finish all three, so I may miss the mark here); Serena doesn’t do anything yet that’s so desperate or insidious. But she’s still brokenhearted at the violation of her own life going on during the Ceremony, and she’s still feigning happiness when another Handmaid–Ofwarren, formerly known as Janine–gives birth.

And you know, I really appreciate all of those portrayals. No, that’s not a strong enough word. I love the way the show is treating this. If there’s any show in the world that could be called blatantly feminist, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and if there’s one single thing that anyone could take from the show (please, if you watch it, take more than one single thing from it), it’s that women are more than their ability to reproduce. But the show takes things a step further; it doesn’t just leave this idea of you are not your ovaries and uterus. It shows us that even when you know that, you can still feel pain at being unable to conceive and give birth and raise a child; and conversely, that just because you really want to have a kid doesn’t mean that you’re nothing but reproductive organs and a body that houses them.

(and because I love it, Tor.com has a really excellent review of the first three episodes here; be forewarned that this stuff is pretty brutal)

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