The Theology of The Handmaid’s Tale

Watching The Handmaid’s Tale has filled me with…thoughts. Scattered thoughts. Random thoughts. Things that don’t easily coalesce into a coherent essay. As usual when I have random thoughts on a pop culture subject, I rely on bullet points. So here goes.

  • The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly the television event of the season. Even more than Feud. This is a career-defining role for Elisabeth Moss that marks her as one of America’s most important actresses. It’s the type of series that blends writing, craft, and acting, along with the zeitgeist, to imprint itself on the culture permanently, like Roots, The Day After, or Twin Peaks.
  • Elisabeth Moss is playing a woman trapped in a dystopia in which individuality is quashed according to the whims of a totalitarian theocracy. Elisabeth Moss is a cradle Scientologist. I’ll just let that sit there for a second.
  • The central theology of Gilead, the dystopian society of The Handmaid’s Tale, is based on the account of Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel in Genesis 30. Jacob loves and prefers Rachel, but her sister-wife Leah is the one having all the children. So Rachel demands that Jacob impregnate her handmaid Bilhah. Rachel’s rationalization for this act is that Bilhah will “bear upon my knees that I too may have children through her.” In the Bible, this expression, “bear upon my knees,” may refer to an act of adoption, or may refer to the birthing position of women in ancient times.
  • But the theocrats of Gilead have taken this verse so literally that even the act of copulation is done with the handmaid’s head resting between the knees of the main wife. The portrayal of these excruciating “Ceremonies” show all three participants clothed, with the husband facing the wife as he has sex with the handmaid. The overhead shots show Elisabeth Moss as Offred staring upwards as this is done to her, lying in her red dress like a sexual conduit between Commander Warren (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). I’ve probably read this passage in the bible dozens of times without thinking about what is done to Bilhah as rape, but this show spells it out in no uncertain terms.
  • Joseph Fiennes’ full name is Joseph Alberic Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. His brother, Ralph’s (pron: “Rafe”) full name is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes. I just thought that needed to be said.
  • Other than the obvious Genesis parallels, I’m having some trouble discerning the theology of Gilead. In the shots where the handmaids go about their daily errands, you see churches in the background. But then you see other churches that are in the process of being knocked down. At one point, Offred and her companion Ofglen walk by the river and see three men hanged for crimes against the state. One of them is a priest. Margaret Atwood is an astute observer of religion and she has noted that groups of believers in a faith will pick up on certain elements of holy scripture that fit their prejudices and make those the central scriptures, to the exclusion of others. Although Gilead is obviously a Judeo-Christian society, it is clear that some kinds of Christianity are in, and some kinds are out.
  • Just as an aside, can I lift up a small prayer that whoever’s doing cinematography these days will forget they ever saw the Instagram filter? The first film I remember doing the high-contrast color-against-murky-background effect was the gay British film Weekend in 2011. Now dark and dingy is de rigeur for “serious” drama. I know Handmaid is a dystopia, but I can’t see half of what’s going on.
  • Getting back to the theology, I feel like the producers and directors of Handmaid made a mistake in the religious symbolism of the “salvaging” scene. The sight of several dozen women ripping a man to shreds is disturbing, but I couldn’t help being distracted by the symbol that was hanging up above the stage. It was a goddess—a female figure with arms outstretched touching the tips of a crescent moon. I think the idea was to show this was a women’s ritual sacrifice and to stress the importance of the fertility of the handmaids. But this is all wrong for a militantly patriarchal Christian society.
  • One of the major “accomplishments” of the Abrahamic religions from a patriarchal standpoint was the creation of a singular male God. Even in the Trinitarian tradition, where God has a son, he is “begotten not made”—without reference to a divine feminine. We are assured that even the Holy Spirit—who some left-wing fruitcakes insist on referring to as “Sophia,” or a feminine presence of God—is absolutely 100% male. This is good because I can’t even begin to imagine the Holy Spirit without a penis and a Y chromosome. (Note the heavy irony in the previous passage, as the author considers himself a left-wing fruitcake.)
  • Not in MY dystopian hellscape! Clearly some left-wing fruitcakes have been subversively inserting goddess figures into a Christian patriarchal theocracy.
  • In Jewish law, the reproductive actions of women’s bodies are taboo, and women are considered to be unclean when menstruating or giving birth. Feminist scholars like Judith Ann Johnson have even speculated that the blood sacrifice and rebirth of Jesus was necessary to give men the same power over life and death as women within a completely masculine system of divinity. So no Christian theocracy is going to have a goddess figure. It just will not happen. At least when it comes to the patriarchal structures of Christianity, the cross is a phallic symbol, and is worshipped accordingly.
  • And then there is the parallel between Handmaid and the modern dystopia of America in the age of Trump. This is obviously why the series has such resonance now, when our society is actually at risk of falling into an authoritarian state, when Nolite te bastardes carborundorum has been taken up as a slogan of the resistance. There’s no doubt that women’s reproductive rights are under attack. Last year, 19 states passed 60 new abortion restrictions and 46 new ones are currently being considered in state legislatures this year. Furthermore, the Hobby Lobby case, the possible passage of Trumpcare, and the push to defund Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood threaten to make women’s healthcare even more difficult to obtain.
  • I’d like to suggest some room for optimism, though. I think the women’s movement is in a very strong position overall. We’re at a “threshold moment” in the fight for women’s equality, where there is one last pushback from those in power to gum up the works with legislation and policies designed to turn back the clock. But this attempt at stopping history will fail.
  • Look at the movement for same-sex marriage equality: In the 2004 election, 11 states passed antigay marriage amendments and George W. Bush successfully ran for reelection on adding an antigay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It looked like the anti-gay forces were scoring victory after victory, even as late as 2008, when California passed Proposition 8. What was becoming clear even in those dark moments was there was a rapid rise of social acceptance of LGBTQ people, and a growing impatience with anti-LGBTQ politics among younger generations of voters. I don’t think any of us could have predicted how quickly all those amendments would be overturned – it took less than ten years.
  • The women’s movement is as strong as I have seen it in my lifetime, in the face of, and because of, Trump. The retrograde legislation being passed nationwide feels like sandbagging against a tide that is sweeping through American society. In the next ten years we may see attempts to ban abortion outright start to fade, as Americans reach consensus on the fundamental matter of reproductive freedom. Women’s health issues will be winning issues for politicians. Long-sought goals like better maternity leave and childcare for working women will become standard parts of the platform of at least the Democratic Party, possibly the Republicans as well. We will see a woman in the White House.
  • The warning of The Handmaid’s Tale is that we must always be vigilant against the slow, piecemeal erosion of rights. But this is not the 80’s, when the book was written, when the Religious Right was ascendant, the ERA had been defeated, and the women’s movement as a mass movement was only a little over a decade old. Barring disaster (and of course, that’s a big caveat since the current president is a one-man wrecking crew) we can have hope to believe The Handmaid’s Tale will remain a work of fiction.
  • In the mean time, don’t let the bastards grind you down.