The Handmaid’s Tale is a relatively accurate depiction of modern sexual relationships – just not in the way you think

Last week the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was released on SBS. In doing so the show has revilatised Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, being considered in many ways a prescient story to tell in our current political climate.

I’ve watched the first four episode of The Handmaid’s Tale so far, and am thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve found the storytelling really engaging, and in particular am loving the juxtaposition between Offred’s internal monologue versus the society in which she has found herself. It is often rare to see an example of a dystopian future where a character has moved so cleanly from society to the next, and I think the Handmaid’s Tale has portrayed that transition exquisitely.

However, there is another reason I’ve found the show so fascinating — that is how clearly it describes, even if in an exaggerated manner, the deep roots of sexual relations, and in turn sexism and women’s oppression, within liberal societies. It does so however in a way opposite to what many think.

Many have spoken about the predictive nature of The Handmaid’s Tale, and with the release of the TV show many have heralded these predictions, arguing that in the age of Trump, the book’s message is extremely prescient. In the novel Margaret Atwood has, apparently, highlighted the dangers of an outsider power to the more liberal forces of representative democracy — an outside power that is currently epitomised by the current U.S. President.

I agree with Helen Razer however when she critiques this reading of The Handmaid’s Tale. Razer argues that Atwood is wrong to hold liberal democracies up so highly, and that in fact, if we were ever to head down the path that Atwood envisages, it would actually be an extension of liberal democracy, not an counteract to it. Talking about Donald Trump, Razer argues:

“The more difficult way to think about Trump, or his more extreme European versions including Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Vona etc., is as having arisen as inside, not outside, a liberal nation-state. It’s unpleasant, of course, to concede that you have, for all your life, inhabited a society that can produce brutal isolationist views that, somehow, a lot of people seem to support. You can say, “this is not my country”. But, the fact is, it is your country and when one of its contradictions reveals itself, maybe the best response is not to say, “this happened very quickly and without my knowledge”. We do not get off as lightly as Atwood would like.”

I think this point is extremely valid, but I would actually like to take it much further. One of the most interesting elements of Atwood’s book, and the TV show, is the way in which it explains the oppressive regime toward women — an explanation that is hardly heard in modern feminism.

In recent years feminism has focused its main ire at the idea of the ‘patriarchy’, a seemingly amorphous social system that blames ‘masculinity’ for sexual oppression. As Hannah McCann argues, the patriarchy “locates the cause of sexism in masculinity, rather than seeing masculinity as a symptom of a larger structure that is not only promotes sexism but also racism, and every other “ism” you can think of.” With this masculinity has become the focus of feminist campaigning, occurring largely through targeted individualised and cultural practices of ‘toxic masculinity’ — whether through the lens of anti-sexual assault campaigning, or through targeting the individual actions of ‘manspreading’ and ‘mansplaining’.

To me however, The Handmaid’s Tale however provides a much more accurate historical representation of the causes of sexism, even if done through the lens of a dystopian future.

Just a quick recap on the story here. The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopian future arose after an excess of chemicals and pollution created a global fertility crisis. Birth rates dropped throughout the world, and in the United States a radical religious movement arose, suspending the US constitution and implementing a new system of Government. In this class-based system the women who are fertile serve as ‘handmaids’, living in the houses of the ruling classes in order to produce children for ruling class families. This includes a rather creepy monthly ceremony in which the ‘commanders’ have sex (rape) the handmaids while they are being spooned by the commanders wives.

This is, of course, an exaggerated dystopian future, although one that in the age of Trump to many doesn’t seem that far-fetched. It is even less far-fetched though as it presents a far more accurate depiction of the root causes of sexism than any theories of patriarchy — a depiction of a class based system of sexism based primarily in the reproductive processes — one very similar to modern capitalism.

There is a long history to class-based sexual relations (which you can read about here), but lets look specifically at the modern incarnation of these relationships.

The rise of industrial capitalism fundamentally changed society, and in particular had the potential to radically change gendered relationships. With the growth of industry people flooded to the city, breaking much of the familial bonds that previously dictated marriage contracts. In turn industrial capitalism acted as a form of equaliser — everyone became a worker. This is why Engels predicted that capitalism would see the end of the proletarian family.

Despite this however, women were soon forced back into the home, returning to their role as mothers and housekeepers. Despite the requirement of a large workforce to feed the industrial revolution, the ruling classes ended up forcing women out of the factories, even implementing a ‘family wage’ that allowed men to sustain their family off one income. Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas explain why this occurred:

Biological facts of reproduction — pregnancy, childbirth, lactation — are not readily compatible with capitalist production, and to make them so would require capital outlays on maternity leave, nursing facilities, childcare, and so on. Capitalists are not willing to make such expenditures, as they increase the costs of variable capital without comparable increases in labour productivity and thus cut into rates of profit. In the absence of such expenditures, however, the reproduction of labour power becomes problematic for the working class as a whole and for women in particular.

The major problem in early capitalism was that as women entered the workforce, infant mortality shot through the roof. In Manchester, for example, there were a recorded 26,125 deaths per 100,000 thousand children under the age of one. This was three times the rate of mortality rater of non-industrial areas. With both parents working families did not have the capacity to properly look after their children, either leaving them at home while at work, or bringing them in to the unsanitary and polluted factories. With this capitalists began to see their next swathe of the working class literally dying in from of their eyes. As Tad Tietze argues, “this created severe problems for the system’s ability to ensure the reproduction of the working class.” As capitalists were unwilling, or largely unable, to absorb the costs of childcare and domestic duties into their production, it therefore made more sense to force women back into the home — to privatise child rearing and domestic care.

Brenner and Ramas argue that capitalists moved to create a “family-household system emerged as the resolution to this crisis.” The idea of the “family-household system” was introduced by Michèle Barrett in her book Women’s Oppression Todaydescribed as a structure:

in which a number of people, usually biologically related, depend on the wages of a few adult members, primarily those of the husband/father, and in which all depend primarily on the unpaid labour of the wife/ mother for cleaning, food preparation, child care, and so forth. The ideology of the “family” is one that defines family life as “ ‘naturally’ based on close kinship, as properly organized through a male bread- winner with a financially dependent wife and children, and as a haven of privacy beyond the public realm of commerce and industry.”

Modern gender relations were therefore based in the biological realities of reproduction — realities that drove women back in to the home in order to ensure they maintained the household and that capitalists were not required to absorb the costs of domestic work.

Look at most of the remaining oppression toward women today and we can see these roots quite clearly. Women for example still do a vast majority of the housework, suffer career wise because of perceptions they will be out of work due to child rearing, and face a pay gap due, at least in part, to having only full entered the workforce in the past few decades. Continued sexual violence, alongside restrictions on abortion, represent a form of control over women’s bodies, linking back to early (and current) notions that women’s role was primarily focused around reproducing for a capitalist class. Even many of our gendered stereotypes can relate back to this theory of sexual relationships. The idea of ‘femininity’ being about women being devoted, and weak, eminates from a Victorian ideal in which women were encouraged to become fully devoted to men, primarily as a way for the ruling classes to guard against increasing promiscuity that was feared to become prevalent in industrial times.

This is the real predictive nature of The Handmaid’s Tale. If our world would go down a dystopian future like Atwood has described it is very likely that reproduction would be the centre of the control of women. Yet, this would not be due to an outside force creating a systematic change. Instead it would just be a force utilising the tools of sexual relationships that already exist in our society. These tools are not the amorphous blob that is the ‘patriarchy’, but rather a capitalist class-based system of sexual relationships centered, at least in large part, in the biological realities of reproduction.

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