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In MONTAG's new Today’s Dystopia series, our writers explore dystopian worlds of speculative fiction, and see if our world has slipped closer to the fictional one since it was published. Are we closer to a future we’re afraid of - or is it already here?


In our first dive into dystopia, we look at Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale - a classic novel that is now appearing on TV.

The Handmaid’s Tale is such a prescient piece of fiction about a post-American dystopia that even though it was first published in 1985 under Ronald Reagan, the most recent trailer for a streaming television series by Hulu based on the book has been criticized by supporters of Donald Trump as a perceived attack on his policies.

Without getting too political, the parallels between the fictional state of Gilead and Trump’s America couldn’t be clearer, particularly regarding women’s autonomy in their reproductive health – at a recent Senate meeting regarding abortion legislation in Texas, protesters attended dressed in the signature red dresses and white bonnets of the handmaids to make an explicit comparison.

But how close are we, really, to living in Gilead? We look at the key features of The Handmaid’s Tale's dystopian world and rate them on a scale from 1-5 bonnets: one bonnet means it's extremely unlikely to happen, and five bonnets means we’re already there...


Gilead Fashion: 2 out of 5 bonnets

The women of Gilead all wear color-coordinated clothing. The men wear uniforms, but the ladies’ costumes serve a class-stratifying function and also signal their reproductive status. The handmaids, including the book’s protagonist and narrator Offred (meaning “property of Fred”), wear red to signify their fertility and subservience to a ruling class family.

You can try to take our liberty, but just try to take away our H&M, our Nike and our Gucci.

All clothing in Gilead is state-issued and mandatory, which is one of the reasons this seems like an unlikely outcome (one bonnet): America loves shopping way too much, and fast fashion isn’t going anywhere. You can try to take our liberty, but just try to take away our H&M, our Nike and our Gucci.

As for the signature bonnets with white wings framing the face, which prevent the handmaids from surreptitiously looking at much more than the ground, these also don’t seem to be catching on anytime soon, as “bonnetcore” failed as a trend in 2015.

Gilead fashion gets one extra bonnet, though, because women have already self-imposed some ridiculous headwear pertaining to their reproductive status: see the “pussy hat” phenomenon at the 2017 Women’s March.

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Cashless Society: 4 out of 5 bonnets

We really have to be careful with this one, because one of the ways the state of Gilead was established was through a cashless society. All at once, women were dismissed from the workforce and denied the power to buy or own anything for themselves due to the deactivation of their credit accounts, which was the first step in stripping them of all human rights.

In a recent exploration of the international trend away from cash economies by the chief digital officer of Norway’s first pure internet bank, Christoffer O. Harnæs writes: “Cash may no longer be king, but we should not abandon cash without having some sort of decentralized safety valve that ensures individual freedom,” and we couldn’t agree more.

As the economy continues to move towards cashlessness, we’re giving this one a four out of five bonnets of likeliness: ladies, get those bitcoins, just in case.


The Kinky Stuff: 1 out of 5 bonnets

Falling birth rates in the pre-Gilead America and increased frequency of birth defects due to irradiation are the context for the focus on fertility in Gilead’s class structure and the installment of handmaids in ruling class families.

“The Ceremony” is a literal interpretation of part of the book of Genesis (30:1-3), in which Jacob’s wife Rachel entreats him to lie with her maid: “Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

The handmaids are assigned to families of the ruling class who can no longer bear children and are re-educated in the Rachel and Leah Center on a bizarre sexual practice in which they lie between the legs of the wife with their head on her stomach, both fully clothed and holding hands, but with the handmaid’s dress pulled to her waist, while the husband attempts to impregnate the handmaid in the wife’s stead.

It’s much more likely that we find the perfect recipe for artificial insemination or human parthenogenesis than the government starts to mandate the worst threesomes ever.

No one is into this: the men don’t like it, although men are not blamed for infertility, only women; the wives really hate it, they’re often jealous of their handmaids, and subsequently cruel; and the handmaids definitely don’t enjoy it, but their only chance at being treated well in this society is to become pregnant.

The Ceremony gets a one out of five bonnets for infeasibility because even though we do have a cultural fascination with polygamy in America, we have greatly advanced in the science of assisted reproduction technology, and it’s much more likely that we find the perfect recipe for artificial insemination or human parthenogenesis than the government starts to mandate the worst threesomes ever.

Of course there are underground, state-sanctioned brothels in Gilead for men to enjoy intercourse outside of The Ceremony, but given that there is only one state in the U.S. with legal prostitution, even this alternative seems pretty far-fetched.


Conclusion: is today's dystopia close to that of Gilead?

Average score: 2.3 out of 5 bonnets.

It’s less than half, but not much less. We haven’t even touched on the religious persecution evident in the establishment of Gilead, which is by far the most serious and scariest in real life – the book mentions Jews, Roman Catholics, and Quakers being murdered by the government or driven underground, and we can only assume there are no Muslims or any other religions represented in Gilead at the time of its establishment.

There is also mass persecution based on homosexuality, deemed “Gender Treachery,” which has its own terrifying parallels to historical American policies of enforced heterosexuality – laws outlawing sodomy were only repealed in 14 states in 2003.

In summary, while we can say that the dystopian Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale is not well on its way, the book still contains principles we should look out for in real life politics, and we ought to keep fighting for freedoms of religion, expression, and bodily autonomy – which means keeping the government out of our bedrooms, wallets (and wardrobes) too.


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