“Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered congress, we didn’t wake up. Then they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution. We didn’t wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you even knew it.”
This monologue sets the scene for an episode of the recent television drama ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, attempting to explain how the leaders of the Republic of Gilead came to be in power. It suggests that they gained control by making small changes, bit by bit, until nothing was the same and they had so much hold over everything, there was no choice but to do what they said.
In the story, a religious dictatorship has taken control and its leaders introduce a strict regime within which, women’s rights are removed and a caste system introduced. One morning, the main character ‘Offred’ has her debit card declined when attempting to buy a coffee. She later discovers that this is because ‘they changed the law’ and women are no longer allowed to have assets. Instead, they find that their money and any estate must be handed over to their male next of kin.
We are told that there is a serious problem with infertility in the Republic of Gilead and so fertile women are sent to families with standing in the regime where they find themselves forced to bear children for the family. When the women are taken by the regime, they lose their identity. Offred is literally ‘of Fred’ and we see in the programme that when a handmaid is reassigned, their name changes according to the man they belong to.
Children are taken away and second marriages are dissolved.
The dramatization brings to life the famous book by Margaret Atwood which was published in 1985. Since its release, the book has won a number of awards and is a standard course text for English Literature students across Britain and maybe even further. What makes the tale so chilling is the knowledge that when Atwood wrote the novel, she committed to only writing things that have actually happened in the world. It’s quite scary to think that what we see in this show is or has been a reality for some.
The novel tells a cautionary tale of totalitarianism and setting it in Trump’s America makes it scary to watch as it feels conceivable that civilisation could crumble, allowing power to settle in the wrong hands. As we watch the President’s first year, we see many rising up against a perceived threat to civil liberties and growing unrest makes many fearful for the future.
So how on earth can anyone gain so much power that they can make people live as we see in Gilead?
It begins with the construction of ‘them and us’ using negative for ‘them’ and positive for ‘us’, creating an enemy which people can easily be turned against. The President’s travel ban is a good example of this as he sought to ‘protect the nation from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals’. It created unrest across America and uneasiness amongst those ‘foreign nationals’ who live in the US and those who value diversity. He has also been criticised for comments about other groups such as women (see Trump sexism tracker) and those with disabilities.
Those who agree with these views take strength from such comments and show how easy it is to ‘us’ against ‘them’ as we saw during the election campaign and more recently in Charlottesville. Of course what these perpetrators don’t realise is in a culture where this kind of power has taken hold, no one is safe.
One of the key techniques in a totalitarian regime is encouraging people to turn each other in when they are not respecting the regime or its leader. We only have to look to Nazi Germany, communist China and North Korea to see that a central part of retaining power is encouraging people to report those who have done something wrong. Even a small misdemeanour can lead to death. Punishing those who have done wrong and rewarding those who turned them over is the perfect way to reinforce the status quo. An example of this is the so called ‘slut-shaming’ which encourages women to rat each other out and expose others who are then subject to further abuse.
I’m sure it isn’t just me that wants to hold on to my freedom and so the most important thing is to pay attention to what’s going on in the world and not be asleep while things are changing beyond your control.
Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Let us know what you think it teaches us about leadership in the comments below.