“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Translation: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Since the 1985 publication of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” this mock-Latin sentence has served as a feminist battle cry inspiring women to fight the oppressive powers-that-be—so much so that several have had it tattooed onto their bodies. As attacks on women’s reproductive rights grow more frequent and ominous uncertainty looms over Trump’s America, the Republic of Gilead seems like an even closer reality, charging this phrase and the novel’s dystopian premise with new meaning.
In Atwood’s haunting masterpiece, Gilead, once a progressive bastion of intellectual pursuit and democracy, is governed by a theocratic, totalitarian regime where women are stripped of their rights and assigned particular roles to the men who govern them. Deprived of free will, women are reduced to functioning as physical instruments for the State based on their fertility and status in pre-Gilead society: they must serve as Wives, Daughters, Aunts, Marthas, Econowives, Unwomen, or Handmaids—women prized for their fertility and assigned to a Commander and his barren Wife to conceive their child. The principal effort of this perverted ecosystem is to boost Gilead’s declining population, but also to maintain unchecked patriarchal power.
In her recent New York Times essay, Atwood points out that cultures all over the world recognize the power of women’s bodies to determine the future of their populations, which is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls, and children has long been a tactic of genocidal wars. But part of the reason Gilead is so paralyzingly frightening is that women in pre-Gilead society enjoyed many of the freedoms women in America do today. Offred, the protagonist and Handmaid referenced in the title, grew up with a feminist activist mother; she loved at her own will, marrying Luke and mothering their child; she had a college education and economic independence. In the new totalitarian State, though, decision-making and ownership over one’s female body are completely forbidden. Women’s identities are replaced by monikers tying them to their male owners—we never learn the original name of Offred, or “of Fred,” who “belongs” to Commander Fred.
Though the production of Hulu’s TV adaptation of the novel started well before the 2016 presidential election results, its conception could not have happened at a more relevant time in American politics. Costume designer Ane Crabtree, who brought the iconic white-bonnet-and-red-cape uniforms to life in the TV series, recalls in a recent Vanity Fair piece: “By November , when the world changed in our own personal Gilead on this side of the pond, we were well into the story, and every day the script was mirroring what was happening in the States.”
— Nan L. Kirkpatrick (@nanarchist) March 20, 2017
— Alaina Smith (@alaina8smith) May 3, 2017
Women have been using those chilling costumes, symbol of patriarchal oppression, to protest the real threats to our rights that have been occurring, particularly to protest state-level anti-choice bills. In March 2017, anti-Gilead women appeared in the Texas Senate dressed as Handmaids in protest of Senate Bills 415 and 25, the first of which would only permit abortion providers to perform a certain type of abortion if it was a medical emergency, and the second of which would prevent parents from suing doctors if their baby is born with a birth defect. Early in May, women in Tennessee wore red capes and white bonnets, carrying signs saying, “We Are Not Tennessee Handmaids!” and “Women Are Not Incubators!” to protest a bill, SB1180/ HB1189, on the Senate floor that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Women in Missouri followed suit, in objection to a budget proposal, HB 10, that would eliminate the state’s “family planning” funding and further restrict access to women’s healthcare providers, along with an amendment, HB 11, that would prohibit any organization providing abortion services from receiving state funds. The relevance of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has taken on a life of its own, one that has affected pro-choice, feminist women so deeply that Offred’s uniform is jumping out of its fictional context and appearing outside government buildings.
Atwood noted in both the updated 2017 reprint of the novel’s Introduction and in multiple interviews that Gilead wasn’t initially conceived of as a prophecy for America’s future. It is a piece of speculative fiction, which by definition involves world-building and the creation of different laws and a new universal order, hypothesizing what is real or possible. But she has also described the novel as an “anti-prediction” for what will happen to the feminist movement: If such an anti-feminist world is described so realistically, perhaps it won’t happen. As similarities between Gilead and Trump’s America become apparent, wearing Offred’s uniform sends a more powerful message than any sign would, vividly signalling the subjugation of women that lies ahead if our reproductive rights continue to disappear.