Hulu just released three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name. I binged watched it over the weekend, and I had some difficulty being immersed into it. There was something about the world that didn’t sit quite right with me in this adaptation, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. Eventually of course, I figured it out.
The story is set after the fall of the United States into Gilead. Not much is known about the world at this point, and so much is still up for speculation. However we the audience are entreated to these details:
- Pollution and toxicity is so bad that it caused fertility rates to drop.
- Congress was slaughtered, martial law was enacted.
- A theocracy hijacked the government under martial law.
- Communications between the populace and government is reduced - it would appear that the Internet doesn’t exist.
- Swift changes were made to the laws of the land, leading up to the scenarios we see in the show.
So what was it that made me unable to pay attention to the world building of the show? The speed at which things fell into place - it all happened within a few years of Offred’s lifetime.
We’ll say that Hannah was about 4 years old when they were fleeing Gilead at the opening of episode 1. Later when Ofglen asked about Hannah, Offred reveals she’d be eight years old. So when the show takes place is about 4 years since Offred’s escape attempt.
The interleaving flashbacks offered no hint as to the timeline of the rise of Gilead though. The protests appear to be held after Gilead passed laws forbidding women to own property. I assume this would be after Hannah was born, though the furnishings in June’s house at that point offered no hints of a child on the way. The flashback where June explained her worries to Moira about being pregnant appears to be before the passing of the law - they were referencing drinks, something that wouldn’t be happening in the puritanical Gilead.
So this puts the rise of Gilead within a span of 2-3 years. Using BG (Before Gilead) as a marker for the years Gilead passed laws forbidding women from owning property, and AG as the years after Gilead passed the law, we can reconstruct the following timeline:
- 2BG: June gets pregnant
- 1BG: June gives birth to Hannah. June goes back to work after maternity leave.
- 0AG: Law is passed, women are fired from work, protests happen
- 1AG: June’s escape attempt
- 1AG: The Red Center
- 5AG: The Handmaid’s Tale.
What Bugged Me
Now, regressive social change of this scale can and does happen within a couple of years. It has happened in modern recorded history more than once. Perhaps the most famous was the Iranian revolution in 1977*There's more than one passing reference to Iran - the scene where the Martha was hung from a crane - that's a scene that sent chills down my back, knowing that such barbarity exists still in real life.. Within two years of the Iranian Revolution, women went from willingly wearing chadors in protest of the secular banning of the hijab, to being legally mandated to observe Islamic dress code. Similar things have happened in Afghanistan with the rise of the Taliban. It’d be the same if a puritanical Christian theocracy were to suddenly take over the United States.
That wasn’t the bit that bugged me. The bit that bugged me was the scene where the women are
fired from let go of their jobs, and their bank accounts seized. The Gileadean government basically wiped out half the GDP of the nation in one fell swoop. They basically caused a recession within a day. A recession that no government would be able to recover from.
Effects of A Sudden GDP Drop
What would the effect of the GDP suddenly dropping by half? Nobody really knows. It hasn’t ever happened*Or if it did happen, it'd be in countries on the verge of breaking down and there'd be no reliable statistics on productivity anyway, probably for good reasons. In economics parlance, the aggregate supply curve would move sharply to the left. This sudden a change would most likely cause a rise in prices and a drop in productivity. That’s usually known as stagflation.
The funny thing about stagflations and recessions in general is, serious recessions are often followed by revolution and regime change, not the other way around. Sometimes if they’re large enough there are global impact. World War 1, World War 2, regime changes in the middle east in the 1970s, were ALL preceded by serious recessions.
A more accurate economic depiction of the way the Gileadeans seized power would be to model it on when ISIS declared themselves the government of Syria. Unless the Gilead government had ways to manage the productivity of a nation-state, they’re doomed to fail from day one. ISIS had control of the oil wells, their main source of production. They had funding from conservative Muslim groups; they kidnapped and held people for ransom. Furthermore, the control ISIS had over the local economy was pretty total.
We have hints that the economy is somewhat controlled in a totalitarian fashion. The Handmaids were given tokens to shop with, presumably because women wouldn’t be allowed to handled money*Interestingly there is a trope of women and slaves in science fiction not being allowed to handle money. But the problem with that is the supermarkets looked too perfect - the shelves were too well-stocked. It didn’t paint a picture of a war-torn society with a failing economy. Gilead should look more like Mosul and Raqqa than a creepy utopia.
But we see none of that in the TV show, and that’s what bugs me. I got the sense of a creepy idyllic lifestyle rather than a harried chaotic lifestyle that you’d expect from a world where the economy is collapsing. We do get mentions that a war was being fought in Chicago, and that only Alaska and another state (presumably Illinois) were the only states left in the United States. To engineer a coup of such magnitude without much bloodshed and damage is the most unbelievable part of the show for me. So much that it dragged me out of my suspension of disbelief.
An alternate realistic depiction would be to stretch out the timescale. In the book, Serena Joy and The Commander were depicted as old people, and there were hints that Gilead rose to power the same way the Empire was born of the Old Republic (in fact in retrospect, it’s remarkably similar. The passing of the law would be the equivalent of Order 66*Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise? I thought not. It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you. It’s a Sith legend. Darth Plagueis was a Dark Lord of the Sith, so powerful and so wise he could use the Force to influence the midichlorians to create life… He had such a knowledge of the dark side that he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural. He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice killed him in his sleep. Ironic. He could save others from death, but not himself.).
The frustrating part about this TV show is that there WERE in fact hints at the longer term gaslighting of women. There was a scene where June and Moira were running, and another woman slutshamed them by giving them dirty looks for wearing so little. That was a great scene, only to be ruined by the scene of the coffee shop that immediately followed. It felt like compressing 10 years worth of societal attitude change into 3 minutes.
So what would a more realistic depiction of the rise of and early years of Gilead look like?
How To Successfully Oppress Women In Your New Society
Say you’re a orange coloured supervillain who has gained power in government. Now you want to oppress women because your Holy Book told you to. What do you do? You know from reading this blog post so far that a drastic Order 66-style Executive Order would cause massive disorder in your country. And it’s no use being in power over a country in chaos.
Take a Long Term View
Firstly, take a longer term view. You can’t remove 50% of your work force instantaneously. Instead, you’ve got to do it slowly - but it is within grasp of two generations. Freely take inspiration from the middle eastern countries like UAE and Saudi Arabia, where female participation in the workforce is under 20%.
If your country’s economy is heavily service based, you want to get off that as soon as possible. Basically the goal is to remove reliance on human beings, because over time, your GDP will be more and more tied to what you find underground than the human resources spent to collect it. To do that you want to make natural resources the number one factor of production instead of labour. Start investing in natural resources such as coal or crude oil. It is in the ground for you to find because your god wants you to find it.
Educate, Educate, Educate
Secondly, education plays a huge role in shaping the hearts and minds of society. You need to attack this on two fronts: ensure the population in general becomes less educated over time - both men and women. An uneducation population is easily led through emotions, which is easy to rile. An uneducated population cares not about facts for they cannot comprehend the facts. Now, you don’t want your population to be too uneducated. Afterall, science and technology moves at a fast pace, and you need your population to be able to keep up with the latest technology in order to mine stuff out from the ground. But no more than that. They have no need to know about the stars and what lies beyond.
The second prong of the education attack is to educate the population into your cultural beliefs. Depending on the speed of your ideal conquest plan, you will want to adopt either the Nazi model (fast, but easy to undo) or the Nanshin-ron model (slow, but really long lasting impact). Either way, all your curriculum has to be re-written to impart “facts” that women are inferior. A note here is to make it as subversive as possible. Make it too obvious and you will lose your audience.
Suggest that women should stay at home and make babies. A good argument to use is the “nature” argument - argue that women are naturally capable of giving birth, therefore it’s their sole duty.
Suggest that women are happier staying at home compared to going out there in the workforce. Besides the carrot argument, jointly present the stick argument - that women face discrimination in the workplace. Paint the scenario in such bad light that since childhood, women would have no interest in working. It is better to extinguish the fire when it is still small.
At the same time, you want to educate your people about the Just World. It fits into your theocracy anyway. Everything that has happened and can happen is just, or your god wouldn’t have allowed it to happen. But of course you cannot just pander to your religious demography. You will have to spin secular variants of the Just World theory, and incorporate it to your education system. Doing it right will create an underclass that will be paradoxically loyal to your philosophy as you oppress them further. Do it wrong and you will have a revolution on your hands.
Slowly Erode Rights
Thirdly you want to start enacting laws that slowly erodes away the rights of women. Now, I may say “slow”, but you’d be amazed at how much rights you can erode away in a 10-year period.
Start with removing maternity leaves. You see, removing maternity leave forces women into a choice between their career and their families. Pass laws in the name of “national productivity”, prohibiting companies from adopting flexible working arrangements. Again this would force women into having to make the hard choices. You will want to be careful with how you phrase this law though. Done correctly, this will show up as a “wage gap” between the genders, to which your population will rail against. But they’ll target their frustrations at the wrong targets. They will complain and cite the industry or companies as problematic. But this is good for you, because the target is no longer on you. In the longer term, your plan will win.
The next right you will want to erode away is body autonomy. Start by banning abortions. You can have a moral justification without even having to invoke your religion. Just say you’re against killing. People will buy it if you don’t bring up your religion. To the more conservative crowds, you can pander to them by citing parts of their religion that agree with this ideology (Protip: almost all religions are against killing).
After that, go after the contraceptives. Defund family planning clinics and work your way up to making contraceptives illegal. It may sound crazy, because with no contraceptives, pregnancy rates will surely increase. And with abortions made illegal, birth rates would increase. But this plays well into the earlier parts of your plan, where women are forced to choose between careers or family.
Lastly in the name of security, start restricting the movements of women. This should be done late into the plan and done in small pieces. Drum up fears of crime and terrorism. Encourage women to walk in groups of more than two. Tell them that at every corner, people are waiting to rape them. Repeat over and over again, preferably through women mouthpieces, stories of women being harassed.
Do things that will earn you political points - such as sanctioning a women-only train carriage or a women-only swimming pool.
The goal is to eventually work your way up into requiring men to escort women. You can frame this in digestible ways such as “protecting women from rape”. If you spin this right you will come across as gentlemanly and a knight in shining armour, and women will start to see themselves as weaklings in need of protection. You would be welcomed, not rebuked.
Fourthly, in accordance to Mancur Olsen’s idea that all government is rooted in banditry, you as a despot has a good reason to keep a stable stable government: collection of tax is your main income. So your goal is to tax women for being. What you need to do next is eventually work up a “sin” tax for women. Afterall, Eve was the first to eat from the forbidden fruit, and hence the first to sin. All descendents of Eve should pay, right?
There are some readily available tools out there in the market to help you with your endeavor. One such tool is capitalism. The one important lesson to learn is that both men and women can and will pay more if something is marketed to them correctly. Right now capitalism already cause women to pay more for things throughout their entire lifetimes simply because it’s easier to differentiate and target them as a demographic.
Learn from that. For example, HPV vaccines are a Big Deal now. So design a government sponsored campaign so that women are encouraged to get HPV vaccines. The catch? Women have to pay more, compared to if men get the same shots.
Through the forces of government too, you can force women to pay more taxes. For example, through the economic bureau, do not list tampons and sanitary pads as staple essentials. This forces them to pay a sales tax on those items, and only women really need to buy and use them. You can even appear green when you tax them - say it’s for saving the environment. Levy a tax on cosmetic materials and women’s fashion items like handbags and shoes. Capitalism helps you the rest of the way by projecting an ideal image of men and women. This drives demand for fashion items. Which you can tax for being “luxury items”.
Lastly, you will want to control the communication between your people. This is good practice for any kind of authoritarian ruling anyway. You want to control what information your citizenry has access to. This way only the information you deem good will go out. Freedom of the Press has to be curtailed. You cannot let anyone poke around, lest they find evidence of your malign intentions. You will want to also normalize the practice of censorship. I’ve found a particularly cunning way to do it is through the ideologies that directly oppose yours.
What you want to do is to fan the flames of ideologies opposing yours. In the name of tolerance, you should actively normalize censorship. As a concrete example, you’d go out and under the guise of Womens’ Rights, you’d shame people into self-censoring. If people ask a genuine question, remind them that it’s their duties to “educate themselves”, instead of explaining the answer to them. Chances are people would just rather be silent than to look like fools in public. Encourage outrage. The bigger and the more public the outrage is, the better. It would only serve as public examples of what not to do, thus ensuring self-censorship.
Yes, some people on your side may take some losses, but actively encouraging self-censorship has the wonderful side effect of “filter bubbles” being form. People will tend to stick to their own little niches of ideology, rarely sticking their heads out to other groups. If you’re not thinking it already, you’re a poor despot, but you have to agree that this scenario leads easier localization of and elimination of targets. The benefit of normalizing censorhip is of course, people eventually get so used to censorship, you can willingly censor anything from any group that you dislike, and people will not raise hell. They only make your job easier by self-selecting into their groups of identities. With a flick of a finger, you can silence their voices.
Of course there are more things you can do with controlling the means of communications. You’d want to weaken the fundamentals of the communications infrastructures. Make people unable to afford means of communication like the Internet or phones. Allow phone companies to go through major mergers, so there’d be a monopoly, causing prices to go up. Placate the populace by throwing mindless media and spectacle at them. There are a thousand and one things to do here with regards to controlling the communication of your citizenry. You just have to be creative.
A particularly creative one I can think of is to bedazzle your citizenry with incidences of profound incredulity. This blurs the notion of truth, which is advantageous for you as a despot. Combined with a decreasingly educated population, you would be the Glorious Leader for a long time.
30 Years Later
If you play this right, in about 30 years, you will have a new generation of citizenry who will more or less be like Gilead. Or ISIS. And all at your command. Of course, this is with the assumption that you are actually an efficient manager of the economy. Just like Al Capone was brought down based on his accounting ledgers, the economy and the ill-management of it has been the root cause of many an empire’s downfall.
Back to Reality
All the things mentioned above, except for the HPV example, are happening in real life in one form or another. Women do pay more for healthcare throughout their entire lifetimes, but there isn’t any one specific thing to use as an example of price discrimination. Women do not currently enjoy as much bodily autonomy as men (due to, in part, women generally have more biological capabilities than men). Whilst it is true that liberties for women have increased over the past century, I believe we’re at a weird juncture where things can go wrong quite quickly.
It is somewhat terrifying to see the changes that occur in society. I think the scariest part for me is how insidious it can be when the changes happens slowly, normalizing everything over time. I do so wish that there were TV shows exploring that notion - the Handmaid’s Tale book I felt had the timeline quite right.
If I were to write a story that satirizes the the growing conservatism in the world, I’d do a riff of the Rip Van Winkle story. I’d imagine that’d be quite cool to read.
There are some parts that are plausible - the Iranian revolution in 1977 is probably one of the best examples of how a secular liberal society can rapidly fall into religious theocracy. Even so, Iran regime change was decades in the making. Liberal ideologies were hijacked and used by the religious to their own ends.
I think a big part in figuring this out is separating the effects of a market place, and ideological effects. Laws being passed are effects of ideology. The “pink tax” for example, is something purely marketplace driven - the obverse example is men having to pay more for car insurance. I personally think railing against the “pink tax” is not much use, as I believe the only way to tackle that would be to attack our consumerist mindsets. Energy would better spent on other avenues.
One thing that anyone (in a first world democracy, that is) can do however, is to prevent unfair laws from passing. The laws come in various forms, from illegalizing drugs to target minorities, to more obvious ones like defunding Planned Parenthood (in America as an example). Doing it while there is still a democracy is vital.
Homo Sapiens has had many ideas through its history. One idea that was claimed by the founding fathers of the United States to be self-evident, is that all humans are created equal with inalienable rights to certain liberties. It clearly is NOT self-evident. In many countries, people aren’t exposed to such concepts, and as such have no idea what liberties like freedom of speech even entail. We who live in the privileged first world can clearly see that these are Good Ideas with capital letters. But it is folly to think it’s self-evident.
Liberty is a fragile fiction. But it is this fiction that enables humans to plant a flag on the moon. It is this fiction that allows us to use Facebook on our phones. I believe it’s our moral imperative to be vigilant against attacks to a fundamentally Good Idea that allow our species to thrive and go beyond the confines of what nature provides.
Miscellaneous Thoughts About The Show
Overall, I rather enjoyed the show and I’d be continuing the whole series. It’s awfully relevant, there are some chilling scenes that made my blood run cold (for example when the Martha was executed). It’s well acted, and Elizabeth Moss plays Offred realistically. I rather enjoyed the expansion of the Gilead ideals to incorporate other races - it’s consistent with the background that in a world where a woman’s fertility is prized, it wouldn’t matter what skin colour the woman is. This was a welcome and logical change from the book.
The atmosphere in the TV show was creepy. The lamaze breathing chants and the whole wife + handmaid birthing scene creeped the hell out of me. So did the slut shaming scene in the Red Center. Aunt Lydia is a despicable character and the genital mutilation scene really made me want to punch her smug face. I could see the joy in Elizabeth Moss’ eyes when the Commander first offered to play Scrabble. It was well acted in that sense.
Another thing in particular that I thought was really well done was the feeling of always being under the watchful eyes of well.. the Eyes. The pairings of Handmaids to spy on each other was masterfully handled. The tension was palpable.
There are some issues though: I felt they rushed through the plot of the book really quickly. For example, Ofglen (Emily) was taken out and replaced by another Ofglen in Episode 3 out of a 10 episode series. I wonder what’s up with that. The aforementioned palpable tension between pairs of Handmaids dissipated within the first half of Episode 1, where as in the book it was a good way through before that ice was broken.
I also question if they did a good job updating the context from 1980s to now (though I definitely agree that words like “Compubanks” need to be rid of). Mainly it’s got to do with the fact that Tinder and Uber gets mentioned, but nobody used the Internet to get information about laws. That was weird and breaks the suspension of disbelief.
I also had other small niggles some world building issues, but these are mostly addressed in the book, or caused by the aforementioned compressed timeline:
- Creating a society of many hierarchical classes takes time. I consider it multi-generational effort.
- The structure of the society of Gilead is unsustainable. It was hinted that the structure is unsustainable in the Historical Notes section of the book. I hope they actually mention this.
- There HAS to be logically a gender population imbalance in the years before Gilead. Unless of course, the underclass do not get assigned wives that often or are only ever assigned Econowives (case in point see ISIS in Syria).
- There wasn’t any addressing of communication issues in the TV show. I think the producers were trying to imply that there was no more Internet just before Gilead took over. But I felt if they wanted to do that, they should make it more clear.
- The music choices in the episodes were pretty WTF. At the end of the first episode, I looked at my partner and double checked if the end music was the Suicide Squad music. WTF.
This blog post spiraled out from a random thought experiment on why Gilead as depicted on screen was improbable - the economics of it didn’t make sense. As I started explaining more, I realized I had previously written a draft of another blog post which more more satirical in nature. So I combined that post into this. Then I returned back to reality with a rather preachy message. I hope to impart upon the you the urgency and direness of the current situation, especially in the United States. I then close out this post with more miscellaneous thoughts about the TV show.
I would like to also point out that my view of war-torn societies are thoroughly influenced by media, not only by western mainstream media, but by medias of other countries as well. They definitely do not represent any experience in real life, so who knows, I may be talking out of my ass when describing how war-torn/failing economies would look like. For all I know, it could really look as if the supermarkets were well stocked and everything’s normal looking.
I would like to hear your thoughts on what you thought about the show. Yes, I am aware that I am obsessing over the GDP drop issue, but that was the singular thing that took me out of the show, repeatedly.