“I was asleep before… that’s how we let it happen. They suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary.”
This is Offred’s stark warning.
A narration of regret.
Her name’s not really Offred. It’s Jane. Or June. Or something that I can’t remember because her name no longer matters. She is no longer a human with an identity, she is the property of Fred. And she is the main character in Hulu’s series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel.
Offred is a Handmaid in Gilead, the religious fundamentalist reincarnation of the United States. After a terrorist attack and environmental disasters left the republic weakened, a strong-arm theocracy took hold. Patriarchal control was the new order. Women, no longer allowed to work, read, vote, or hold property. Children, taken at will from parents who refuse to conform. Traitors, hung along the river, government spies around every corner.
In this dystopian theocracy, women no longer have choices. They are assigned roles by the almighty government. The small number of women who are still fertile become Handmaids, their job to produce children for the elite. They are human incubators. Vessels. Possessions of the privileged. Routinely subjected to state-sanctioned rape every month in the name of glorious and holy conception.
Blessed be the fruit of the non-consenting womb.
The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a warning, as many great works of art do. With it’s desaturated colors and stark visuals, the horrors on the screen should shock us.
But they don’t.
Instead of shock, recognition. We see it, how it could happen. The clarity is so unnerving that many women can’t even bear to watch the show.
Exaggeration? Fear? Perhaps. But possible? Yes.
Possible, because our country has done these things before.
Our great country likes to practice the art of selective amnesia. We prefer to whitewash our hateful past and water down our history books and our conscience.
Those who never learn unadulterated history are doomed to repeat it.
In our great country, humans were bought and sold like livestock. We stripped them of their names. Their identity tied up in the men who owned them. Slave women were expected to produce more slaves to keep the fields stocked with blood and sweat. When they failed, they were beaten and sometimes sold as damaged goods. We excused every bit of this with religious text and disgusting theories on race. We denied their humanity, and we denied them their names and heritage.
My name is Offred. I had a name before…
Wives in the antebellum era looked the other way while their husbands raped slaves. Their jealous rage directed at the victims in the form of beatings. Their lack of voice or control unleashed on slave girls while their husbands continued to rape at will. An uncomfortable fact of life for the privileged women was a soul-stripping act of violence for the slave girls and women.
Blessed be the ability to control through fear and domination and violence.
Lynchings were community events. The town’s people would gather to cheer and celebrate torture and murder. Smug words of consternation. Them boys should have listened to their master. Them girls should know what’s good for them. The bodies would hang for days. Weeks. White supremacy has sadistic ways of making sure you remember. He shouldn’t have been driving with a broken tail light. She shouldn’t have questioned his authority and lit that cigarette.
You don’t read much about the lynchings and the rapes in the history books though. Nothing more than a sanitized mention before moving on to the battles and the bayonets, the blood on metal tips washes down easier than the blood dripping from a tree branch.
It’s not possible to go back to such dark times, we say. But did you see the evening news?
Another black boy’s name is trending on Twitter and another murder is excused. We shake our heads as we sip our coffee.
It’s not possible, we say, as we press our “I Voted” sticker onto our shirt and take a selfie to show proof of our civic duty.
It’s not possible, we say, as we watch men behind closed doors decide that we are pre-existing conditions. Our rape, our pregnancy, our broken jaw from a closed fist, all pre-existing conditions. A tax on our bodies and our psyches and our wombs.
It’s not possible, we say, as we watch bills being debated on state house floors. Bills that infantilize us. Forced vaginal ultrasounds… because we need a wand shoved into our cervix to grasp the idea that we’re pregnant.
It’s not possible, we say, but politicians keep saying rape is only rape if there are bruises and marks. Because men raping wives, and boyfriends raping girlfriends, and date rape, and victims freezing because that is biologically the mechanism that takes over when being assaulted in the most personal way, is not “really rape” according to these men. And the only scars they care about are the ones that are visible and verifiable.
It’s not possible, we say. But lawmakers are trying to make us get consent from a man before getting an abortion. Because of course our bodies should be regulated by the men in our lives. Of course our husband/boyfriend/father has more say about our life-changing decision.
Shall I get my rapist to sign a permission slip, dear congressman?
What about my abusive husband who keeps me pregnant to keep me imprisoned in his sick, controlling world? Shall he sign it in my blood?
It’s not possible, we say, as we scroll through social media and wonder how we got here. But it is possible. You just don’t recognize it because you didn’t live it, and your ancestors don’t bear the scars, and the color of your skin and your religion protect you from what’s happening now.
What you don’t necessarily see or feel or fear every day is happening. And eventually it will touch you and yours if you continue to sit in your comfortable apathy.
Our false sense of security and privileged ignorance will one day be our yoke. The bliss of being able to turn the page or tune out or pretend like it isn’t happening is akin to sipping iced tea on the plantation porch, fanning ourselves and talking about the weather while we listen to the snaps of a whip hitting flesh in the fields below us. We avert our eyes and pretend like we don’t hear the cries of anguish. My, it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?
It’s all possible. Gilead is not just a dystopian fiction. It’s a warning. A preview of what inaction and unchecked power can do. The likeliness is still a question. But by the time we’re sure, by the time we realize our rights have been stripped away, it’s usually too late.
I was asleep before… that’s how we let it happen.
Corporations have more humanity than their female employees, so says the court. Their religious belief or how they interpret ancient text trumps my health care decisions and what my doctor and I decide is best. Their profit is their humanity, their fetish for patriarchal control is their soul. And it’s worth more than the humanity that is present between my heart and my ovaries and my mind.
Personhood bills are popping up across states like a sick game of autonomy Whac-A-Mole. Bills that threaten to make my reproductive choices nonexistent. No pill. No IUD. No sex. Good girls don’t have sex for pleasure. Good girls only have sex to make babies. Good girls will produce as many babies as her body is physically capable of. Good girls don’t get roofied by Cliff Huxtable. Good girls don’t get raped. Good girls don’t make accusations and make people uncomfortable. Good. Girls. Don’t. Question. Authority.
We have men in power who pledge allegiance to their scripture, not the country. They eschew the basic tenet of separation of church and state, the very foundation of our democracy and Constitution. The words of the founding fathers inconsequential when holy words direct you to fund torture of gay teens and deny AIDS prevention and force heartbroken women who’ve suffered loss to pay to bury their miscarried remains. Because patriarchy and purity culture is nothing if not creative in their ways to retain control of women.
We have a members of the Council for National Policy, a super-secret group filled with extremists and Dominionists pulling the strings of government as we speak. Their goal is to turn our country into a theocracy, their strategy is to manipulate the government from within. Key members have funded, aided, and staffed the current administration. They, along with the Heritage Foundation, have been working for decades on projects like Citizens United and school choice which is coded language for government funding of religious schools. The Prince family, the DeVos family, Conway, Bannon, Mercer, Koch. Do these names ring a bell? They are cozying up to white supremacists and other religious zealots to make sure your children get a hefty dose of fundamentalist branded God™ in the classroom.
Blessed be the righteousness of money to gain power…
They tell us those “other” people are evil. They’ve come here to rape us and to plant bombs in our malls and take our jobs, and it works because fear is the most effective means of control.
They pass “Religious Freedom Laws” which is cool kid speak for “we hate gays so we are going to hide behind our cherry picked religious text.”
They tell us it’s not a crime when unarmed black men and women are shot. They shush our horror with platitudes and lies.
Blessed be the electorate willing to believe modern day lynching is somehow justifiable.
Blessed be the gerrymandered districts that make voter suppression of black people so much easier than the good ‘ol days when we just spit on them and burned crosses in front of their house and beat them and killed them.
Blessed be the prisons where we can lock people up for minor crimes and keep people away from their jobs and their families and their lives because they can’t pay court fines . And the private prison system that feeds the cycle of poverty and gives us our modern-day slave labor and serfdom and keeps rich men richer and poor men poorer.
Blessed be all the people who spread the propaganda so willfully… women are not to be believed or trusted… black people are thugs… gay people are sinful… transgender people are predators waiting in the Target bathroom to attack our women and children… authority is to be respected no matter what… we shouldn’t question a person in uniform… we shouldn’t question those in power… we should be enraged at a football player kneeling during the national anthem but stay silent while unarmed black men are shot.
Blessed be those who repeat the words of control and manipulation and authoritarianism.
Blessed be those who confuse “respect the office of the presidency” with blind loyalty, who play Candy Crush instead of reading the news, who think that apathy to racism is not as bad as being a full on racist, who excuse “low-key” racism with a shrug and feign ignorance.
Blessed be the patriots who think voting is the sum total of their civic duty, who think that our democracy is unbreakable and checks and balances will always save it, who don’t want to offend so they stay silent when they see atrocities, who not only allow it to happen, but aid and abet it.
This is the warning. Too late happens while you sleep. The effects not fully realized until the point of no return is but a speck in the rearview mirror.
“It’s not possible,” should not be the last gasp of democracy.
Are you awake?
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