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Handmaids: Social Satire and Dire Warning

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about social conformity and the oppression of women, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been a controversial...

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Drawing of Handmaids from Atwood's novel

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about social conformity and the oppression of women, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been a controversial subject for many people who see it as a near prophecy of what society is heading for if certain precautions are not taken. While she does make light of many issues facing the modern position of women in society today, there is no denying the blatant, apparent similarities of the story and the events women face. Perhaps, not to the same extremities, but on a surface level. Atwood reveals one possible universe that America, or perhaps all women, will face with time. The argument of abortion, to misuse of religion to suppress rights and assault the LGBT(Q), and the expectations of women to bear children, be subservient and voiceless to men of power. These are all issues that mirror real world controversies and Atwood’s novel may just be attempting to show this dire warning.

“There have been more than 600 rallies in 60 countries around the world expressing concern that women’s rights will be eroded under Mr. Trump,” writes ABC news, showing just one of the events with an uncanny likeness to the opening flashbacks in Atwood’s novel (ABC News). The rights and equalities of women in the United States, though some will argue are better than most of the rest of the world, still have much room for growth. Furthermore, the placing of a man such as Trump in political office whom, “more people attended the march than came for Mr. Trump’s inauguration,” bears an ominous mirror. These are the things that some would consider obvious human rights, an example being abortion and controlling birth/birth rates. In the novel, fertile women were appointed to men of power whom which they were ordered to bear their offspring. This type of birth control mirrors President Trump’s reinstatement of, “a law that bans US-funded aid groups around the world from discussing abortion” (McCormack). While this law is not the same level of extremity that Atwood portrays in her novel, it could very well be the beginnings down a similar path. The marches and protests, according to ABC news, were not just attended by women from the states, but women across all seven continents. It is described, “…as a “warning” to women in America about their ‘precarious’ rights” (McCormack).

While being hung over the Harvard wall in Gilead as punishment for being a so-called “Sex Traitor” seems like it could not be something that happens in society today, the truth reveals a different story. The Human Rights Campaign reports at least 23 deaths of transgender people in 2017. In addition, most Americans are no stranger to the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, killing 50 people at Club Pulse in Orlando. Though these were not directly women’s rights issues, the LGBT(Q) community and its supporters continue to fight for rights and are targeted all the same. Around the world, identifying as gay is still punishable by death in the same way Sex Traitors are in the novel. It is also important to acknowledge that transgender women are masked with a cloth of invisibility. They are often denied equal rights, and are subjected to sexual harassment, bullying, and assault at higher rates according to the Human Rights Campaign. The Campaign “estimates trans women face 4.3 times more the risk of being murdered compared to cis women in the U.S., and at least 87% of trans people murdered from 2013 to 2015 were people of color” (Holter).

The warning the novel gives gets personal and all too real when we look at the slowly fading voice of the women in the United States. In the novel, none of the Handmaids, or any of the women at all for that matter, are really able to voice their opinions in their situations. They had lost their jobs, their positions, their freedoms and were no longer even allowed to read. Offred, we find, had to leave behind her story on cassette tapes and this is a nod at how the stories of Anne Frank, and Romeo Dallaire are told. “Education is as close to a silver bullet as we have in terms of increasing women’s and girl’s status,” Atwood herself stated in an interview with The New York Times (Atwood). Women, though slowly breaking the glass ceiling, still lack an equal voice in a great number of things, from politics to their own bodies. What we have witnessed over a millennia is the fact that women must prove their worth. Time after time, they must go above and beyond to convince society that they are worthy of respect, regardless of their gender expression. What is even more startling is the way women are attacked when they are viewed as a threat to one’s patriarchal views. They are threatened by daily acts of violence, rape, and even death. Our President of the United States, for example, is an embodiment of this hatred. He has been the subject of many controversies and legal court cases. How could a man that openly objectifies and premises the abuse of women get so far? I believe this is a reflection of the establishment of Gilead: Under the justification of religion.

When asked, Atwood did not entirely deny that the story was a premonition. While she did state that it was impossible to tell the future and in that right the book was not a prediction, she did, instead, call it an, “anti-prediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen” (Atwood). Unfortunately, in the very same New York Times article, Atwood mentions that she never uses events that have not, or could not happen in her pieces. This clever use of her resources adds the realness of her masterpiece. It really brings into account the thoughtfulness and in depth analysis we must make about our society. Every line, every page of this book is filled with disturbing, yet intriguing scenes. To realize that these are all events that Atwood based on real life events is frightening. At the end of her book, she writes a very authentic university research report by an acclaimed anthropologist, Piexoto, where he warns his students not to judge Gilead too harshly. The incredible commitment to making this story seem like a real life account parallels a satire by the name A Modest Proposal. In this work, it promotes very controversial and unethical ways to solving the poverty and hunger problem. The Handmaid’s Tale works in the same effect in that it has a carefully thought out plot and intertwining storylines.

Offred is the embodiment of a society of women. She is a of symbol strength. She is someone who wants to stand up for what she believes in, regardless of the immense risks. Even at the end of the story, we do not know of what her fate was as she is dragged into uncertainty, just like the women in our society today. We are faced with a cloud of obscurity. The fight for equal rights for all women, regardless of race, color, gender expression, or creed has only begun. The Handmaid’s Tale serves as an amazing work of satire as well as a dire warning. It is calling out to us. This, the society the United States is becoming, is exactly what Margaret Atwood feared. I believe we must take into account every possibility, speak up for ourselves, and heed the dire warning.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar. 2017,

Campaign, Human Rights. “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.” Human Rights Campaign,

Dowling, Amber. “Seven Reasons Why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is More Relevant Now than Ever Before.” The Loop, 31 Mar. 2017,

Holter, Lauren. “The Murder Rate Of Transgender Women In The U.S. Isn’t Declining.” Refinery 29, 24 Apr. 2017,

McCormack, Ange. “Could The Handmaid’s Tale Happen Today? For Some Women, It’s Already Reality.” Triple j, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 26 July 2017,

“Millions Protest against Trump at Women’s Marches.” ABC News, 22 Jan. 2017,

“Political Attack Ads Have More Power against Women.” Futurity, 2 Aug. 2017,

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