I recently finished a few seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale (based on the novel by Margaret Atwood), and found the story quite fascinating. What I liked most about it was (though it was an extreme example) its depiction of how quickly freedoms can be removed, but also the demonstration of how social institutions work in reality. For those who don’t know the story, it essentially plays out in a society where fertility has dropped significantly and a regime had been adopted where fertile women are forced to have children for elite couples who are unable to conceive. In this society, fertility is viewed as a moral obligation to ensure the survival of the human race. A summary of the story can be read here.
Though the bulk of the atrocities in the story are depicted in the present time, parts of the story detail what the lives of the characters were like before the oppressive regime took hold. What becomes clear based on these snippets, is that the people who bought into and who benefit from the oppressive regime do so out of their own self interest – often as a result of bad experiences and traumas they experienced before the oppressive regime took hold – even if it meant giving up some of their freedoms to get what they wanted.
Two of the most glaring examples include Mrs Waterford and Aunt Lydia. Mrs Waterford and her husband, who form part of the architects of the regime, struggled to have children. She essentially went from being a feminist fighting for women’s liberation to writing about birthing as a moral imperative. Mrs Waterford buys into the system to satisfy her own selfish desire to have a child and perhaps to fight the fear of living a life unfulfilled. This is despite her freedoms as a woman being curtailed by the patriarchal elements of the regime. In fact, Mrs Waterford provides a perfect example of the intersectionality of our identities. She is disadvantaged by the system through her subordination as a Wife, but is also in a more privileged position relative to the Handmaids and Marthas.
Aunty Lydia, on the other hand, is portrayed as a complex character who is ruthless in her discipline and demand for respect, but at the same time demands protection for her Handmaids (‘her girls’) from the punishment of others. There are many instances in which she reiterates that she is responsible for ‘her girls’. It is also clear that Aunt Lydia loathes women who are perceived as ‘whores’ and ‘gender traitors’ and sees it as part of her responsibility to rid the system of such behaviours. Aunt Lydia is shown on a new year’s eve date, before the fall of the democratic regime. Towards the end of the evening, she makes an advance on a man who rejects her and then finds a way to punish the woman who encouraged her to ‘put herself out there’ – a single mother who struggles to look after her son (one of Lydia’s students at the time). It is clear that she now views any woman who would behave in the way she did on that night as immoral. However, Aunt Lydia has also given up some of her freedoms. She is uncomfortable with her cruelty, even after she sustains long term injuries at the hands of a Handmaid, and understands that she is subordinate to the Wives and Husbands in the system. Though she is willing to tolerate these things in the interest of her personal goals and beliefs, she is also driven by the fear of ever being rejected by a man again. Under the oppressive regime, she is not viewed as a sexualised being and her lack of engagement in a romantic relationship is viewed as normal. Something she did not experience as a woman under the previous regime.
Mrs Waterford and Aunt Lydia buy into the regime at the expense of the victims in the system – most notably the Marthas and Handmaids. Though they use the system to pursue their own interests, they also conform to the rules of the system through fear. This is evident in instances where they realise that they are themselves victims of the system. A good example of this includes the scene where Mrs Waterford’s husband orders that she be punished after she approaches the Counsel and asks that girls be taught how to read as boys do (women are prohibited from reading under the regime). It is in moments like these where the characters realise that the regime has morphed into something much bigger than they might have initially imagined it would become when they first committed themselves to it.
The reason the interactions and power dynamics in this series resonated with so many people, is because the functioning of institutions in our everyday lives are not that different. These could be formal (rules, laws) or informal (culture, family) institutions. People often buy into systems as a result of fear, sometimes anger. This fear can paralyse us into remaining silent and tolerating the abuse of those who fall victim to the system in pursuit of remaining an accepted member of the institution. This pursuit often makes us betray our own values, and sometimes these institutions can also create victims out of its architects.
This is evident in the behaviour of people hoping to climb the ladder of an organisation or industry. Often we stand by and watch as colleagues are victimised out of fear. Fear of being seen as a ‘trouble maker’ when we talk out against wrong doing and losing favour with those in power (the people who can help us move up the ladder and open doors to rooms we wish to enter).
Some even believe that once they get to the proverbial ‘top’, that they will have enough power to change things posthumously and help the little people at the bottom who have been struggling, victimised and psychologically harassed while they silently worked their way to the top.
The truth is, speaking out against wrong-doing and ‘saying something when you see something’ takes courage. Courage does not suddenly appear once one has enough vested power to exercise it. Fear will always be there, whether you’re at the top or the bottom. Similarly, the power or agency to be courageous is also always there. But just like confidence, it must be practiced. One must practice being courageous regularly if you are to be courageous when it really counts.
So many of us, particularly in South Africa, have become accustomed to the toxicity which have infiltrated our institutions that we’ve normalised the harrassment and victimisation which people suffer everyday – often leading to the mental health issues which many suffer from. But, if we are to build institutions (workplaces, homes, communities, countries) where the stability of the institution does not rest on the oppression of select groups of people (regardless of how subtle that oppression may be), we must exercise courage everyday. Enough courage to protect the values in the institution which seek to build rather than destroy.
By doing so, we can build a critical mass of individuals who can encourage those who may be suffering in silence to persevere, and perhaps even gain enough support to change structures which do harm to people. That being said, it’s never too late to be courageous. Each new day is an opportunity to do what’s right.
Originally published on 19 May 2020.