In many post-apocalyptic texts, the environmental state of the planet is usually one the main focal points – whether it is a barren wasteland or a city in ruins, the state of the post-apocalyptic world plays a great role in informing the context and direction of the story. Bruce Miller’s 2017 television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood departs significantly from this norm, where we still see relatively well-functioning cities and an absence of mass hysteria or violence. However, these cities harbour a darker side in which the breakdown of society is depicted in a very different way.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the modern-day United States (US) and tells the story of Offred, a handmaid in the new Republic of Gilead. The Republic of Gilead is run by a fundamentalist religion-based autocracy, known as the Sons of Jacob, who forcibly took power from the US government and formed the new government. The show uses the backdrop of a world that is plagued with widespread radioactive chemical pollution caused by decades of irresponsible use of nuclear weapons, fossil fuels and chemical farming which has rendered a majority of the population infertile.As a result of this mass infertility, the few remaining fertile women in Gilead are forced into becoming handmaids, whereby they are required to participate in state-sanctioned rape every month in order to provide children. In addition to this abuse of women’s rights, women are denied basic rights such as owning property and reading, and are largely relegated into performing subservient roles to men.
However, despite the huge threat of the chemical apocalypse and worldwide infertility (and possible human extinction), this is dwarfed by fears of the oppressive government. We see many characters trying to rebel against the government and concern themselves less with the looming threat of toxic pollution. Within the first episode, Offred is recruited into an underground resistance group known as “Mayday”, which aims to overthrow the oppressive government, on the other hand, the characters hold a very fatalistic view of the state of the environment and do little to act against it, indicating that personal freedom is seen to be of a greater priority than self-preservation. However, I posit that the relative inaction in combating the environmental pollution as compared to the oppressive government is due to how differently each threat is perceived by the characters in the show. To make my case, I will investigate how each threat is perceived, and show how the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale only focus on the threat of the oppressive government rather than the chemical apocalypse.
Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed explores the fall of societies and civilisations in history and argues that there are certain factors that will account for either the survivial or demise of a civilisation when faced with a threat. Using Diamond’s book will help us understand why the characters respond only to the threat of the oppressive government and not that of the environmental pollution. In his book, Diamond puts forth a road map of factors which explain why societies fail in decision-making. He categorizes them into four factors – Firstly, society may fail to anticipate problems before they arrive. Second, society may fail to perceive the problem when it eventually arrives. Then, even after they perceive it, they may not attempt to solve the problem at all. Finally, they may try to solve it but may not succeed. He uses this road map to assess why certain societies succeed or fail in combating threats, which would ultimately decide their survival or demise. I will use this road map in assessing the two major threats faced by the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale – the chemical apocalypse and the oppressive government.
The lack of action the characters take against the chemical apocalypse and the contrasting enthusiasm they show in combating the oppressive government can be attributed to the characters’ success or failure in perceiving each threat. Diamond highlights a phenomenon called “creeping normalcy” (p. 425), in which objectionable change is accepted as the norm because it occurs incrementally, but would otherwise be opposed to if it arose more intensively over a shorter period of time. A Red Center class conducted by Aunt Lydia, a teacher whose purpose is to indoctrinate the Handmaids-in-training, highlights the decades of pollution and radioactive chemical waste which have devastated the environment (Miller, 2017). This suggests that much like in the real world, such drastic and dire environmental change happens over such a long period of time and at such a gradual pace that they become seemingly imperceptible. Diamond suggests that “It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realize, with a jolt, that conditions used to be much better several decades ago, and that what is accepted as normalcy has crept downwards.” (p. 425). Therefore, the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale may not have realized the increasing levels of toxicity of their water bodies and the growing widespread infertility as it would have seemed totally normal to them. As a result, they would not perceive it as an urgent threat and hence did not intervene in the situation. Conversely, the threat of the oppressive government only arose within a few years, which makes this change much more apparent to the characters. In Episode 2, we see Offred and Ofglen, her shopping partner, walking through the streets of what used to be Boston, and reminiscing about the old places they used to visit. This shows that they can still very strongly differentiate what life was like before and after the oppressive government took control. These stark differences can be keenly felt by the characters and they are then able to recognize that the oppressive government would be a formidable and significant threat which would prompt action against it. This idea of “creeping normalcy” is also used by the government in trying to force the handmaids into accepting their new roles. In Episode 1 when Aunt Lydia introduces the women into their new roles as handmaids, she says, “I know this must feel very strange but ordinary is just what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will.” (Miller, 2017). However, the difference here is that she enforces the idea of normalcy onto the handmaids, rather than letting this situation normalize into the psyche of the Handmaids. Therefore, we see how Diamond’s idea of “creeping normalcy” plays a significant role in how threats are perceived by the characters, which hence determines the resulting action or inaction against them.
The characters’ value systems also play a very significant role in how they approach threats. The differences in their values with respect to each issue leads to this difference in how each threat is responded to. Diamond suggests that certain societies engage in “irrational behaviour”, and “may ignore a bad status quo because it is favored by some deeply held value to which [they] cling” (p. 432). This is exactly the case in how the characters react to the chemical apocalypse threat. The chemical apocalypse was brought upon by decades of environmental pollution and the unchecked use and disposal of fossil fuels (Miller, 2017). Aunt Lydia criticises the wastefulness and over-indulgence of the people before Gilead was established, which led to the over-exploitation of the environment. The ideologies of capitalism and the championing of material wealth are deeply-entrenched in the characters’ value systems, and their reluctance to hamper their material growth helps to explain the lack of action in combating the environmental pollution threat. Comparing this with how the characters react to the threat of the oppressive government in infringing on their personal freedoms, we see how the characters’ value systems play an important role in how they respond to threats. The characters pride themselves in upholding the ideals of freedom and liberty and the belief in the US being the pinnacle of democracy. We see how important this issue is to the characters, especially the female characters, when their beliefs in equality and feminism are challenged by the new oppressive government. Characters such as Mrs Waterford, although undeniably occupying a position of power as the Commander’s wife, recognizes that the system enacted by her husband and his colleagues has pushed her to into a subservient role. In Episode 6, A Woman’s Place, we witness how Mrs Waterford’s intelligence and capabilities actively rival that of her husband’s, but due to the new rules set in place, she no longer has a stake in contributing to the direction of the country and finds herself having to uncomfortably adjust to her new subservient role. In Episode 3, the freezing of women’s bank accounts and the firing of women in the workplace were met with much opposition from the female characters. In a flashback in Episode 6, Moira and Offred, both strong supporters of women’s rights, attended various protests against the new regime. The presence of the authoritarian government and their role in oppressing women would be an affront to these characters’ values. We see how because of these characters’ intrinsic need to hold onto their values that they take action against the threat of the oppressive government. Therefore, the characters’ value systems and their unwillingness to compromise on them will cause them to engage in “irrational behaviour” affect how they perceive and act on each threat.
The characters’ lack of action in combating the chemical apocalypse and the contrasting conviction in how they fight the oppressive government threat can also be due to the scale and enormity of the threat at hand. Diamond argues that even though there may be attempts by a society to solve the problem, they may still ultimately fail. This can be attributed to the enormity of the threat which will be practically impossible to resolve, or that the efforts may be “too little, too late” (p. 437). The latter is very much seen in the case of the chemical apocalypse. Although there have been attempts to cultivate organic crops and to utilize cleaner models of agriculture in Gilead, the damage that has been done is largely irreversible. In Episode 6, it is clear that the environmental catastrophe is even more serious in other countries, such as in Mexico, where no healthy babies have been born in the past six years (Miller, 2017). This could explain why not much has been done to combat the environmental threat, as the characters have exhausted all possible solutions and have largely resigned themselves to their fate. On the other hand, the threat of the oppressive government, although very much entrenched in the Gileadian society, is still in its infancy. In Episode 1, we learn of the existence of a resistance group called “Mayday”, who aims to overthrow the authoritarian regime. The existence of “Mayday” hints at potential loopholes in the system imposed by the Sons of Jacob and alludes to the possibility of effectively responding to this threat. Diamond posits that a society is “more likely to succeed if [efforts to combat threats] had begun earlier” (p. 437). This shows that because of the relative recency of each threat, the success of effectively dealing with each threat would be different. Therefore, the contrasts in how the two threats are dealt with can also be attributed to the scale and enormity of each threat.
In conclusion, although the widespread pollution and mass infertility in Gilead would have been obvious red flags for viewers of The Handmaid’s Tale who would wonder why the characters did nothing to combat this threat, assessing this threat based on Diamond’s road map would help to rationalize the inaction of the characters with regard to the looming chemical apocalypse. Likewise, the Diamond text can help us understand why the characters respond much more urgently to the oppressive government threat. An understanding of why this is the case in The Handmaid’s Tale could help us draw parallels to our own societies in how we choose to respond to or ignore certain threats, and avoid what Diamond terms the highly probable “collapse” of our society.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. London: Penguin Books.
Miller, B. (Producer). (2017). The Handmaid’s Tale. [Television Series]. Toronto, ON: MGM