The debut season of Hulu’s Emmy-nominated series The Handmaid’s Tale caught the attention of lovers of dark suspense thrillers and poignant social commentary last year. Some say the series seems all too relevant considering the current political climate, given the attacks on reproductive freedom and protections for marginalized communities that have brought fringe political groups into the mainstream. The show took the internet by storm, attracting lit majors and everyday feminists alike, and this week’s premiere of season 2 of the Margaret Atwood classic-turned-series is expected to exceed fans’ expectations.
As we gear up for the next few days of binge-watching the new season, it seems appropriate to reflect on one of the first season’s strongest points. The Handmaid’s Tale managed to spark a nationwide, public dialogue about a topic often considered too personal to share publicly: infertility.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a dystopian version of the U.S. where the religious far-right has overthrown the government and established a theocratic governing system based on (cherry picked verses of) the Bible with a large focus on fertility and gender essentialism. As climate change and exposure to toxic chemicals have caused most of the U.S.’s population to become infertile, a woman’s fertility becomes her most important trait in an effort to “save” Gilead’s population from extinction.
In Gilead, all women are prohibited from consuming any media, including reading. Trans and queer women are sent to labor colonies or executed for being “gender traitors.” Poor or somehow deviant fertile, cisgender women are enslaved as Handmaids to serve as surrogates to rich, cisgender, infertile women who are wives to powerful men called Commanders. The series follows the story of June—renamed Offred after becoming a Handmaid against her will—as she serves Fred and Serena Joy, two of the masterminds behind the implementation of Gilead’s theocracy.
Fred and Serena Joy attempt to impregnate June in monthly “ceremonies,” where Fred rapes June as her head rests between Serena Joy’s legs. They read Bible verses and pray beforehand, and he is prohibited from touching June or making eye contact throughout. If June refuses, breaks the rules, or takes too many tries to become pregnant, she could be banished to the colonies or even executed.
Men are never thought to be the infertile ones in Gilead, so it’s always the woman’s “fault.” From taking all the blame in silence to being forced to watch their monogamous partners have forcible intercourse with another woman once a month, Gilead’s women bear the emotional weight of fertility struggles. This kind of isolation is not uncommon for people struggling with fertility, even for those of us who have struggled with our reproductive health today.
In an essay for Romper, Megan Zander explains: “Even if you or someone you know has dealt with fertility issues, it’s still not something we talk about openly in society. Infertility is one of those words people whisper behind closed doors, as if saying the words ‘I can’t get pregnant’ aloud will cause the condition to spread like a virus.”
Since fertility in Gilead is treated as a scarce resource, the women long for the “privilege” of carrying a pregnancy to term. We see that in both the Handmaids’ excitement when one of them gets pregnant, and in the way the Commanders’ wives co-opt their experiences. Whether it’s an organic feeling or one prescribed by social pressures, this longing for an experience is relatable to both the women of Gilead and actual people struggling with fertility in reality.
Zander calls on her own experiences with fertility struggles to empathize with Serena Joy, despite her obvious position in Gilead as an oppressor:
“My own twins were born as the result of IVF and other advanced reproductive technologies and I can assure you, they’re just like the babies my girlfriends had after doing things in the bedroom. But our society feels it necessary to make the distinction, which is why so many women undergo infertility treatments without talking about them. In that way, Serena’s desire to keep Offred out of sight and mind is not that far off from the reality of women who struggle to keep their fertility issues a secret.”
It’s certainly a complicated feeling of empathy. I know the role Serena Joy played in implementing such a horrible, oppressive system. But I also understand the internalized misogyny and gender essentialism that links the worth of a person with a uterus to their childbearing capabilities. As someone who has faced some serious, traumatizing reproductive health problems, Gilead is, quite literally, my worst nightmare, where I would be seen as having less value as a partner and a member of society at-large because of a flaw in my body that I had no control over.
I don’t agree with Serena Joy’s coping mechanisms—like writing books about women’s moral obligation to bear children, or encouraging her husband to overthrow the government and begin a worldwide sex slave trade—but I really do get how heartbreaking and lonely it is to find out you’re unable to do this the one thing women are so “blessed” to be able to do. Breaking cycles of internalized misogyny like this and challenging the status quo is unspeakably difficult, and Serena Joy is a cautionary tale of what could happen when people fall in line with myths and social constructs rooted in oppression instead of challenging them.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, surrogacy expert Sharon LaMothe reminds us of religion’s influence in The Handmaid’s Tale and the narrative that drives the story. The myths and stigma that drive the fertility essentialism idea are meant to devalue women in Gilead. This motive rings true for people stigmatized by infertility in and beyond the U.S., but Gilead’s methods are motivated by their religious roots.
LaMothe explains: “Because this book was written in 1985, Louise Joy Brown (the first “test tube” baby) was only seven years old and IVF was still being perfected. The first gestational surrogacy was achieved in 1986. I mention this because HMT’s ‘world’ could have used science. But for the sake of the book, religion comes into play. I am sure, out of all the readers, Christians should be the ones triggered. It relies heavily on the Bible and warping the biblical passages to a degree that serves the men in charge.”
But this rejection of scientific advances as a solution to reproductive health problems rings true, too. Most obviously, there’s the religious right’s rejection of birth control as a legitimate form of medicine, but stigma extends far beyond the radical minority. For instance, my own treatment for my reproductive health problems has stopped me from getting my period. It is perfectly healthy and safe, and healing from my illness has been extremely liberating. And still, I couldn’t even count the number of times my “feminist” friends have called my situation “weird” or asked questions like “doesn’t it feel abnormal that your body doesn’t do this thing it’s supposed to anymore?”
In that same interview with the Post, Lisa Rosenthal of Reproductive Medical Associates of Connecticut takes The Handmaid’s Tale’s connections to modern fertility struggles even further. She explains that, although fertile people across the world aren’t necessarily enslaved like the women in Gilead, fertility is often exploited as a profitable good already under the guise of “choice.” Just as the women of Gilead are seen as an exportable good, surrogates across the world are already being exploited for their bodies’ abilities. But when money is involved and surrogacy is often a transaction between upper- and middle-class white people and poorer women of color, Rosenthal equates the financial needs of surrogates today to the need for Handmaid’s to survive in their roles.
“When the choice is between life and death, is it really a choice?” she asks. “When someone is paid $8,000 for eggs or $20,000 and up for carrying a baby, and that’s going to keep their family afloat for a year; that’s a degree of separation that’s uncomfortable for most of us.”
In just 10 episodes, The Handmaid’s Tale has managed to start a long-needed, difficult conversation surrounding reproductive health stigmatization and its intersection with identity, social status, and gender perception. Although critics have pointed out the show’s poor handling of race, it’s easy to see how race would further complicate the power structures presented in Gilead. We’re forced to consider global class and race dynamics as the possibility of an international handmaid trade takes shape, but the show fails to dive into in any kind of detail.
We have a long way to go when it comes to destigmatizing struggles with fertility and reproductive health—and making sure women of color are at the forefront of these conversations—but perhaps the dystopian fate shown to us in The Handmaid’s Tale, however imperfectly, will catalyze the conversations we need to get there.