Blog post

Pregnancy and the Handmaid Dystopia

Sophie Lewis offers a critique of surrogacy as it is described in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Sophie Lewis 4 June 2019

Louise Bourgeois, 'Pregnant Woman' series, 2009

Armed policing of productive wombs; inseminations carried out through state-sanctioned ritual rape; newborns systematically expropriated by the gentry: the most widely known “pregnancy dystopia” of our times is Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In Gilead, Atwood’s fictional setting, human sexuation is neatly dimorphic and cisgendered—but that is apparently not what’s meant to be dystopian about it. It’s the “surrogacy.” With its vision of forced surrogacy, the Tale is many people’s favorite sci-fi account of a totalitarian American regime, and by far the most popular analogy for the Trump regime among academics and op-eds alike. This is unsurprising: The Handmaid’s Tale neatly reproduces a wishful scenario at least as old as feminism itself. Cisgender womanhood, united without regard to class, race, or colonialism, can blame all its woes on evil religious fundamentalists with guns.

A reminder of the basics: drastic infertility has struck. A cult has staged a coup, and its paramilitaries are controlling, as chattel, the few fertile people remaining (who are, by definition, women), since the new government has taken the view that babymaking must be intensively husbanded. These Handmaids, formerly American citizens, are being brutally indoctrinated, disciplined, and forced into private gestational service for the property-owning couples of the new society. Downplaying, however, the class dynamics of fascism, Atwood’s narrative centers on what is often framed as “universal” agony: the separation of a mother from her daughter, on the one hand, and a human being’s coerced use as a breeder, on the other. Two excellent demands could actually readily be extrapolated from this, namely, the first two axioms of the Reproductive Justice movement’s credo: the right not to be pregnant and the right to parent one’s children in a safe environment. It is regrettable that the progressive fans of The Handmaid’s Tale have on the whole been inspired to shout mostly about the former while omitting to campaign around the latter.

Yet it is also understandable, since affluent white contemporary feminists like me are none too often made aware of the racist-misogynist formation Asha Nadkarni calls “eugenic feminism,” which is our legacy. As cleansers and uplifters of the modern human race, many pioneers of female suffrage throughout the nineteenth century cultivated a productive maternity among white elites on both sides of the Atlantic while simultaneously suppressing an imaginary hyperfecundity (that is, excess production of babies) among subaltern classes, which they perceived as threatening. Eugenic feminism’s heart beats still in campaigns of the kind endorsed by Barbara Bush, targeting “overpopulation” through uncontroversial social policy goods like “education for women” (because, it is implied, it is the poor women’s kids who are the problem, and which could only be the result of a lack of education). Unabashed Euro-American neofascists might be the only ones willing to frame the declining “domestic” birth rate in rich nations in terms of “white genocide” explicitly, but close cousins of their xenophobic anxieties pop up often in mainstream discussions of the sacrifices (of liberalism) that might have to be made in order to curtail the crowding of earth.

Supposedly nonracist, universalist concerns about quality of life slip, easily, into competitive latter-day- imperial worries about being overtaken, overrun. Somehow, with the exception of a few self-important millenarians fond of trumpeting their intention to voluntarily go extinct, the phenomenon of the “objectively” crowded earth (not good for any of us!) is always imagined “out there.” And it is this anxious fantasy that is literalized in Atwood’s sterility apocalypse. Just as birth rates really are plummeting among citizens in many parts of the Global North—areas prone to complaining about the very “migrant crisis” that is saving them from demographic decline—the biological “necessity” that is supposed to justify “sacrifices” in Gilead is the flip-side of the coin of overcrowding. Other nations may be succeeding at reproducing themselves, but a catastrophic fertility crisis has struck at home. The fictional world of Gilead provides a space in which modern-day xenophobic and eugenic feminisms can covertly indulge the logic of a First World national natalist imperative. Meanwhile, the novel’s memoiristic conceit conveniently serves to distance its author from what Rebekah Sheldon has called its “wolfish premise that all survival comes coupled to harm,” and justifies the limiting of Atwood’s ecological vision to one nation-state.

Atwood’s cautionary version of America remains populated by men of different ranks but, above all, it distinguishes itself through subdivision of its subjugated sex-class into castes: not only Handmaids (indentured surrogate gestators) but Marthas (cooks and cleaners to the gentry), Jezebels (illicit sexual services), Unwomen (deportees doing hard labor in the colonies), and “Econowives.” The latter lowly class of multitaskers, and thus the question of class as a whole, were disappeared from the 2017 series, along with all trace of white supremacy. This decision did not escape the notice of critics who had long recognized, even in Atwood’s original premise, a de-raced slave narrative. Borrowing the historical experience of forced surrogacy from the American plantation, Atwood had, they said, clearly adapted its emotiveness for the purposes of a color-blind—white—feminism. At least the original novel had referred to Gilead’s eugenic purging of the tacitly African “Children of Ham,” thereby demonstrating some recognition of the racial character of reproductive stratification as elaborated through the Middle Passage. In 2017, Hulu series director Bruce Miller took blithe erasure of black women’s historic connection with surrogacy to the next level. Announcing that he had “simplified” the story, Miller presented an image of a society with no race, class, or history: a society in which “fertility trumps all.” His interpretation of Gilead, he said, is “diverse” and “postracist”; there, the value of this thing “fertility” is somehow completely abstract. Remarkably, he and his cast went on to publicly disavow even the word “feminist.”

Nevertheless, the alarum “We are living in The Handmaid’s Tale” became the refrain of an infinite number of “women against Trump” tweets and opinion pieces on the state of reproductive health care and institutional sexism. The mere existence of (commercial) gestational surrogates anywhere on earth was referenced in these breathless announcements as “proof” that Atwood’s “prediction” had “come true.” Eventually, a striking revelation did provide a portion of plausible grist to this mill, in the form of far-right Republican US Congressman Trent Franks. A former oilman, religious zealot, millionaire, and founder of the hard-line anti-abortion Arizona Family Research Institute, Franks resigned from office in December 2017, admitting that he had tried to pressure “two previous female subordinates” into bearing a baby for him. Unrelatedly, Mr. Franks and his wife had previously commissioned a self-advertising gestational carrier for twins via in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer (the average going rate for this being, in America, about $50,000). The proposition before the “subordinates” in his office, on the other hand, clearly involved achieving conception through sexual intercourse with Trent Franks, with a view to eventually handing the baby over in exchange for $5 million. As one legal commentator translated: “that isn’t really a surrogacy arrangement. It’s more like an affair, where the man expects the mistress to give up rights to the child conceived from the situation.”

Even so, we are not yet living in The Handmaid’s Tale. People’s eagerness to assert that we are betokens nothing so much as wishful thinking. What do I mean by this? That, inasmuch as it promises that a “universal” (trans-erasive) feminist solidarity would automatically flourish in the worst of all possible worlds, the dystopia functions as a kind of utopia: a vision of the vast majority of women finally seeing the light and counting themselves as feminists because society has started systematically treating them all—not just black women—like chattel. My point is not that religious fundamentalisms don’t do real violence. They do, although I’m not sure this is unequivocally conveyed in the serialization, which takes lots of stylized pleasure in its chastity cos-play; its drawn-out torture scenes; the erotics of master/slave relationships; the mournful visual delight of wimples, veils, and cloaks assembling in rows and circles, commuting to and from their own ritual rapes in twos or single file. My point is that the pleasures of an extremist misogyny defined as womb-farming risk concealing from us what are simply slower and less photogenic forms of violence, such as race, class, and binary gender itself. Again, religious stalwarts are implicated in producing and reproducing these ills—but so are liberals and atheists, much though they prefer not to be reminded of it.

In 2017, Hillary Clinton–supporting Atwood fans’ reveries about indignant exodus north from Trump’s America complemented their other tendency: to point the finger of blame for social misery always away from themselves, at a sinister (male, Republican) other within. It is unsurprising, too, that the deluge of attention Atwood’s novel has garnered since 1985 overlaps (broadly speaking) with a resurgence of right-wing governance in the United States and of the corresponding meme among US progressives: “Let’s move to Canada.” What with its tacit positioning of Canada as the progressive sanctuary to which refugees from Gilead can flee, Anglo-American liberalism discovered in the Great Canadian Feminist Novel about America the perfect no-place in which it can play out its own (anti-totalitarian and anti-patriarchal but not anti-racist or anti-imperial or pro-trans) version of women’s struggle. In the mood created by The Handmaid’s Tale, fans can instrumentalize commercial gestational surrogates fleetingly as mascots for reproductive rights and quintessential victims of patriarchy, without ever feeling the need to engage a critique of capital. Politics would be much less challenging for liberal feminists—much easier for all of us, I dare say—if we were living in The Handmaid’s Tale.

- This is an excerpt from Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family by Sophie Lewis, 40% off until June 10 on our website. See more here.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Full Surrogacy Now
"Rooted in historical, site-based, narrative, and political accounts, Full Surrogacy Now is the seriously radical cry for full gestational justice that I long for. This kind of gestation depends on...