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Motherhood as an economic resource

· ​Only a novel? ·

At the origin of the whole story is the collapse of the birth curve. Atmospheric pollution has rendered a large number of women, and also of men, infertile, although the fault is widely attributed to women. A deathly silence prevails in the maternity wards. A newborn baby’s wail may occasionally be heard, but everyone knows that the child’s possibilities of survival are in any case slim. Sometimes, when she hears the cry of another newborn infant, a young mother who has just lost her own child is precipitated into insanity. As the sense of anguish increases in society, a group of fundamentalists of “Christian reconstruction” dream of a new world, Gilead, founded on rigid moral values established by a distorted fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. The Sons of Jacob build this new world through a perverse system in which couples of Commanders, in whose hands power and wealth are concentrated, take on slaves and in particular surrogate mothers, the famous Handmaids, dressed in red. These young women are obliged to redeem themselves by working for the common good; in short, salvation is proposed to them with a pistol held to their temples. Instead of being a utopia, Gilead is totalitarian, hence a true hell, very far from being the start of paradise.

An illustration by Rebekka Dunlap for the “New York Post”

In the United States The Handmaid’s Tale has become such a cultural and political phenomenon that the novel has been turned into a manifesto. Women wearing red brandish it at demonstrations. The series based on the novel and broadcast in 2017 on an American streaming platform met with such international success that it swept the board at the celebrated Emmy Awards carrying off at least five prizes. There is incredible enthusiasm for this novel published in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, a writer who specializes in the dystopic genre. And, with a few exceptions, the series has remained fairly faithful to the novel.

The story, deeply gloomy and violent in the novel and even more so in the images of the televised series, is recounted from the viewpoint of June, one of the surrogate mothers who finds the strength to face her condition as a servant by recalling the memories of her life before she was kidnapped and reduced to slavery, when she was married to a man she loved and with whom she had had a daughter. June works at the Waterfords. She is no longer called June but Offred, [Of Fred], the property of Fred Waterford. Every month she has to suffer rape in the Waterford’s matrimonial bedroom following a ritual marked by the reading of the biblical account of the story of Sarah who, unable to bear children, offers her servant Hagar to her husband Abraham. And since the regime meticulously executes priests and pastors, the voices ready to speak out against this crazy interpretation of religious texts are now few. Some women, and this may be the most appalling aspect, are accomplices of the system that makes slaves of their peers. This is the case of Serena Joy, June’s “mistress”. Going grey in the book, a Hitchcockian blonde in the series but always Machiavellian, she has written an essay on fertility as the true source of a state’s economic wealth. In this essay Serena Joy has conceptualized the politico-economic utopia of Gilead, providing the slave trade with a pseudo-humanist and spiritual justification. However, she has also woven the canvas now in question. For in Gilead women like Serena Joy Waterford, wives of high-ranking officials, exist solely because of their ability to bring a child into the world no matter what means they use. Like the handmaids, they have no access to books. The former, if they are not pregnant, live under the threat of being sent to the Colonies, post-apocalyptic places, to clean up radioactive waste with their bare hands. If they are pregnant, they are treated like show animals. Their diet is strictly controlled, as indeed it is in the clinics for surrogate mothers which already exist in various parts of the world. The handmaids give birth on the knees of their mistresses, who, in a tragic parody, imitate their panting and pushing in real time, in order to recover the newborn child at the end of the birth and subsequently to take the place in the bed of the woman who has had the baby. The handmaid sees her child for only a few weeks, the time it takes to wean the baby after breastfeeding it. She is then consigned to another couple who are waiting to have a child.

This series deals in an extreme manner with the link between surrogate motherhood and the slave trade: in this transaction can the surrogate mother be considered something other than an object? And what about the baby? Symptomatically in Gilead the infants are as silent as they have been longed for. They are shown off, but are not truly looked at and even less listened to. The Masters guarantee that they will have beautiful lives, comfortable and full of opportunities. Everyone speaks for them but no one thinks of letting them speak. Surrogate mothers do not have the right to abandon themselves to grief because they have done what they did, so to speak, in the name of good: their emotions must be inhibited.

And yet these emotions seethe within them like the lava in a volcano ready to explode: they are tormented during pregnancy at the thought that the child they bear in their womb will be taken from them at birth, they feel anguish at the thought of the separation. A mirror image of this suffering is the malaise of those who have recourse to a surrogate mother, torn between gratitude and resentment. The surrogate mother, since she is a “bearer”, is already no longer a mother: indeed the transaction breaks the link by force. The handmaids are officially a cause of national pride for Gilead. In fact, however, they are merely an economic resource which the Masters – with deep cynicism – commercialize with other countries, hit in their turn by the birth crisis. The handmaids are a market. Their lives are a means of production. Everything in this totalitarian state is instrumentalized, as is religion, reduced to the level of a cosmetic used to put pleasing make up on the horrendous face of human exploitation. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. An ideal society is so only for a few”. 

Marie-Lucile Kubacki




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 14, 2019