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A response to Mark Azzara’s “An America run amok”

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By Neil Schindler

Dear Mark,

In your article “An America run amok,” about the novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the Hulu series based on it, you declare: “Atwood and Hollywood are a match made in hell.” I’ve read the book and have seen much of the series’ first season. Based on the sheer visual craft and stellar acting on display, not to mention many provocative changes and additions to the novel’s simple story, I disagree. Hollywood has, if anything, helped flesh out the bare-bones 1985 book and produced a few set pieces — the government crackdown on the protest; Ofglen’s delirious vehicular attack — that are hard to shake, and hard to forget.

Of book and show, you write: “Both are sufficiently ‘familiar’ with Christianity and Christians to feel free to show contempt not just to individual Christians but also our faith. Their bias is leaking out of every pore.” I’d say the series does what much dystopian fiction does: It takes contemporary threads — cultural, political, religious — and pulls them to extreme places until the cruel, dark world depicted is terrifying.

If dystopia is done well, then bits of today’s world, its trends and currents, remain visible in the trash fire of a future it projects. I find this to be true of “The Handmaid’s Tale” inasmuch as the current American government, along with some state governments, seems dead set on denying women whatever rights it can wrest from them, including reproductive rights and the right to access affordable health care in general. Elites bending a put-upon subclass to their weird will? We’re moving in that direction, my friend.

You then invoke an aspect of the show that my wife and I talked about before I read your article, and which has been ardently discussed in entertainment-critic circles as well. You write: “In the TV series, however, women of color are among the handmaids, out of fear that the show would otherwise be deemed racist.” I agree that it’s a bit strange for the show to have scrapped the book’s pairing of institutionalized misogyny with structural racism. Seeing black and Asian commanders strolling along beside their white counterparts, as occurs in the series, doesn’t fit the concept of Gilead I thought the book communicated.

Yet your suggestion that this change was nothing more than an attempt on the showrunners’ part to avoid accusations of racism is more speculation than fact. Here’s Bruce Miller, the show’s creator, talking to a writer from the website TVLine about that very subject:

Asked about that deviation from the novel, executive producer Bruce Miller tells TVLine it was “a huge discussion with Margaret Atwood, and in some ways it is ‘TV vs. book’ thing.” After all, on the printed page, “It’s easy to say ‘they sent off all the people of color,’ but seeing it all the time on a TV show is harder.

“Also, honestly,” he adds, “what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering [the story of handmaid Offred, played by Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?”

Also supporting the decision to have black handmaids, “The evangelical movement has gotten a lot more integrated” in the decades since the book was published, Miller notes. But perhaps the biggest driver behind the change — the one that made sense, story-wise — is the fact that given the setting’s dire birth rates, “I made the decision that fertility trumped everything,” the EP shares.

On my own, before reading this quotation from Miller, I had come to the same conclusion: Fertility was so desperately in demand that the TV version of Gilead decided, as white supremacist societies often have over the centuries, to permit people of color to occupy roles that ultimately still serve the ruling powers. That’s not a huge stretch, and in its totality, Miller’s reasoning is a lot more complicated than what you posit, which is that political correctness forced his hand.

Following the line of your logic regarding Miller’s decision to integrate Gilead, you write: “What the producers may be saying, hypocritically, is that they don’t want to stereotype all Americans as racist. Why? They’ve stereotyped all Christians!” This is a story about America. America is predominantly Christian — not just statistically, in terms of the number of adherents, but also culturally. Try being a Jew or a Muslim, or for that matter a Buddhist, in Spokane, and then tell me Christianity isn’t a sociocultural juggernaut.

If this were a story about Saudi Arabia, or any other majority-Muslim nation, then Islam would be the faith tradition used to critique fundamentalism. But in the U.S. it’s Christianity. Atwood is Canadian; she presumably wanted to write about a culture she had observed closely but still had some distance from. And while her native land isn’t perfect, consider America’s dramatic contradictions: a diverse, pluralistic country nonetheless viewed by many as Christian; the world’s policeman but also a criminal, with a record that includes slavery, World War II internment camps, etc., not to mention whatever Faustian bargains we’re currently cooking up; and a nation with puritanical roots that’s ridiculously prudish about sex yet hunky-dory with violence and endlessly obsessed with guns.

Canada has its flaws, but for a dystopianist, America is red meat. And one thing America decidedly is is majority-Christian. One listen to Moody Radio or the American Christian Network’s more extreme programs will assure you of that, while also trying to convince you that Muslims, LGBTQ people and “far-left secular progressives” are the causes of countless national ills. Those beats wouldn’t sound entirely foreign to Gileadean ears. And I suspect some of these shows have a whole lot of U.S. listeners nodding along.

Regarding one of the book and show’s most memorable components — the bizarre procreation triangle that puts commander, wife and handmaid in the same room once a month for ritualistic (and non-consensual) intercourse — you ask: “Having rewritten one key element of Atwood’s story, couldn’t they also have altered the part about rape? Artificial insemination has come a long way since 1985. Couldn’t they have utilized that method of impregnating women rather than to persist in portraying Gilead’s Christian male elite as rapists?”

Again, I think you’re taking personally, or at least getting defensive about, something that follows logically from the world that both book and series build. Gilead is about (its leaders’ idea of) biblical purism. The Bible didn’t prescribe artificial insemination when a woman’s fertility was in doubt, because artificial insemination didn’t exist back then. The Bible prescribed handmaids. And the book and TV show are critiquing literalism that props up religious fundamentalism. Considering what comes out of some politicians’ mouths — and yes, they’re usually conservative Christians — I see that critique as all too relevant today.

You continue by edging dangerously close to a big talking point in conservative Christian media: Not only are Christians being persecuted and even murdered in parts of the world where they’re a small minority, they’re also persecuted right here in the good ol’ U.S.A., where they’re a huge majority and occupy hundreds of seats in Congress, not to mention the office of the vice president and multiple influential Cabinet positions. You ask rhetorically: “But why work to find a believable enemy when you can simply pick on Christians, who are the easy, default choice when artists need a whipping boy?”

Sorry, but you’re no whipping boy. You influence the culture tremendously. Wealthy businesspeople are also an “easy, default choice” when an antagonist is needed in American films, books, etc., but that doesn’t mean successful businesspeople are a persecuted class. It does, however, reflect America’s weird love-hate relationship with capitalism: We’re high on the American dream of upward mobility, but as soon as the system that supposedly rewards hard work more than inborn privilege screws over a mom-and-pop shop, then suddenly it’s the devil, horns and all.

America also has a strange, and sometimes problematic, relationship with Christianity — or at least a popular, conservative and mainstream version of it. Or maybe that form of Christianity has a strange, problematic relationship with America. Either way, Christians aren’t inherently good or bad; they’re not a monolith.

Historically, Christianity has been used to rationalize a lot of bad behavior. In dystopian fiction like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it is made to answer for some of that. Same with any film, book or TV show that depicts American racism starkly. Whites aren’t uniformly bad, but white privilege and institutional racism are real things, and they’re very harmful. Even generally nice white people can be racist. It’s not — pardon the expression — black and white. A Christian would hopefully not take “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a personal affront any more than a white person would walk out of “13th” feeling personally insulted.

You also state: “A fundamentalist takeover as envisioned in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ thus would require some endorsement, verbally or tacitly, by the bulk of American Christians. That’s a real stretch.” You’re right — that’s what makes this series dystopian, not docudrama. But for the sake of argument: What’s one nonreligious reason to deny LGBT Americans equal rights, including protection against discrimination, as many state laws still do? What’s one nonreligious reason to outlaw abortion or make it virtually inaccessible, as some state laws have attempted and a significant number of lawmakers want to accomplish? Which faith’s conservative adherents are pushing in the greatest numbers for these types of laws?

Toward the end of your essay, you write: “We may not be good at loving, but we have made progress as Jesus’ followers. We have learned a lot about the horrors of racism, sexual abuse of minors and misogyny that have made headlines in modern America for decades.” You’re right. Christianity has evolved in many ways, branched out into progressive denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA) and actively fought bigotry within its own ranks. You really have made progress.

Accordingly, the series includes a nun, Christine, during the episode entitled “The Other Side,” who embodies what many Christians see as their religion’s best qualities. After being picked up by a ragtag band of anti-government rebels, a battered, injured Luke swears (understandably). Upon learning that he’s riding with a nun, he apologizes. Don’t worry about it, Christine tells him, “I think God has bigger things on his plate right now.”

Christine isn’t petty or dogmatic. However, she clearly believes in putting her life on the line for the cause of justice. One of the van’s passengers is gay; she fights for what’s right alongside him. Does she disapprove of his orientation? If so, she doesn’t say a peep about it. What she does do is pray for Luke when he plans to head back into the fray in search of his wife and daughter. She’s a Christian, all right. She just isn’t a power-hungry, sadistic fundamentalist, like many of Gilead’s rulers as well as some of the “aunts” who train the handmaids after the revolution. Clearly, not all Christians, even in Gilead, are evildoers. Who knows how many more like Christine are fighting back?

For the most part, “The Handmaid’s Tale” reminds us that with great power comes great responsibility. Under Trump and Pence, and in the disquieting company of  every Christian GOP legislator who wants abortion to be illegal and LGBT folks not to have equal rights, it’s American Christians, more than anyone else, who are responsible for ensuring that America — praised since its birth as a land of opportunity for all people — never even gets close to being like Gilead.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t a mean-spirited poke at American Christians so much as a needed jolt for a huge, and potentially complacent, special interest group. Christian values are American values only to a point. Christians get to legislate based on their values, but only to a point.

If you don’t want to marry someone of the same gender as you, don’t. If you don’t want to use birth control, or get an abortion, refrain from doing those things. But don’t impose your sincerely held religious beliefs on the rest of us in the form of legislation. That way lies madness, and maybe also the seeds of theocracy.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest for 14 years. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services and also works as a copy editor at the Spokesman-Review. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, baby son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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