A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid’s Tale has already come true – just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

***

Now listen to a discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale on the NS pop culture podcast:

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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My son is shivering – precisely the response you want from a boy newly excited by drama

I can only assume theatre is in his blood, but not from my side of the family.

I went to the National Theatre last week to see, not a full production, but a reading of a play – Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, directed by, and starring, the writer himself. The pre-publicity described the play as a “big, bold and riotous look at gender, drag and fabulousness”, in which “the House of Light competes with the House of Diabolique for drag family supremacy at the Cinderella Ball”. It lived up to this thrilling billing, transcending the modest expectations of a “read-through” and bursting into vivid life on the stage. The audience, less subdued, less thoroughly straight and white than a standard West End theatre crowd, rose to the occasion, whooping their approval and leaping to their feet at the end in a genuinely rousing and moved ovation.

It was a great evening, and came hot on the heels of another success only two weeks ago, when Ben and I took our youngest to see Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The boy is only 16, and freshly into drama, so it felt risky taking him to a new play. But we needn’t have worried. The piece is visceral and physical, set in County Armagh in 1981; against the backdrop of the hunger strikes, it tells a story of the long reach of the IRA, and even though the boy needs some of the history explaining to him, when I turn to him at the end of the final, shocking scene, he says: “I am actually shivering.” Which is presumably the precise response you would want to get out of a 16-year-old boy, poised on the brink of being excited about drama.

But theatre isn’t always exciting, is it? Let’s be honest. Ben and I have slunk out of too many intervals, bored witless by something flat and stagey, so I chalk these two latest experiences up as something of a triumph.

I didn’t even know the boy was so into theatre until I saw him on stage this year in a school production of Enron. He only had a small part, but still had to come to the very front of the stage, alone in a spotlight, and deliver a monologue in a Texan accent. And seeing him out of context like this, I nearly fell off my seat with the jolt of dislocation, almost not recognising him as my own son. Who knew he could do a Texan accent? (He’d practised for hours in the bathroom, he told me later.) And when did he get so tall? And so handsome? I see him every day and yet all I could think, seeing him up there on stage, was: “Who on earth IS this lanky six footer with the Hollywood smile, making eye contact and connecting with the audience in a way I never could in 20 years of gigs?”

I can only assume it is in his blood, and has come from Ben’s side of the family. Ben was studying drama at Hull when I met him; indeed the first time I saw him with his clothes off was on stage, in a production of The Winter’s Tale where the director, somewhat sadistically I thought, lined up a chorus of young men to be dancing satyrs, and made them strip down to nothing but giant codpieces. We’d only just started dating, so it was quite the introduction to my new boyfriend’s body.

Theatre was in his blood, too, inherited from his mother, and he was always confident on stage, enjoying the presence and feedback of an audience, which is why he still plays live and I don’t. His mother had been an actress, performing with John Gielgud and co at the Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon, until her career was cut short by having a child, and then triplets. At her funeral a couple of years ago we listened to a recording of her RADA audition from the 1940s, in which she performed one of Lady Macbeth’s speeches, her cut-glass English tones, declamatory and dramatic, in many ways every bit as fabulous and flamboyant as the drag queens in Wig Out!, whose theatricality she would have adored. She loved the stage, and she loved fame, and when it couldn’t be hers she revelled instead in mine and Ben’s, keeping every press cutting, wearing all the T-shirts, coming to every back-stage party. If it couldn’t be the spotlight, then the wings would do, darling.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder