Thursday, May 11, 2017

Of Handmaids and Milkmaids and Normalizing Dystopia...

“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Like many people, I’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale series for the past couple of weeks with restless fingers that keep reaching up to cover my eyes but they're futile: I can’t look away. I read the novel in the 1980s when I was in college and while I’ve never re-read it, I remember how chillingly it read like a cautionary tale in an era when we saw the rise of the religious right, televangelism and the “return to traditional values.” In so many ways, with the November election fresh in our collective minds and the horrifying ascent of the white supremacist movement along with the revived threats to reproductive rights (among other things), we are now in the strange position of interpreting dystopian fiction as we free-fall into a new reality that feels more than a little dystopian itself. I sense that we haven’t even come close to landing yet. While watching The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017, I can’t help but think that the nightmarish future Margaret Atwood imagined has, in a matter of months, progressed from a cautionary tale to more of a not so far-fetched premonition, and that it would only take a perfect storm of environmental cataclysm and calculated opportunity for an order of patriarchal ideologues to construct a new United States with a blueprint that hews frightening close to her Republic of Gilead.

Did I mention yet that I am really an optimist? Despite this, it’s hard to not see the tyrannical writing on the wall and feel driven to take action. Call me melodramatic if you want but I’d rather be overwrought, and I don’t think I am, than in denial.

I was raised in an environment where tyrannical behavior was presented and construed as “normal,” and, as such, I am pretty tuned in to when it is happening around me. Much of the trajectory of my life has been about rejecting what is characterized as normal when it really is, in fact, oppressive or worse. As we can see from the last few months in the United States, things can skid from bad to downright scary in a very small window of time. Possibilities that would have seemed unthinkable even months before can become imminently imaginable; scenarios that would have recently seemed preposterous can begin to materialize with terrifying swiftness. For the first time in my life, I am beginning to see how something like 1930s Germany can happen and I am seeing it with a chilling clarity.

It is embedded into our species’ DNA that in order to thrive, we strive to conform to the societal norms as those who are outliers are much more vulnerable to threat or attack, both from inside and outside our Homo sapiens communities. Agreeing to comply with advancing the volition of the group is part of why our species has been so successful. This is also part of what compels us to normalize what is otherwise indefensible and part of why I think we may be wired to accept the unacceptable. A consequence of this drive to conform is groupthink, a real phenomenon that helps to explain why the human species not only repeats the same tragic mistakes throughout history but also why we are so vulnerable to tyranny, authoritarianism and despotic regimes despite the fact that we should know enough by this point to know it's in our collective best interests to avoid them. History is replete with lessons about what happens to those who make waves – they tend to be violently reviled by contemporaries and approved of with the safety of hindsight by future generations – and oppressors coolly take advantage of this instinct for self-survival with predictable adeptness again and again.

The revolt against our “new normal” is what we are seeing in the post-election United States and perhaps it is that fight that is really what stands between us and an authoritarian state. (This is not to claim that our “democracy” has ever been truly democratic, equitable and just for all citizens; I know that it has not.) Maybe our ultimate fight is internal: a deliberate cutting of those internal wires that allow us to default to accepting violence and tyranny as normal and preferable to not conforming.

There’s a vegan message here. Of course you knew that.

I will ask anyone who is watching The Handmaid’s Tale and alarmed by the similitudes to the current climate in the United States to consider what oppressions and cruelties we are complicit in normalizing every day. With cold calculation, dairy cows are forcibly impregnated on something referred to as a rape rack so we can have her calves’ milk. Almost always, her babies are taken from her as soon as they’ve had her colostrum - which is an economic decision, not an ethical one, because that is something with little market value and ensures a healthier calf-product - and after a day or two, she will never see her babies again. She is milked and milked and milked and milked and milked to create dairy, yogurt, cheese, butter, ice cream and so on until her production falls off, then she is re-impregnated and continues the cycle of birth, abrupt weaning and milk production until she is no longer considered financially viable, at about the age of four, when she is slaughtered to become cheap meat. She and her calves have existed entirely for human consumption. If female, her babies will live and die like their mother; if male, they are raised for veal or beef and, depending on the kind of flesh they are raised for, slaughtered at between 18 weeks to 18 months.

Is Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale, a woman who’s been turned into a docile, obedient breeding machine for the state and who has had her identity erased to the point where her name is changed to reflect her utter lack of sovereignty and agency, really that far-fetched? Of course, not every aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale can be applied to animal agribusiness but when this kind of malignant ownership is something we accept as “normal” for the lives of not only dairy cows but all the species we consume, how can we claim to not be colluding with the normalization of a brutal tyranny?

When we accept a tyranny that is normalized, we are complicit in also normalizing a barbaric hell on earth. Does The Handmaid’s Tale resonate with you? How can we be free when we still condone brutality?
I am a vegan and a feminist because I reject the normalization of dystopia. 


  1. Marla, this is spot on. I appreciate great writing. I only wish that the subject was fantasy, and not a terrible reality.

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  10. I had the very same thoughts as I am watching The Handmaid's Tale". I keep thinking of how this must be similar to life as an animal in the service of man. A dairy cow is a good example, as is any other animal whose will has been totally conscripted to the service of man. I have heard others compare this story to the life of a slave, which is another good comparison. It is scary that it is a glimpse of what this country would be like under a Mike Pence religious regime! Glad to find your blog. I found it as I was looking for a photo to use for my blog along the same theme. Mind if I use your photo on my blog: I will give you credit for the photo. Thanks for your blog.


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