Totalitarian Patriarchy Isn’t a Fantasy. It Looks Like This.

These stories imagine easily understood turning points at which it becomes clear that nothing will ever be the same. This is a failure of imagination.
A screenshot of Elisabeth Moss in the Handmaid's Tale
Image Source: The Handmaid's Tale

For decades, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has served not only as a liberal boogeyman but also a metonym for what America would be like if Roe v. Wade were overturned. It’s the story of a dystopia in which America has become a cultish theocracy and women are considered property; everything is recognizable, but starkly and fundamentally different than it is in our world. Unfortunately, we are already living in such a dystopia, and it turns out there's no before and after; the world can simply change around us, without many of us noticing.


We have been losing our right to accessible and safe abortions by inches for years. For nearly half a century, overturning this decision has been the primary project of the Republican Party, which never tried to hide it; 13 states already have laws that will trigger full abortion bans in preparation for a Supreme Court ruling overturning the right to bodily autonomy, with another 13 likely to effectively ban abortion. 

Although abortion is nominally legal, in many states it’s already almost impossible to get one. In Mississippi, there is only one abortion provider in the entire state, and the sheer number of legal restrictions, like the 24-hour waiting period and two-trip requirement, make access even more difficult. The sad truth is that there are already people in America who experience life as handmaids, completely beholden to those who’ve gotten them pregnant and unable to terminate their pregnancies.

In fantasy genre fiction, the specter of people who get pregnant being used primarily as living incubators is ever-present. In Game of Thrones, the rape and abuse of women was always at the forefront, with the implication that in general, women in that world are always under threat of being trapped in an abusive marriage by a powerful man and forced to bear him heirs. More commonly, transfiguration is involved—as in The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women who remember pre-theocratic America are consigned to lives as chattel. In the background of Dune, some women are biologically engineered into literal oversized wombs, while many others are resigned to their fate as wives or sires of powerful progeny. In Battlestar Galactica, evil androids enslave human women to use them as breeding machines in hideous experiments. In Bioware’s Dragon Age series, women captured by the Darkspawn are transformed into nightmarish “broodmothers” who continually birth new litters of monsters. 

The Handmaid's Tale is a story entirely about this baseline anxiety, the fear that women and other people who get pregnant can have their personhood revoked, either by the state or by more fantastical means. But where it and these other dystopian fictions fail is where they join up to reality, describing as they do lurid arrangements in which women are frequently transformed into literal machines in service of the patriarchy. This is a failure of imagination. The Republican Party didn’t need force to take away the right to abortion access, or to use technology to alter the body into hardware—they just needed to selectively interpret aspects of the Constitution and be patient enough to pack the Supreme Court with conservative judges. 

In the first episode of the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, the main character walks past hanging corpses, lynched for the crimes of being gay or being an abortion provider, reinforcing the fear of state violence. But you can very easily make these things a death sentence without enshrining that in law and rearranging society; you just have to ignore a pandemic that primarily affects gay communities, or make the people who murder doctors into cultural martyrs. The issue with stories like these is that they imagine, whether at the individual or the social level, easily understood before-and-after moments, turning points at which it becomes clear that nothing will ever be the same. 

If there was a before-and-after moment in the fight for abortion access, it happened at the same instant that Roe v. Wade was passed and an element of the Republican Party made it its mission to overturn it. Opposition to this ruling, despite whatever justification one may say they have, is only ever about controlling the bodies of people who can get pregnant, and enforcing a hierarchy that keeps a small percentage of wealthy white men on top. What’s the point of putting people in re-education camps when you can just erode their rights so slowly they don’t even know what’s being taken away from them? Why reorganize society into an explicit theocracy if you can pass a law that not only makes most forms of abortion illegal and also creates a bounty system to threaten the doctors who perform them? Watching scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale in which women have to ritualistically declare their own sexual assaults to be their own fault, feel particularly cruel now simply because these actions are already happening—just in sadder and more mundane ways.

If you’re looking for a signal for when society becomes unrecognizable, for when resistance becomes the only option, it is here. There isn’t a more obvious, more theatrical moment on the horizon. This is the theocracy that Atwood envisioned, and now is the time to actively resist it.