Today’s essay is a piece from Lynn Song, exploring biblical influences in the recent screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Here’s a bit about Lynn:
I was born in South Korea but lived in Auckland for my whole life. I am now done with my Bachelors of Fine Arts and Arts (art history) degree and thinking about taking a break before studying for Masters. I took Theorel 101 because I come from a family with different religious beliefs and had been religious myself before. I find it fascinating how much religion can impact people’s lives in very negative ways and was interested in proof-texting Bible and the idea of Bible as a cultural prop.
Here’s the essay, have a great day.
Looking into The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) for justification of Rape culture within the Bible
In this essay, I will be looking into the new Hulu TV series The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) to explore justification of ‘Rape culture’ shared within the Christian and Hebrew Bibles. The series sets place in a dystopian society named Gilead founded by religion-driven fascists government with authoritarian powers. The laws and systems of Gilead are taken from the Bible to justify their unethical political stances, and provides reason for why one must confront records of violence and encouragement of ‘rape culture’ within the Bible. The term ‘rape culture’ originated in the 1970s by American feminists to describe a culture that does not condone sexual violence while it is contrarily also accepted as a social norm by both men and women (Schulte 2). It links itself to broader patterns of misogyny and sexism rooted in the foundations of patriarchal culture, which supports and accepts rape as well as other forms of gender violence as the expression of sexuality (Blyth et al. 2). Therefore, in this essay, I will be looking into the normalization of rape culture within patriarchal culture exemplified in the Bible while looking into The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of its manifest.
The most iconic and disturbing scene of The Handmaid’s Tale is the ‘Ceremony’ scene that represents the core of the existence of Gilead and fits within the literal definition of ‘rape culture’. As mentioned above, Gilead is a totalitarian and dystopian nation formed to counter the global issue of low birth rates. Their solution requires looking into the Bible for answers of which the government is heavily inspired on the story of Jacob in Genesis, hence why militants of Gilead refers to themselves as ‘the Sons of Jacob’. Handmaids in Genesis are given to Leah and Rachel by their father as wedding presents of which they have complete authority over them, with both Rachel and Leah using their handmaids to increase the population of the Tribes of Israel (Genesis 30). Gilead incorporates Genesis almost literally into their laws and designates handmaids to all commanders and their barren wives so they can raise a child of their own. Once a month on a handmaid’s fertile days, they are forced to partake in a highly ritualized ceremony to be “seeded” by the commander while his wife constrains the handmaid’s arms between her legs. However, unlike Bilhah, who has no voice over the matter, June the protagonist and handmaid to Commander Fred and his wife Serena is given a voice to describe the horrific ‘Ceremony’. Through June, the viewers confirm themselves that this monthly ceremony which is propagandized as a holy event, is a justification of gang rape that is ignored and encouraged in Gilead as it is normalized in the Bible. First, the selected handmaids are brainwashed at the Rachel and Leah Centre by Aunt Lydia and other Aunts to indoctrinate handmaids in accepting their fates justified by the Bible. Secondly, prior to the rape of the handmaids, their respective commander reads a verse from Genesis 30:4 reminding them that the act is a religious practice, silencing the rights of the handmaids and any questions concerning consent. The scene highlights encouragement of ‘rape culture’ within Gilead, but it also reflects on our own societal values and norms on the concept of consent and sexual violence.
The rituals of the ‘Ceremony’, accentuates on the existence of patriarchy and misogyny within the Bible. By reading Genesis 30:4 before the act, Gilead blames the decreasing rate of birth rates on women rather than considering the infertility of men. This supports Schulte’s claims that a woman’s primary value in the biblical texts is her fertility (20). From analyzing the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34, one can find underlying misogynistic and patriarchal biblical laws around a woman’s virginity and as per its impact on our ‘rape culture’. The story of Dinah marginalizes Dinah’s experience as a rape victim by first, simplifying the act as “he took her and raped her” (Genesis 34:2). Secondly, by falling in love with Dinah after and demanding her as his wife to his father Hamor (Genesis 34:3-4). In addition, the men in the story talk of the rape as if Dinah had been “defiled” (Genesis 34:5,13,27) and resultantly agree to trade Dinah to her rapist in exchange for the women of Hivite (Genesis 34:15-16). The rapist Shechem’s excitement is demonstrated as he was “delighted with Jacob’s daughter” (Genesis 34:19), addressing Dinah as only “Jacob’s daughter” after he had raped her and forced her into marriage. And lastly, Jacob’s anger towards his sons Simeon and Levi for avenging their sister and putting their land in danger invokes a sexist response where they refer to Dinah as a “prostitute” (Genesis 34:30-31). In the whole chapter, Dinah is voiceless and her presence is only acknowledged by the male members of the two families. Schulte further points out that the ‘victim’ in the Bible isn’t the person who was sexually violated but the male family members who will suffer financial loss due to the loss of her virginity (7). This alludes to the notion that raping a virgin daughter is equivalent of robbing something of monetary value from her father or her brothers. This idea of monetary possession does not only apply to daughters but also wives of a man as the Decalogue lists wives amongst houses and animals of man’s possession, treating women as male property (13).
This underlying patriarchy is also applied in our social hegemony, as reflected in an extremist form of Gilead as well. The men are hierarchically superior to women as they are referred to as ‘Guardians of the Faith’ or ‘Commanders of the Faithful’ while women are categorized by their class, sexuality, and fertility into ‘Econowives’, ‘Handmaids’, ‘Marthas’ or ‘Unwomen’. Women have also been stripped off any ownership, rights, and jobs they previously possessed in order to meet the standards of Gilead. As previously stated, their values as women lie solely on their marriage and fertility. They are forbidden to read even the scriptures and are forced to learn and practice house maintenance as we see Serena spending her time. Serena is happily forced into her mere role as a supportive housewife but as Commander Cushing threatens their safety after the terrorist attack in the Red Centre, she takes charge and files a report framing Cushing as a traitor. She does this with the help of June, who was an editor in her former life before Gilead took over with the two women successfully eliminate Cushing as a threat. However, once Fred found out after his discharge, Serena is whipped to ‘discipline’ her for taking charge and acting by herself, shocking both June and Serena. This scene is reflective of the Whore of Babylon with her scarlet beast in Revelation 17, as her existence, power and authority contest the stability of the patriarchal culture (Blythe et al. 53). Serena had been ‘disciplined’ for her act of breaching male masculinity as she acted as an equal to her husband rather than being beneath him and within his care. The Bible enforces gender hierarchy from the beginning of the creation as Eve was created of Adam’s flesh to be his companion, therefore she is part of him and he holds ownership over her (84). Eve’s sole existence was to accommodate Adam, placing all women below men. By generating gender-specific stereotypes that associated women with negativity and evil, it rationalized the gender-biased treatment of women through misogyny.
The Jezebel scene of The Handmaid’s Tale mirrors the virgin/whore binaries as per the classification of women in the Bible. The ‘good’ women are sanctioned within Gilead, fulfilling the roles of Wives, Handmaids, and Marthas, whereas outside Gilead exists only the corrupted and ‘bad’ women of Jezebels and Unwomen. During Fred and June’s affair, Fred ‘splurges’ June with a gold dress that is not in blue, red, nor earthy tones as women of Gilead dress and dresses her up to take her outside Gilead to a secret brothel for the ‘Son of Jacobs’. June reunites with her friend Moira who had escaped Gilead at the beginning of her reformation, and was now living as a Jezebel in order to stay alive. However, despite human trafficking and sexual slavery, Jezebels are presented with a sense of freedom and liberation. Moira also explains most of Jezebels consist of educated females refusing to live sanctioned lives within Gilead, holding onto their freedom and individual autonomy. This brothel scene appears conflicting to all of Gilead’s values of holiness and pristine life as the Decalogue forbids adultery. It also accentuates societal binaries of women by requiring them to stay pure by valuing women’s virginity. This makes women feel worthless and dirty if they are no longer virgins before marriage, which in turn fuels the ‘rape culture’. This disassociation with the act of sexual intercourse forces unrealistic expectations of purity onto women as the men reimagine a sexual fantasy of pure submissiveness (Blythe et al 53).
From analyzing The Handmaid’s Tale in relation to the Hebrew and the Christian Bible, one can understand the fundamental values of patriarchy and misogyny. Women are treated as commodities of the patriarchal society as we see with Bilhah, Dinah, and June in order to retain power structures of male masculinity. The submissiveness of women below men is consistently ingrained within the Bible’s passages while Gilead is a modern example of misusing the Bible as a cultural prop to justify hatred and sexual violence.
Blyth, Caroline., et al., editors. Rape Culture, Gender Violence, & Religion. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
Joseph, Alison. “The Handmaid’s Tale as a Legitimate Reading of Genesis?.” The Shiloh Project: Rape culture, religion, and the Bible, 2017, https://shiloh-project.group.shef.ac.uk/the-handmaids-tale-as-a-legitimate-reading-of-genesis/
Keener, Craig S. “The Bible & Rape.” Journal of Christian Nursing, vol. 13, no. 2, 1996, pp. 29-31. Ovid, https://oce-ovid-com.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/article/00005217-199613020-00013
Nagouse, Emma. “Handmaids and Jezebels: Anaesthetising The Language of Sexual Violence.” The Shiloh Project: Rape culture, religion, and the Bible, 2017, https://shiloh-project.group.shef.ac.uk/handmaids-and-jezebels-anaesthetising-the-language-of-sexual-violence/
Schulte, Leah Rediger. “Defining Rape.” The Absence of God in Biblical Rape Narratives. Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2017. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1pwt85t.