The Handmaid’s Tale: Traditional Gender Roles

(If you’re not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, either the TV series on Hulu or the 1984 novel by Margaret Atwood, here’s a five minute summary on YouTube. The TV series alters and adds a few details but remains true to the general themes and events of Atwood’s original book.)

In both the book and the Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale presents layers of challenging social, political, and theological issues. There’s lots of ground to cover but here I want to focus our attention on the use of traditional gender roles and the normalization of sexual violence in Gilead.

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photo: startle.com

Gilead is Not Mere Fiction

As a theocracy, Gilead justifies it’s societal use of strict, traditional gender roles by scripture. Yes, this emerging nation is radical in some ways, but Atwood crafted her novel from events and concepts already present in society or history.

The creation of Gilead was a religious and political reaction to the perceived decrease in traditional values (increase in pornography and prostitution), and other social/political/environmental tensions. Sound familiar? You may be able to name several examples of similar reactionary movements in world history. I’m thinking of one example in particular, the defense of conservative values in the 1970s-1990s in the U.S.

Gilead creates a hierarchy based on gender, but also for different women, which you can read more about here. Two distinct, integral roles, defined “biblically” by creative interpretation of Genesis 30:1-3, are the wives and handmaids.

  • Commander’s wives, the counterpart of Rachel, are considered the ideal picture of femininity: respectful (submissive) of their place under men’s power, often soft-spoken and gentile, and ready to assume motherhood through the rape of the Handmaid by her husband.
  • Handmaids, the counterpart of Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, are fertile, enslaved women forced with the task of child-bearing through a monthly ritual of non-consensual intercourse. Handmaids lose any identity or agency of their own and assume the names of their Commander. (The name Offred comes from “of Fred.”)

The roles for women in Gilead stem from examples found in a literal reading (and justification of) Genesis 30. The scriptures have been used like this to condone horrors such as the Crusades, the silence or secondary nature of women, slavery, colonization, homophobia, and nationalism, among other tragedies.

What will the scriptures be used for next?

Sexism in Gilead’s Traditional Gender Roles

If we were to observe Gilead’s traditionally male-led households and government, how do men use the power they have? All women are secondary to men in Gilead through both hostile and benevolent sexism. A majority, if not all, of women’s agency is lost in the radical submission to men. Consent does not exist.

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photo: cw.com

Here I’ve listed a few examples of traditional gender expectations in Gilead with an evangelical comparison:

  • Men hold ultimate influence over others: Commanders and other men dominate the household, government, and security forces. Major decisions are made by men.
    • John Piper and others warn repeatedly against the influence of women over men in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
    • “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
  • Identity is tied to the man: Handmaids are forced to surrender their old identities (names, families, vocations, often sexual orientations, etc.) and given the names of the men who regularly use (rape) them to procreate.
    • Not necessarily evangelical but women are expected to assume the name of their husband when they are married.
    • Deuteronomy 22:28-29 appears to encourage the marriage between a rapist and the survivor.
  • Women have no right to sexual agency or pleasure: Commanders and their wives do not appear to have sex with each other; Handmaids are to perform “their duty.” High ranking men have access to underground prostitutes. (The very thing that initiated the creation of Gilead.)
    • “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
    • [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)
  • Cruel mistreatment of women: A Commander punishes his own wife by cutting off one of her fingers for merely suggesting the idea that women learn to read the Bible. Others are given permission to physically beat, burn, electrocute, mutilate, or kill those who are disobedient, most of whom are women.
    • “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)

Do any of these demonstrations of male power sound familiar? These are examples of hostile and benevolent sexism that promote rape culture and normalize sexual violence against women.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder that not everything described as “biblical” is truly in agreement with the larger narrative of the Gospel.

Granted, this is not the only example we have of traditional gender roles in history, literature, or television. There are all kinds of experiences and theologies that inform this practice, some more healthy than others. Even so, research cannot ignore the numerous challenges associated between traditional gender norms and sexual violence.

Read more:

A New Study on Sexual Violence & Chanel Miller

(This post contains research and discussion centered on nonconsensual sex. Please read with caution and care for yourself.)

Today new research studying the impacts of forced sexual initiation was published. Read it for yourself, or at least the summary, here. Here are a few key points that stuck out to me.

  • “6.5% of respondents reported experiencing forced sexual initiation, equivalent to 3,351,733 women in this age group nationwide…” “Initiation” means a sexual debut or the first time someone has had sex. This study was focused on female survivors between 18 and 44 years old, even still it is important to remember data surrounding sexual violence may not be accurate. Experts estimate 3 out of 4 victims do not report.
  • “Age at forced sexual initiation averaged 15.6 years…The mean age of the partner/assailant at first sexual encounter was 6 years older for women with forced vs voluntary sexual initiation.” Please note the age difference between the rape victim and the assailant. It is alarming. This suggests a significant power dynamic, in social and legal status and perhaps also size and strength. RAINN reports that most perpetrators of sexual violence walk free.
  • When compared to those with voluntary sexual initiation, survivors of rape experience long term health consequences at a higher rate, such as unwanted first pregnancies, abortions, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and challenges with ovulation or menstruation.
  • In a brief conclusion the authors write, “These findings highlight the possible need for public health measures and sociocultural changes to prevent sexual violence, particularly forced sexual initiation.

I find this information both upsetting and deeply saddening. The data centers on only first-time sexual encounters that were forced — sexual debuts initiated by rape. Allow that to sink in. This study was completed just before the #MeToo movement was given a broader attention in October of 2017. This means the public conversation defining consent and sexual abuse had not quite picked up momentum and many victims had not reported or perhaps understood their experiences as rape. There are most likely many, many more victims than the 3.4 million already estimate in this study.

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photo: ny times

Also just before the most recent #MeToo movement, “Emily Doe,” or Chanel Miller, was fighting for recognition and justice after being assaulted and raped by Brock Turner. While in court, Turner received sympathy and a lenient sentence while Miller was left the damaging, long-term consequences of Turner’s violent actions against her.

Her story is important because it puts a name to the numbers and changed California’s law regarding minimum sentencing for sexual assault.

It also highlights the societal assumptions about sexual violence and perpetrators. Do we even recognize rape (or nonconsensual sex) when we see it? If they don’t remember the assault, is it still punishable? Do the consequences or impacts of jail time outweigh the impacts of rape? What if the perpetrator is a really great swimmer? How would the sentence differ if the perpetrator were not white? Who gets to define consent?

“Someday, you can pay me back for my ambulance ride and therapy. But you cannot give me back my sleepless nights. The way I have broken down sobbing uncontrollably if I’m watching a movie and a woman is harmed, to say it lightly, this experience has expanded my empathy for other victims. I have lost weight from stress, when people would comment I told them I’ve been running a lot lately. There are times I did not want to be touched. I have to relearn that I am not fragile, I am capable, I am wholesome, not just livid and weak.”

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”

“And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”

Chanel Miller, Victim Witness Statement

Read her full victim witness statement here. It is moving, informative, and very well written. Miller details what she remembers as well as the medical and legal process that followed. It is well worth your time. Her book comes out later this month.

So how do we address the proposed “public health measures” and “sociocultural changes”?

These are only a few broad strokes. The solution to this requires multicultural, interfaith and bi-partisan collaboration and community engagement. There are no easy answers or formulas but there is hope. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can make our homes, churches, and communities safe from violence.

Read more:

Impure: Female Sexuality in Purity Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Father-daughter purity balls, abstinence-only campaigns, Christian dating literature and Bible devotionals have implications not only on how a young girl is to interpret her role in her evangelical community but also significantly impacts her understanding of her own sexuality.

Power and control are the foundational elements of an abusive relationship. Purity culture uses these concepts, as well as fear, to (directly or indirectly) maintain male power over women. In terms of sexuality, the combination of these elements results in young girls and women being silenced and shamed for natural sexual desires.

photo: Tamara Bellis

Consent, or lack thereof.

Women have very little, if any, bodily autonomy within purity culture. As Dr. James Dobson was building his case against the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, Roe v. Wade argued for a woman’s right to privacy. Against this background, the sexual purity movement argued a woman’s body was not for herself but something to be given to others.

Fathers are tasked with the protection (or control) of their daughter’s sexual purity assuming that a virgin is one of the greatest gifts a husband can receive. (In Christian literature, the word virgin is most often associated with females.) Some even believe the father takes the place of a romantic partner, in a way, while his daughter waits for a spouse. The father protects his daughter’s gift and guards her heart (or hymen) with rituals, vows, rings, and exclusive modesty. The language of “gift,” used in many books like Ludy and Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story, denotes possession and ownership.

Especially in the context of courtship, the assumed heterosexual marriage relies on parental consent, although mothers are notably secondary or not present in similar literature. Marriage involves a transference of “protection” from father to husband. In this role, a wife is taught to be submissive to her husband’s authority and sexual urges, even by sacrificing her own sexual pleasure. Within marriage, consent is rarely defined or discussed, leaving lots of room for personal interpretation. Separation or independence from either her father or husband is viewed negatively and assumes her purity is at risk without male protection, meaning single or LGBTQ+ women do not fit in the prescribed box.

“A message that points to the marriage altar as the starting gate of God’s calling for women leaves us with nothing to tell them except that God’s purpose for them is not here and now, but somewhere down the road.”

Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church

The female body is treated like property of the system and property does not require consent. And while she may say “yes” or “no” to his marriage proposal and perhaps “I do” at the altar, the decision has already been made due to the power that rests in the hands of her father and potential husband, and perhaps even her pastor.

Fear of the female body and her libido.

Language of “purity” in this evangelical subculture attempts to expand upon the definition of virginity by including not only physical but also emotional purity. Myths encompass the female libido and body.

“Growing up within the purity movement, I was never taught about my own sexual response and sexual desire; I was only taught how to control the sexual response of the men around me.”

Amanda Barbee (Read her article, Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture here.)

Purity culture teaches it is unnatural for women to be sexually assertive or competent. Men are assumed to have “animalistic” libidos, while women are “passive” and prefer emotional intimacy. For females, their thoughts must be carefully shielded against emotional closeness and sexual desires, though these sexual desires are assumed to be a lesser struggle for them than for men. Constantly, young girls are told to “guard” their bodies, minds, and hearts from the sexual desires of themselves and others.

  • In “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” author Stepp believes only men should initiate sex. She suggests women find fulfillment in other areas, such as the kitchen or hospitality.
  • In Shalit’s book, “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” she argues women are naturally modest and pure, only to be corrupted by the world around them which tempts them to be sexual. Shalit does not believe female sexuality is healthy apart from marriage.
  • In Leslie Ludy’s blog and books, she suggests emotional intimacy is only for a husband. Impure thoughts must be confessed.

From very early ages their bodies are sexualized, objectified, and perceived as dangerous to the male gaze and assumed to threaten his ability to lead or fight. A woman’s reproductive functions have been interpreted as unclean and connected to the myth of “hysteria” or stereotypes of being “overly emotional.” Tertullian, an early Christian author, believed womanhood was essentially tied to destruction and sin, based on Eve’s actions. This idea has been carried into our world today, likely through benevolent sexism. If this is true, as the weaker spouse, women require male protection since they are more predisposed to sin. (This is theologically inaccurate.) If a woman steps outside of this protection, either by dressing “immodestly,” having sex outside the prescribed context, remaining single, or identifying as LGBTQ+, she is then assumed to be a threat to the group.

photo: Suad Kamardeen

Those who are single or LGBTQ+ are not the only ones cast aside in purity culture. Girls and women of color may have more challenges within purity culture than those who are considered white. Media surrounding sexual purity may appear as diverse but a second glance will prove “purity” is directly connected to youthful, slender, cisgender, white virgins. This narrow defintion is elevated above all others, which implies those outside this definition are predisposed to impurity. This contributes to the racist idea that whiteness is the default or “normal” standard in our society.

“To justify breeding, the institutionalized sanctioning of ongoing rape of enslaved black females to produce future laborers, white supremacist patriarchs had to position the black female in the cultural imagination as always “sexually suspect.” To make the black female body machine, vessel, was an act of dismemberment — a mutilation that ensured this group would always be seen as less than, as not really and truly worthy of desire…[White and black men] could dare to fantasize and/or enact sexual acts deemed degrading with black female bodies since it was impossible to ruin that which was perceived as inherently unworthy, tainted and soiled.”

bell hooks (Read her essay, Naked Without Shame: A Counter-Hegemonic Body Politic here.)

These assumptions were not extinguished with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement and have continued to be passed down in a variety of ways. I highly recommend bell hooks’ entire essay, as well as the work of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis.

Shame and silenced survivors.

Unless controlled by a father or husband, girls and women are taught to believe their sexualities are dangerous and their bodies cannot be trusted. Without bodily autonomy or an equal share of power — females are denied sexual pleasure.

“Yet taking the joy out of sexuality is a surefire way to ensure not that young women won’t have sex, but rather that they’ll have it without pleasure.”

Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth

Purity literature in evangelical circles rarely contrasts premarital sex and sexual violence. When combined with the common elements of rape culture, purity culture views sexual assault and rape as simply sex, and specifically sin if outside marriage. Victims/survivors become perceived of as sinners who have not lost their voice but their purity. These messages can be implicit, but others are direct. Dimarco, in “Technical Virgin,” argues women are always responsible for men’s lust and the resulting thoughts and actions.

“By accepting “boys will be boys” and excusing the behavior of perpetrators we alter the accepted definition of sexual violence to the detriment of those suffering. When this definition changes, sexual violence in its objective form cannot be reported, because it has been normalized by the community.”

Heather Hlavka (Read her article Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse here.)

If sexual violence is recognized for what it is, there is no structure to report abuse or to recover from various types of trauma. The abusive cycle of power, control, and fear can begin again as rape myths and victim blaming may overwhelm any chance of being heard and helped appropriately. Purity culture is abusive to female participants but especially to victims/survivors of sexual violence and single, LGBTQ+, and “minority” girls and women. Men also suffer, although in different ways. Sadly, anyone outside the patriarchal, heteronormative definition of “purity” is likely to feel the weight of myths, victim blaming, and other forms of hostility.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together;” 1 Corinthians 12:26

Read more in this series:

More resources:

Impure: Purity Culture is Rape Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of rape culture and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Research identifies rape culture, or a space where rape or sexual violence is normalized, by a few things: acceptance of myths about rape, victim blaming, traditional gender stereotypes, and hostile and benevolent sexism. Purity culture embraces many of these elements.

Rape Myth Acceptance

Rape myths are false beliefs about the definition of rape as well as the victim and rapist. Unfortunately, these myths can create an environment where perpetrators are often protected rather than victims/survivors. To my surprise, I found both men and women believe and promote these false beliefs.

Common rape myths:

  • “They were asking for it.”
  • “She could have resisted if she wanted to.”
  • “Only bad girls/boys get raped.”
  • “Rape only happens at night.”
  • “Your spouse can’t rape you.”

Myths in purity culture can be included in subtle themes or direct messaging. These false beliefs are not exhaustive, nor are the examples, but cover a broad range of purity culture’s doctrine.

  • Girls/women are responsible for boy’s/men’s sexual urges.
    • The double standard of modesty between males and females.
    • “A guy will have a tendency to treat you like you are dressed. If you are dressed like a flesh buffet, don’t be surprised when he treats you like a piece of meat.” (Lookadoo and DiMarco, Datable, p. 118)
  • Heterosexual marriage is a reality for everyone and will always result in amazing sex.
    • Almost all forms of purity culture literature and media convey this “foolproof” assumption about their audiences.
  • A woman’s worth or status is tied exclusively to her virginity.
    • Abstinence-only spaces refer to girls/women who have had premarital sex as second hand gum, dirty tape, a disheveled, unwanted rose, etc. Have you heard these examples?
  • Martial rape does not exist.
    • Spouses are often viewed as and spoken of as property.
    • Consent is rarely, if ever, defined clearly.
    • Women who say “no” are considered “selfish lovers” according to Mark and Grace Driscoll in their book, Real Marriage.
  • Victims of sexual violence are at fault and should repent.

If you’re interested in finding more specific examples of these messages in Christian literature these articles are helpful and straightforward:

Traditional Gender Stereotypes

(Gender roles, commonly referred to as either complementarian or egalitarian, are not clearly defined in the Bible. While inconclusive, both perspectives have scriptural merit. However, research has found traditional or complementarian gender stereotypes create a friendly environment for abuse and oppression. My goal is not to completely dismantle traditional ideals, but encourage all family structures to evaluate if the power dynamics in their home are helping each member of the marriage/family flourish in a safe and healthy space.)

photo: Benita Elizabeth

Gender roles, according to purity culture, are different but complementary. According to this train of thought, men and women have “biologically hardwired” mental/physical/spiritual differences at birth that serve different purposes in society. If you remember the fairy tale message, men are the rescuers and women are to be rescued. (Cue stereotypes.) Especially in conservative religious circles, men may be assumed to have primary responsibility outside the home, they are strong and natural leaders, they are to protect their family. Women may have primary responsibility inside the home, they are meek and gentle, and nurture their families. Church may also assign “different, yet complementary” roles. These are very, very broad and not universally bad, yet not universally good. Stereotypes can easily restrict men and women’s engagement within their community. This provides ample space for religious legalism and abuse.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists have used these stereotypes to in efforts to protect their communities from the perceived danger of sexual immorality. John Piper advocates for patriarchal authority over women and argues #MeToo has been caused by the lack of male protection over women. His statements and sentiments have caused controversy over the years. If we believe these gender stereotypes apply in our context, we must also be aware of the increased potential to practice sexism, even with those we love. The pursuit of “protection” can result in an imbalance of power.

Whether you have instilled traditional or egalitarian roles (or neither!) in your home or church, you may want to ponder the following:

  • Does this relationship/doctrine value mutual submission or exclusively female submission?
  • Are my God-given talents and gifts welcomed and utilized in the home, church, and workplace or am I expected to engage with activities/responsibilities perceived to better suit my gender?
  • If I am not physically/emotionally/sexually safe at home/church is there a space where I will be heard and helped without being blamed or questioned?

Benevolent Sexism

You might not actively believe or promote a prejudice against or distrust in women in the workplace, politics, or at home. (This would be called hostile sexism.) It’s still possible you may believe in a hierarchy between men and women. Subjectively, benevolent sexism has a positive view on women. This type of sexism respects the role of wife and mother and believes women deserve (or require) male protection. Women are often romanticized as sexual or love objects. Families and churches who promote this variation of sexism aren’t always obvious since they’re usually perceived as likeable. Both forms are dangerous as they each insist upon male power over women.

Let’s look at some brief examples/myths from evangelical leaders in the 1970s-2000s. Emphasis added.

  • If God is like my husband, my husband is like god.
    • “God begins a husband relationship with us. He provides wisdom where we lack it. He is our protector. He fulfills our deepest desire… Yet as I submit to God, so must I submit to… my husband.” (Mom’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1996, p. 154, 745)
    • “As heads of household wielding God-give authority, husbands are responsible to discipline, in order to protect their wives who “can’t — by [their] own power — change [their] lives.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 842)
  • Men are uniquely equipped to be the provider and protector.
    • “One of the greatest threats to the institution of the family today is the undermining of this role as protector and provider. This is the contribution for which men were designed… If it is taken away, their commitment to their wives and children is jeopardized. (Focus on the Family brochure, 1994)
    • Little boys are the hope of the next generation.. Little girls too, will benefit because they’ll grow up with a clear vision of the kind of men who will make godly husbands.” (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 651)
  • Selfless service is a virtue of the best wives and mothers.
    • “With unbounded joy and enthusiastic effort I have poured my life into home and family, putting aside professional pursuits and personal ambitions.” (Women’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1994, p. 889)
    • “This is how God created you and it is your purpose for existing. You are, by nature, equipped in every way to be your man’s helper. You are inferior to none as long as you function within your created nature, for no man can do your job… You were created to make him complete, not to seek personal fulfillment parallel to him.” (Pearl, Created to be His Help-Meet, p. 21, 42-44)
  • Husbands initiate and benefit from intimacy, women surrender.
    • “…a man is able to attribute a spiritual meaning to sexual union, indeed a metaphysical experience. The woman’s story is entirely different… Her spiritual surrender is directed far more precisely at the person of her husband, perhaps at the hoped-for child. (Men’s Devotional Bible NIV, 1993, p. 710)
    • [Author describes initiation of sex between spouses by detailing a position a wife should assume.] “The husband finds this voluntary act of cooperation very exciting…” (LaHaye, The Act of Marriage, 1976, p. 102)

These examples are a select few from countless other Bible devotionals, books, sermons, and other forms of evangelical or fundamental guidance from this time period. The implications of these elements are incredibly dehumanizing, especially for women. Without proper evaluation, some conservative churches have been systemically normalizing sexual violence and blaming or silencing those who courageously speak up. The most recent example can be found in the Southern Baptist Convention, among other ministries and traditions. Yet, it doesn’t require 700 victims for these similarities between rape culture and purity culture to be considered a disaster. Arguably, it only takes one.

Have you heard or believed any of these myths or sexist statements?

Read more in this series: