The Blessed Virgin’s radical female presence opens up the possibility of a relationship with God for many Catholics. This is particularly true for women who struggle to recognize themselves in church structures, or perhaps even in images of Jesus, at first. Because she prevailed in impossible situations by the grounding of her faith, Mary has provided particular solace to the poor and vulnerable in Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe and well beyond. Her image is unique in its accessibility and pervasiveness.
Unfortunately, a historical overemphasis on Mary’s assumption, virginity and Immaculate Conception, to the eclipse of her other qualities, has led to impoverished popular images of her that, intended or not, too often reinforce patriarchal social structures. These incomplete images have also been used to create a rigid view of women, including Mary herself.
In her book Truly Our Sister, Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., who stresses that Mary is an avenue to God, not a feminine image of God, raises the voices of women who find over-idealized images of the Virgin Mary oppressive. She cites Margaret Cuthbert, an elderly South African woman, who decided with her all-women prayer group to omit two titles from the Litany of Loreto, “Mother inviolate, Mother undefiled,” which the women regarded as insulting to their blessed experiences of childbearing and sex.
Not all women feel that way. For some, it is not difficult to see—and admire—Mary’s purity alongside her inspiring displays of perseverance, autonomy and solidarity. A narrowed perception of Mary does exist, however, and that image is conducive to neither faith nor feminism. If anyone doubted the damage a shallow, sanitized Marian ideal of womanhood could inflict—on women, on faith and on the church—Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale shows us.
The original notion of the handmaid that intrigued Atwood, an agnostic, is well known to Christians. In many translations of the Bible, Mary uses this term to describe herself when accepting the responsibility for bearing Jesus. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” says Mary. “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38).
In Atwood’s hellish, futuristic novel, which is the basis of a new television series of the same name on Hulu, the handmaid is a woman named Offred. Offred is one of many women separated from her family and enlisted to bear children for the ruling classes of a theocratic state. In Atwood’s dystopia, the handmaid must embody the one-dimensional caricature of Mary who has sometimes been used to restrict women’s roles: a walking womb; bounteous, quiet, complacent.
Before writing The Handmaid’s Tale, first published in 1985, Atwood came across a peculiar news story: A Catholic parish in New Jersey had been overrun by a sect within its congregation called The People of Hope, in which female members were relegated to the home, some of whom won the title of “handmaiden.” In Atwood’s fictional state, Gilead, where birthrates have plummeted, an even more extreme interpretation of a handmaid’s service to the Lord is enforced. These handmaids do not have autonomy like Mary—they do not volunteer—but are rather used for their fertility as punishment for transgressions. "We are two-legged wombs,” says Offred. “That's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices."
"We are two-legged wombs,” says Offred. “That's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices."
Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, has daily duties that include tending to her fertility with regular exercise and balanced meals, walking every day to “buy” food with tokens and attending ceremonies when other handmaids become pregnant or give birth. Handmaids move about Gilead like robots, wary of expressing individuality or autonomy—for which they could be mutilated, killed or sent off to some other dreadful, unknown fate. Reading is forbidden; so is conversation, friendship, love, life. In their place are canned pieties: “Praise be,” “Under his eye” and, perhaps most notably, “Blessed be the fruit.”
Offred’s most important job is also the most horrific: She must have ritual, clothed sex with her “Commander” (Joseph Fiennes) in the presence of his wife so that she might carry the child they could not conceive together. Hulu’s representation of this ritual is fittingly awkward and alarming. During the act, Offred must lie in the lap of the Commander’s wife who looks on, pained, while gripping Offred’s hands. The camera is positioned above the bed, offering an uncomfortable view of Offred’s vacant face, her body disturbed by the Commander’s every movement.
As far-fetched as The Handmaid might seem at first, its strength lies in its pertinence. Yet the novel and the television show have different methods for asserting their relevance. While Atwood’s timeless setting has enabled the story to age well, the television series works hard at timeliness. The Hulu series opens with a pre-handmaid Offred in a car with her daughter and her husband. Their clothes are ordinary but their own. Offred’s hair is highlighted a bright blonde; her daughter peers from underneath a hoodie. Offred is alive with fear and love for her family and very unlike the hollow handmaid she will have to become in order to survive. In flashbacks, throwaway references to Tinder and other facets of online life are clunky but effective in forcing the viewer to think, “This hell is possible.”
Offred's faith is a testament to Atwood’s openness to the wondrous possibilities of religion.
It is a wonder that Offred has any faith left as a handmaid. Her faith is a testament to Atwood’s openness to the wondrous possibilities of religion, in addition to its potential to impose terror. In the screen version, Offred and her friend Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) surreptitiously lament the demolition of St. Paul’s, their local church.
Offred also talks to God, even though, she admits, she doesn’t know what to say (and isn’t permitted to speak, anyhow). Later she concocts her own version of the Lord’s Prayer. “There's Kingdom, power and glory. It takes a lot to believe in those right now. But I'll try it anyway,” she offers. “I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it's not our doing: I don't believe for an instant that what's going on out there is what You meant…. I suppose I should say I forgive whoever did this, and whatever they’re doing now. I’ll try, but it isn’t easy.”
Atwood’s exploration of how Mariology and, more broadly, religion can be misused to subjugate women has led to accusations that Atwood is anti-religion and that Gilead is a “demonic misrepresentation of Judaeo-Christianity.” But if, anything, Atwood does a service by showing how easily Mary’s image can be distorted in order to exert control.
The state religion depicted in The Handmaid—pro-birth, anti-abortion but also anti-life—will be seen by many Christians as a distortion of their own faith, but it still bears hallmarks of Judaeo-Christianity. All state actions in Gilead are justified by Scripture, mostly by quoting from the Bible (for example, the barren Rachel’s command to Jacob to impregnate her maid in Genesis 30 or the iconic lines, “Be fruitful and multiply” and “Blessed are the meek”). We already know that religion can be used to inflict terror. But many in the West mistakenly see this possibility as a problem unique to Islam, as opposed to all faith groups. Atwood’s representation could be regarded as an arrogant parody of religion, and yet Offred’s faith proves that religion still has profound value in Gilead. In reminding us of how Judaeo-Christianity can be manipulated toward violent ends, The Handmaid is a call for thoughtful faith and action.
The Handmaid shows us that that terrible things happen when there is only one acceptable religion to practice or when there is only one way to be a woman. “There is no eternal feminine; there is no essential feminine nature; there is no ideal woman,” Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., wrote in America in 2000. “An adequate theology of Mary must be clear on this point.”
In her moment of despair and reckoning, Offred begins to sound a lot like the Mary of the Gospels who, as Dr. Johnson writes, had faith “precisely as a poor woman, one of those on the underside of history.” Mary was, after all, a young, homeless teen mother who then had her son taken away from her—and never stopped trusting in God.
There is a beauty and resonance in the frank perseverance of Offred’s relationship with God, in spite of her own dire circumstances. In Offred’s case, this faith does not grow out of purity laws but rather in spite of them. Like Mary, her connection with God springs from agency—it is her decision to talk to him, her decision to believe. This is a freedom that Gilead has been unable to take away. “My God,” Offred appeals, “Who Art in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is within.”