Netflix is halfway through airing their short series run of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And the reaction has been pretty interesting? Divisive? Worrisome?
It’s fairly horrifying to watch for several reasons. 1) As a Christian, I find it fairly easy to pick apart the whole premise. 2) Is that really how those who are outside fundamental Christianity view us? war mongering isolationists who want to put women “in their place” meaning, in the home forever who are scientifically ignorant? (I would argue that a good portion of the population is scientifically ignorant due to our ‘lauded’ public school system.) 3) Supreme Biblical Cherry Picking (and I’m fairly certain I know the verses that she’s cherry picking out the New Testament that haven’t even been mentioned.) and 4) By trying to make it more relevant, it left out the racism of the original story and changed OfGlen’s story to be unrecognizable. (And may have cheapened her story as well.) And 5) yes, women can be just as horrible to each other as men are, at least someone recognizes it. The last is probably the most important and needs to be talked about, loudly. Not, “the men are going to take our birth control!”
But growing up inside fundamentalist Christianity, the whole thing feels like Speculative Scare Fiction at it’s best or worst as the case may be since Atwood never actually offered a solution in her story. She posed a question but never answered it basically.
And sure, there are aspects of fundamentalist Christianity I don’t agree with and they can be just as bad on the scaremongering about the so called ‘secular’ world. But I do know how sacred they value the institution of marriage and having a mistress or an affair or anything that would smack of infidelity would not work in that context. Christianity Today did a much better analysis on it than I ever could. Mostly, I’ve been shaking my head and sighing over the whole using the story of Rachel and her handmaid, which is the reflection of Sarah and her handmaid Hagar (and that ended badly.)
Then today, Mother’s Day, in the Focus on the Family advice column, one young mother who wishes to go back into the workforce gets this as an answer: ‘Being a parent is the highest calling you can have,’ to paraphrase.
Say what? Where was that in the Bible? If I’m remembering 12 years of biblical study correctly, the highest calling was to serve God! Are you at Focus on the Family not paying the least bit of attention to the political and cultural climate right now? Just… what?! Last I checked, I’m not even sure being a parent is a calling. Some people want to be parents, and some people don’t and some people end up parents on purpose or accidentally. Being a parent just sort of happens because you get adopted as a parent and you have no idea how. (This happens to me a lot. Wait, I have my own problems, you want me to solve yours? Do I look like your mother? Your mother said what? Oh for fuck’s sake, okay for the next five minutes I’ll be your mother.”) It’s hard work. I’m still not sure I’d consider it a calling.
Because parenting should not be the be all and end all of a person’s life. If all they are is a “parent” then they haven’t got much of an identity. Being a parent as a calling leads to very dangerous waters where your intellect, your creativity and even your spouse could end up being neglected and then when the kids are gone, then what?
Saying parenthood is the highest calling is dangerous. It’s dangerous to put a ‘highest’ on anything. It puts a lot of burdens and expectations on young people that they don’t need because sometimes the “calling” isn’t there, the biology doesn’t work right or maybe they don’t like what it takes to be a parent. (Some people don’t like sex and that’s okay.) It’s toxic. It messes with young people’s heads. Because everyone’s “highest’ calling is different and they need to do what they are best at and that is in the Bible!
Of course, there are a lot of parents who don’t want to teach their children how to be independent, analytical, authority questioners (even Jesus questioned God at times) or anything at all about responsibility, integrity or their own bodies and sex. (You want to watch a community tear itself apart, be like California and change the rules about what needs to be taught in sex education to seventh graders. Hmm, in 7th grade, I’d found porn on the internet and read about sex in books. Comprehensive sex education is NEEDED at that age.)
Thus, educating gets dumped on the schools that are already overburdened trying to teach the children to know their ABCs, 123s and understanding the world, to be teaching morals and ethics on top of it. Look, you can’t drop the ball on some things and whine about how it’s not ‘age appropriate’ and then put it at ‘age appropriate’ at an age where it’s already too late. They know about it already because they found out through the internet or through friends or on the bus or my God, something bad happened to them.
But parenting is the highest calling. Right. No. Parenting is hard work. Parenting should be respected for the physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Parenting shouldn’t be considered the be all and end all of life especially if you aren’t suited to it or don’t want to do it.
And that doesn’t scratch the surface about the toxic attitudes in fundamentalist Christianity that deal with obeying, honoring, and respecting your parents and what that means to them. (Plus some of the toxic attitudes towards marriage, that directly contradict what is going on in Atwood’s story.)
In conclusion, yes, Margaret Atwood’s story has some very resonating messages about how women treat each other and the toxicity of certain beliefs. But these aren’t the ones everyone is screaming about.