A Biological Determinist Reading of The Handmaid’s Tale

I want to preface this post by noting that it was written as a component of my Gender Studies course. The Handmaid’s Tale had a profound effect on my appreciation for reproductive liberty and this post is testament to my belief in choice and autonomy for women’s bodies. The framework of biological determinism serves as a reminder of the dangers of culturally imposed biological ‘norms’ and is particularly relevant with the current narrative of gender binaries in light of Australia’s Marriage Equality debate.

Biological determinism, as explored by Christie Tidwell (2017), is a term that describes how the lived experience of an individual is determined by the sex they are assigned at birth. In biological determinism, gender is “fixed” (Birke, 1999:45) and distinguished by a combination of the genitalia, reproductive organs and chromosomes of an individual. This is often accompanied by a cultural expectation of gender performativity as Tidwell explains an “ongoing mismatch between reality and rhetoric [that] highlights how easily we take… gendered narratives for granted” (2017:144). According to Tidwell, our understanding of gender and sex are perceived as natural and become a “vicious cycle of sexist imagery that becomes more and more difficult to end as the images are repeated” (2017:144) This concept is not separate from that of Butler’s gender performativity as our cultural conditioning is projected onto biology through the citation of this gendered narrative.

Examples of these projections of culture onto biology play out in everyday life where “physical and intellectual strength [is] for the man, motherhood for the woman” (Schiebinger 1989:190-191). Essentially, if you are born with a vagina and a uterus, you should be attracted to men and your purpose in life is to give birth. An excellent portrayal of this concept is the 2017 Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in the theocratic and dystopian society of Gilead just three years from now, the series explores the fate of women in a world where fertility becomes suddenly scarce and women are stripped of their basic rights. Those women who remain fertile become property of the state and are assigned to male Commanders who attempt to impregnate them.

The act of the Ceremony in The Handmaid’s Tale emphasises the idea that a woman’s biological purpose should be to bear children. The Ceremony is a ritualised rape of the handmaid, originating from Genesis 30:1-3 “And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.” This passage from the Bible is reiterated throughout the series to legitimise rape and justify a biological essentialism of motherhood. If the handmaid falls pregnant, she is treated with humanity but if she fails to conceive, she is brutalised. This cultural interpretation of a woman’s biological purpose throughout the series critiques the fetters that accompany the female gender and its “fixed” state.

In another scene, handmaid Ofglen is punished in the form of genital mutilation for being a lesbian. In this case, biological determinism dictates that as a woman her purpose should be for heterosexual reproduction, otherwise she is a traitor to her gender (in the series, homosexuals are deemed “Gender Traitors”). For her crime her reproductive organs remain intact however her clitoris is removed as a means to supress her true desire and ultimately her sexual identity. It is clear Ofglen’s only purpose is to fulfil her ‘duty’ as a woman.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, “The body… becomes a passive recipient of cultural practices, denied even the agency of experience” (Birke, 1999:34). Biological determinism can be dangerously distorted by cultural ideals of what is “natural” and draws distinct barriers for each sex that cannot be overcome without great difficulty.

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References:

Birke, L. (1999). Feminism and the Biological Body. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Hulu, (2017). The Handmaid’s Tale.

Schiebinger, L. (1989). The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tidwell, C. (2017). “Biology” in Gender: Matter, edited by Stacey Alaimo, Macmillan Reference USA. (139-152).

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