I read Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood in high school. At the time, I don’t remember it affecting me too much. I remembered the Latin phrase “don’t let the bastards grind you down” more than I remembered the full plot line likely due to being in Latin class at the time.
Watching the book play out on Hulu has been strange – it’s affecting me more than I thought it would. Most folks probably expect this to be due to the election, the critique on gender equality, the LGBTQ issues, the violence, etc. but it actually has to do with the way surrogacy is portrayed in the series. I am a “product” of surrogacy (more here and here). My high school self wasn’t quite ready to tackle that area of my identity so it’s not surprising I don’t remember much about the book or any proceeding discussion around it in class. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve begun being more outspoken and educated on surrogacy. It’s a topic that confounds and fascinates me partially because it’s so intertwined with my life story that I enjoy the struggle of trying to be objective, to criticize, to learn new viewpoints, etc.
Surrogacy is complex and the implementation varies by country (and in the US by state). It has been normalized over the years for a variety of reasons which I’m thankful for – it made being a surrogate baby less “shameful” for me. I normally can’t watch portrayals of surrogacy mainly because I always find the misrepresentation disturbing or annoying. Baby Mama is a prime example and I have still yet to see it beyond the previews despite loving everything Tina Fey and Amy Pohler touch.
Handmaid’s Tale has the undercurrents of surrogacy that concerns me today though which is likely why I can’t shake it and am drawn to watching every second. The wealthy and elite having access to a technology or service that others don’t due to socioeconomic factors. The attempt to normalize an act between two people that is not inherently normal (the “ceremonies” that are done). The vast amount of hope, restrictions, and expectations that are put on surrogates. Watching the baby be separated from its surrogate mother in episode 3 was hard for me to watch. Everyone in the room knows the entire time that this passing of the child would happen yet one side mourns while the other celebrates. Surrogates today are prepped to let go of their child but the fact they need prepping speaks to how odd it is. All of this points to why gestational surrogacy is the preferred method in today’s world – it’s less complicated emotionally.
I still have a hard time understanding how traditional surrogates are able to pass their kid along to the intended parents. I see how the systems in place allow them to be prepared to do so though. Situations have a powerful effect on people as Zimbardo stated after his Stanford Prison experiment: “situations can have a more powerful influence over our behaviour than most people appreciate, and few people recognise.” In Handmaid’s Tale, the situation is so exaggerated and extreme that it’s easy to dismiss as a far off reality. The problem is that, to a way lesser extent, the same sort of situational tricks are used with surrogates from my experience.
I went to a surrogacy conference to speak on a panel a year and half ago. While at the conference, I hid my intentions for being there and, at times, pretended to be a woman seeking a surrogate. I browsed tables where I could find information about surrogacy in Thailand, Mexico, and the US. One table for a Mexican agency boasted about how they kept surrogates at their facilities, monitoring them around the clock, providing educational opportunities, etc. while the surrogate was “actively carrying”. I paused to ask more questions and at one point asked, “What if I don’t want to really interact with my surrogate?”. I had to hide my reaction when the response was essentially “Oh that’s totally fine – there’s no need”. I could hire a woman to have my kid while she was confined to a facility that would be “life changing for her” and “provide the best care for my baby”. The power dynamics are too much to bear to go into here. In an article by Glosswitch titled “The Handmaid’s Tale has already come true – just not for white western women”, she states:
In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:
“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”
Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice.
This is the reality of where we find ourselves today. Thinking more about it, Handmaid’s Tale really just brings you face to face with the actual act of what makes surrogacy – the raw, unfiltered act. For my parents, it just involved shipping sperm across the country and waiting for results. For most folks today, it’s a removed, technological process and not terribly human despite the very human result of the entire experience. We are separated from the experience thanks to technology (which continues to separate us seemingly in all avenues of our lives).
When I visited the agency my parents used in Los Angeles, I was corrected multiple times over the entire day I spent there for using the “wrong” terminology. I kept referring to my birthmom as just that rather than “gestational carrier”, “egg donor”, “surrogate”, etc. The “m word” was inappropriate for describing surrogacy and is only supposed to be used for adoption. I was taken aback. I have two birth certificates because I’m adopted. I’m genetically related to the person who birthed me. I am not related to the mother who raised me. Do not correct me for stating facts and do not fault or correct me for being able to emotionally and intellectually handle the complexity of my life. As the day went on and the questions I had piled up, I noticed how purposeful the language they used was in obscuring what was being asked of both parties. Watching Handmaid’s Tale provokes a similar reaction – one is trying to be desensitized into not thinking too much about what’s actually happening.
I’m wrestling with what is being shown and not letting myself dismiss it. I am doing so because I want to understand how I got here at the end of the day. I want to understand where we need to draw the line in what is and isn’t acceptable. I have a sinking feeling it’s an area I will need to continue to be vocal about during the rest of my lifetime in the same way I already feel the need to be with LGBTQ rights and women’s rights.
To be fair, there’s a lot more to the book and to surrogacy at large than I can cover here. I don’t take responsibility for that and I don’t want to take that on. I merely am expressing my reaction to trying to process watching this series play out as an adult rather than as a young teenager trying to read the book. This series and book are pieces of a rather large puzzle that has me bouncing back and forth between viewing the individual pieces of my life and the wider context that brought me into this world.
Photo Credit: Hulu