If Offred is a handmaid, is Serena Joy a milkmaid?
In a world where ‘resistance is fertile’, the horror of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the bodies of women – fertile women – are treated as no more than vessels for semen, bodies without minds, flesh without souls. The televisual adaptation is visceral because it feels like the coup of this society happened in a day and a place much like ours.
One episode has the Mexican ambassador come to learn how Gilead achieves its birth rate. She is sceptical about how the handmaids feel about their position but is won over in a scene where the children of Gilead pour into an official dinner, at which the handmaids are seated to have their fertility celebrated. It is the cruellest thing to let a mother see the child she is not allowed to mother. The handmaids search the faces of the children to find who is theirs. In a later scene the wife takes Offred on a drive where she gets a glimpse of her child through the car window. She is not allowed to get out; her daughter does not know she is there or even that she is alive. When the wife gets back into the car, Offred unleashes a torrent of hate-filled expletives at her and it absolutely captures our horror, her pain and her anger.
How can they do this? How can they treat our bodies like machines and thwart our emotional attachments? Janine nurses the baby who is born out of ritual rape before the baby is snatched back by the wife, who cannot lactate. The wife is the milkmaid with the handkerchief bonnet sitting on a wooden stool, pulling on the cow’s tits to take the milk that was meant for her stolen baby. Her calm-inducing turquoise garments conceal her threatening interior and cruel intent.
The dairy industry has perfected this systematic violent exploitation of the female reproductive capacity. Cows are artificially imseminated. Their calves are taken away days, if not moments, after birth. For days and weeks after the mother will keen and search for her abducted calf. Some weeks later she is impregnated again. All this time her udders grow heavy with immense production of milk, abetted by hormones and genetic manipulation to increase her ‘yield’ and antibiotics to treat the festering nipples that inevitably result from perpetual lactation. The dairy industry develops new devices to sever the maternal bond, such as spiked nose rings to put on calves who have the urge to suckle, and tells us it is for the calves’ own good because cows are bad mothers. lynn mowson detailed this brutality in a paper at the 2017 Australasian Animal Studies Association conference in Adelaide and her artwork boobscape conveys its terror. The body that nurtures has been reproduced into an inhospitable landscape – the monstrous mother – via intensive, industrialised violence.
The cycle repeats four or five times until the cow no longer produces enough milk to be profitable for the farmer. She is slaughtered, her body aged well beyond the six years or so of her incarcerated and enslaved life. The farmer who impregnates her has intimate knowledge of her body, her biological cycles, a knowledge obtained without her permission and without her cooperation. In Gilead every member of the household knows when the handmaid is most ‘fertile’ and if she has missed her period. Nothing in this world is yours, not even knowledge of your own body.
Melissa Boyde’s paper at the AASA conference powerfully illustrated that where some might interpret cows to be cooperating in their subjugation, they have actually been violently coerced. Before the dinner scene for the ambassador in Gilead, the commander’s wife inspects the line of handmaids and instructs the aunties to remove the ones that have visible disfigurements. Janine has had an eye taken out, others are missing hands and limbs. Any part of their bodies may be mutilated except the vagina, for this is their reproductivity and the key to Gilead’s perpetuation as a society. It is, too, with cows in the dairy industry, where udder singeing and other maimings are all permissible, routinised even, in order to keep the milk flowing. Reproductivity reproduces the society from whence it came.
There is another tale that describes this story from the viewpoint of the subjugated: ‘A Mother’s Tale’ by James Agee. A mother cow tells a group of male calves about The One Who Came Back, who escaped the slaughterhouse and returns to warn his herd of what he has learned about the ‘purpose of Man’ – to slaughter cows. To ensure a continual supply of cows to be killed, Man controls the reproduction of the species. The instructions of The One Who Came Back are to not cooperate. While the fate of those who are taken out on the range is to meet The Man With The Hammer,
All who stay home are kept there to breed others to go onto the range, and so betray themselves and their kind and their children forever. We are brought into this life only to be victims; and there is no other way for us unless we save ourselves.
The final instruction of The One Who Came Back is to, Kill the yearlings, kill the calves. So long as Man holds dominion over us, Bear no young.
The One Who Came Back views the ‘breeders’ – the mothers – as ones who betray their species, though he does not speak (or perhaps has no knowledge) of the perpetual milk cycle that mothers endure nor their forced impregnation, or rape (while retelling the story, the mother cow is ‘overcome by a most curious shyness, for it occurred to her that in the course of time, this young thing might be bred to her’), nor the pain of being separated from children.
The perpetuation of Gileadean society depends on women’s commandeered reproduction. Children are born into a world where they must also reproduce or be cast off (to ‘the colonies’). In dairy and in Gilead, death may seem like the only way to resist. Janine is ordered to be stoned for attempting to kill herself. Yet the other handmaids tasked with carrying out the punishment put down their stones. Did the cows who heard the warning of The One Who Came Back do as he instructed – Kill the yearlings, kill the calves? No, they could not. In a world that insists on severing emotional bonds, resistance is love.