Why the Revolution in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Should Matter to Us

What if society is faced with near human extinction after climate change has made most women on the earth infertile. In 2017’s most successful TV show and novel adaptation, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, the story is told of a woman trying to survive this dystopian world where fertile women are enslaved as baby-making maids. In the face of unprecedented wicked challenges, society responds often with wicked solutions, a moment where improvisation and purest evil meet.

Viewers have been in awe of this story where a western democracy turns dictatorship, and ready to draw comparisons between the dictatorship’s ascendancy as a nation and the current Trump administration. With the second season set to be released in April 2018, and most likely to avenue the beginning of the revolution against the dictatorship named Gilead, one should ask what kind of revolution should we want when drawing again comparisons between the show and reality.

Over the course of history, repressive regimes have told us these states emerge sometimes for good causes but consolidate itself with ill-means. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ the Republic of Gilead emerges in New England after populist elections in the US and subsequently abolishing the US as a whole. Radical Christian ideology dictates life where the state systematically enslaves fertile women and forces them to become the maids to infertile elite households, where they are structurally raped. This story narrates from the perspective of a woman, whose husband got killed and daughter seized by the government, where she finds herself been given the name Of-fred while belonging as property to her master named Fred Waterford. All this evil is justified by virtue of their state Christian doctrine which rests on the premise that the state is saving mankind from infertility.

The state’s ideology centers around the conviction that it does good to society, and even to the world overall as it receives a Mexican envoy in episode 7 for the purpose of selling children and maids. As Offred reaches out for help to the Mexican Ambassador in private, she rejects her cry and says that the future of the Mexican people rests on finding fertile women. Her master tells her later on in this same episode, after Offred confides in him with her political opinions, that “better never means better for everyone” (The Handmaid’s Tale). The fate of the fertile women and childbearing, in general, has been nationalized and transformed into an exclusive state commodity.


(source: George Kraychyk/Hulu, 2017)


This story captures the current political fears harbored by liberal America: undemocratic repression and distrust in the government. As the former is a sentiment stemming from the most recent presidential elections, the latter is an integral part of the US political discourse. Most likely will the highly anticipated revolution striking in April 2018, second season, reflect a sense of distrust in the state and aim to reject the state altogether, even though it does not resolve the root of the problem: extinction of mankind.

A classical revolutionary response to the Gilead Republic where women are being sacrificed for the sake of mankind, great emphasis will be placed on individual rights, abolishing redistribution and commodification of fertility, and protecting human bodily integrity. One of the contemporary’s great philosophers dealing with underlying principles of freedom was Robert Nozick. Even though Nozick might strike as a useful inspiration for the Gilead revolution, one must wonder how meaningful such a Nozickian revolution would be.

This revolution would affirm the natural rights theory to engender with people assertion that each individual has moral rights existing independent from social arrangements. Of course, the notion that moral liberty to self-determination and the right not to be interfered with by others in the exercise of one’s liberty would undo much of Gilead’s harm. It is not difficult to imagine a resistance group in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to secretly distribute pamphlets with Nozick’s natural rights: Each person has the right to live as she chooses; each person has the right not be harmed by others without her consent; each person legitimately owns herself (Nozick, 1974).

Nozick himself posed great resistance to utilitarianism as best represented by master Fred’s words “better never means better for everyone” (The Handmaid’s Tale). Nozick’s anti-moralist and anti-paternalistic arguments against utilitarianism would iterate that it cannot be assumed that each individual desires a life that is instrumental to the happiness of the common good, generating most pleasure, such as fertility and eventually population growth (Nozick, 1974). Nozick would understand that individuals desire other things besides the rescue of mankind, such as having the ability to found and be part of a family even while many others cannot, and the future of mankind depends on them. In a thought experiment, Nozick lays out his arguments against utilitarianism and therefore also against Gilead’s ideology.

In Nozick’s 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia he lays bare the unmistakably potential evil awaiting people in a utilitarian society, such as Gilead. The thought experiment ‘the utility monster’ serves to illustrates this. In this experiment, Nozick supposes that a hypothetical being gains great utility to the detriment of the remainder people’s utility (Nozick, 1974). It is assumed that in principle the utility the monster could get from a resource is much greater than anyone else can (Ibid). Nozick asserts that utilitarianism acknowledges this principle, and therefore justifies not only the distribution of resources in favor of the singularly the utility monster but also the mistreatment of others (Ibid). According to Nozick, utilitarian is for that reason not egalitarian, as saving mankind by providing infertile elite households with baby- making maids does not equalize fertility (Ibid). In Nozick’s own words, he writes: Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater gains in utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose. For, unacceptably, the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility (Ibid).

The parallel between the monster and Gilead is easily established, not only in its description as a monster. With the onset of the state capturing children and fertile women for redistribution to infertile households the notion of equalizing the commodity of fertility is raised. In essence, Gilead believes that by virtue of equalizing fertility to infertile (elite) households the utility of fertility to save mankind is just. As Nozick would believe that ownership over one’s own life and body would bar any of this, Gilead warrants it as the high utility the state has in redistribution is increasing population rates. Even if, women were to give consent to this form of crime Nozick would contest that acquisition cannot proceed under coercion or fraud under his principle of acquisition, including the theft of their children (Nozick, 1974). This is all that Gilead has done. In principle, Nozick would reject Gilead’s distribution of fertility both for their disregard of the unjust means through which fertility was historically acquired and the unjust manner by which it is distributed (Ibid).

Returning to our reality where we see that Nozick’s principle of redress, which demands restoration when the principle of acquisition is violated, almost never materializes – look at the transatlantic slave trade, for example (Nozick, 1974). Apparently does Nozick’s proviso not do much either where acquisition must not preclude one losing the opportunity to improve her situation or prevent one from using what she previously freely could (Ibid). Having Trump or other illiberal political forces sets a tone of despair where Nozick’s solution seems even more unrealistic. Instead, we need to believe the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie “it is now time for people to find new ways to talk about politics and pushback and stand up for what is true and what is right”, in response to Christiane Amanpour’s question concerning forging gender equality (CNN). Even though I believe this, Nozick would reject this.

And so where would this leave us as to finding the ways through which we want to advance a Gilead revolution for Offred and the other women?

Even though Nozick rejects Gilead’s unjust distribution of fertility, it would equally so reject any state with so-called patterned principles, aiming to define norms for a just distribution of fertility (Nozick, 1974). A flipside to Nozick’s anti-utilitarianism is his overall rejection of the state’s involvement in private life (Ibid). He holds an entrenched mistrust for the government, as in his view the government embodies collective interests and subsequently harbors eternally the potential threat of imposing any restrictions on its people (Ibid). Naturally, this distrust in government is embedded in the sentiment Gilead’s people. Nozick believes that only a minimal state should exist in where no clear vision or values should generate collective action, and where ultimately people are self-reliant to protecting their own rights (Ibid).

We should aspire to a revolution that will be salient in values and political vision, as dismantling the Gilead government is insufficient as tackling infertility requires collective action. Where Nozick rejects collective effort altogether, the Gilead revolution should not. Wicked problems have proven to prompt wicked solutions, but we should wish the creative writers adapting the novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to entertain alternatives. Not coming from a place of optimism, but a Gilead revolution that will bring to our imagination hope for a way- out when in reality, truly, things will turn 1933.



Amanpour, C. Ngozi Adichie, A. (2017). Amanpour Interviews Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Kraychyk, G. (2017). Ms. Moss and Ms. Bledel. [digital]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/arts/television/review-the-handmaids-tale-creates-a-chilling-mans-world.html [Accessed 30 11 2017]

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, pp. 1-372

The Handmaid’s Tale. (2017). [Online]: Hulu

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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