Charles Darwin makes a chilling cameo in The Handmaid's Tale's third season
A show with lots to say about religion turns to science
Since it premiered in 2017, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale has drawn frequent, and sometimes outlandish, comparisons to life in Trump's America. Now in its third season, though, the story about the dystopic oppression of women in the name of Christian extremism has never been more topical as draconian anti-abortion policies have spread like a rash across America's Bible Belt and beyond, with no end in sight.
The Handmaid's Tale's rooting in religious zealotry is part of what made a scene in "Useful," the third episode of the show's third and final season that was released this week, so chilling. Instead of referencing religion as justification for the sexual enslavement of women, June's new Commander, the economist Joseph Lawrence, asks her to fetch him a book by Charles Darwin to reference in front of his colleagues. The scene, which plays out over several minutes, is excruciatingly tense, even if it doesn't ever get explained why this particular book is so controversial. The moment is also jarring for longtime fans of the show: After all the talk of Bilhah and Martha, all those "praise be's" and "under His eye's," why now a shift to Darwin, seemingly the ideological opposite?
Darwin is of course best known for his 1859 On the Origin of Species, which discusses natural selection as the explanation for variation among all forms of life. A little over 10 years later, though, in 1871, Darwin published another book that would also have long-lasting repercussions, though these would be much more troubling. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex — the book June is sent to fetch from the shelf for Commander Lawrence — lays out a theory of woman's inferiority to man under the guise of scientific fact.
During Darwin's time, attitudes in the west about women were beginning to shift and the question of a woman's place in society was more urgent than it had ever been before. With this as his backdrop, Darwin determined that "man is more courageous, pugnacious, and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius. His brain is absolutely larger [...]." Darwin took as his evidence that "if two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison," and made the fateful conclusion: "Man has ultimately become superior to woman."
Darwin's writing would have a major impact on the conception of women as being biologically (and therefore inarguably) less capable than men, despite the fact that the theory faced backlash from feminists almost immediately. Yet in Darwin's eyes, "women were generally subservient and confined to the home," writes Angela Saini, the author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story. "What other reason could there be for this phenomenon but biology?" Darwin had only laid the groundwork: Herbert Spencer, the evolutionary philosopher who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," would go farther, "postulating that in order for the human race to flourish, women must devote their lives to reproduction," The Smithsonian writes.
Sound familiar? By sending June to fetch The Descent of Man, Commander Lawrence is effectively smearing in her face the centuries-old biological and economic case for the subordination of women (based on June's clinched jaw, she knows exactly what's in the text, too). The terrifying part is, Darwin's obviously flawed argument still exists today as an excuse to keep women out of the workforce, where men are thought by a small but not insignificant few to be better suited. In July 2017, for example, Google engineer James Damore wrote a memo arguing "against efforts to hire more women for engineering and tech jobs without first changing the internal culture of Google to better fit innate biological gender differences."
Other "scientific" studies claiming that men have higher IQs or are otherwise predisposed to be better workers are published with concerning regularity, which in turn undergirds a disturbing resurgence of open misogyny in our politics. Male superiority is the "gateway drug" of the alt-right political movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center writes, adding that the group "misrepresents all women as genetically inferior, manipulative, and stupid and reduces them to their reproductive or sexual function — with sex being something that they owe men [...]."
By referencing Darwin and making The Descent of Man a boiling point for the tensions between June and Commander Lawrence, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale has once more reconstructed itself to be frighteningly topical. That Gilead's oppression of women is revealed to be not just religious, but based in seductive bunk science, is a disturbing reminder that there is more than one path to dystopia.