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Handmaid’s Tale Propaganda Essay, Research Paper

Early in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred says, after having seen a group of Japanese women wearing short skirts, rather than the typical, compulsory dress of Gilead:

“We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds about things like this”

This illustrates how the minds of the population have been manipulated to make them comply with the Government’s views.

Like in most totalitarian societies, the Gilead Government uses propaganda to manipulate the people’s minds into following their ideologies and supporting the government.

The propaganda methods depicted in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are also similar to those used in totalitarian governments of this century.

Propaganda in the novel concentrates mainly on women, as they are the elements of society that have lost the most due to the establishment of the new government and they must therefore be controlled and convinced the most.

I will now examine some of the methods of propaganda used to persuade women, and try to explain their purposes and effects.

The Gilead society is based on one of the many possible interpretations of the biblical philosophy. The bible being a very respected, trusted and followed source for many people in America, explaining the new laws, such as compulsory surrogacy, in terms of biblical precedent makes it easier for people to believe they are justified.

This hypocritical use of the bible is also shown by the fact that non-biblical elements are included in the Gilead philosophy as sayings from saints. The quote “from each according to her ability, to each according to his needs” for, example is attributed to St. Paul, while it is in fact an adaptation of a Marxist ideal.

Many names of people and places also have religious connotations: Guards are called “Angels”, the indoctrination centre the “Rachel and Leah Centre” and stores are called “Milk and Honey” or “Loaves and Fishes”.

This is to insist on the fact that the Gilead society is a Godly society and therefore, it’s actions and policies are good and anything that would go against it would be sinful.

Women in Gilead have to wear a special uniform depending on their social rank, the handmaids are in red, the wives in powder blue and the aunts in brown. The effect of this is to create a loss of individuality by reminding women that they are now only considered by the role they occupy.

For the handmaids, and to a lesser extent other women, this also served the purpose of making it difficult for them to be recognised by people they once knew, thus cutting them for their past. The white scarf serves that same purpose and it also makes it difficult for the handmaids to see their surrounding.

Women in Gilead are forbidden to read or write which helps in censuring the information they receive, prevents them from communicating and limits their freedom of expression and thinking.

Even public signs and billboards have been replaced by images and icons as they are considered more safe than actual words who would be “too much of a temptation”. Signs with a ‘Red Hexagon’ mean STOP and a Huge Golden Lily is the sign for “Lilies in the Field” shop.

In the few cases when women are allowed written language to be viewed, the language functions as propaganda, furthering the message already drilled in the minds of the Handmaids.

Large banners proclaim:

“Women’s Prayvaganza Today” and

“God is a National Resource”

Knowing that the Handmaids are desperate for any written or verbal information, leaders of this society have turned this to their advantage, knowing that their propaganda will be devoured greedily by it’s citizens.

Banishing writing and reading is not the only form of censorship in Gilead. The only way for women to get information is by watching television or through dangerous underground networks. It is understood that the news available through the media is highly censored. As Offred says:

“They only show us victories, never defeats. . . . [The male newscaster] tells us what we long to believe. He’s very convincing”

The media presents the information in such way that the government is shown as the ‘good guy’. This is called ‘white propaganda’, it’s attempt is to build credibility within the audience.

The Gilead state has set precise rules on when women should and should not speak. Because of that, private conversation has been banned by the individual speakers. Women are afraid to speak to each other because many people in Gilead are spies and talking too openly could lead to their being sanctioned.

The novel does not tell us precisely to what extent this is done in the normal classes of society, but shows it’s effect on the Handmaids in relative depth.

The Handmaids are not allowed to talk to men informally. This is why Offred is nervous when Nick asks her if she had a nice walk.

They aren’t allowed to talk to the wives except if talked to first.

Even between each other, the Handmaids usually refrain from talking openly, they are only allowed to talk about certain subjects and have to use specific phrases such as “Blessed be the fruit,” “May the Lord open,” “Under his Eye,” and “Praise be”.

Up to now I have mainly talked about the propaganda imposed on women in general. I will continue by talking about the propaganda imposed on the Handmaids during their indoctrination at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre.

The aim of the indoctrination centres is to change ordinary women into complacent Handmaids using various methods of persuasion such as what is commonly called brainwashing.

As Goebels did in the Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, the Gilead government decided to blame the failure of the previous society and all the problems that their new society faces on a defined group of people.

The effect of this is to unite the population against the presumed enemy and create support for a government that would try to destroy that class of society.

While Goebels chose the Jews as enemies, the Gilead government chose to blame the selfish women who refused to bear children for the failure of society.

The aim of the indoctrination centres is clearly shown by the quote:

“Some women believed there would be no future, they thought the world would explode. That was the excuse they used, says Aunt Lydia. They said there was no sense in breeding. Aunt Lydia’s nostrils narrow: such wickedness. They were lazy women, she says. They were sluts. . . . They made mistakes, says Aunt Lydia. We don’t intend to repeat them. Her voice is pious, condescending, the voice of those whose duty it is to tell us unpleasant things for our own good. . . . All of us here will lick you into shape, says Aunt Lydia, with satisfied cheer.”

Women that have passed their menopause or are infertile called ‘Aunts’ were chosen to train the Handmaids since, being women, they would be more trusted by the Handmaids. The aunts are given names derived from commercial products in order to make them more familiar and reassuring.

According to Dr Peixoto:

“No empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group”

During their training, the future Handmaids are shown propaganda movies in which the handmaids are reminded of the destructive behaviours of the selfish women who came before them that have led to the current emergency measures for creating children and remind them, as Offred says, “of the old days of no safety”

The Aunts try to convince the Handmaids that society as they now know it is much better than before. They argue that “Women were not protected then Women lived by an unwritten set of rules:” such as

“Don’t open your door to a stranger” or “Don’t stop on the road to help a motorist pretending to be in trouble”

Now, in Gilead, women can go along the street in safety

Aunt Lydia rationalises these changes as the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to”: “In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it”

The Handmaids also participate in group psychoanalysis that can be very violent, as it is shown when Janine tells about how she was gang raped when she was fourteen and had an abortion:

“But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up a plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did…

Last week, Janine burst into tears. Aunt Helena made her kneel at the front of the classroom, hands behind her back, where we could all see her, her red face and dripping nose…

She looks disgusting: weak, squirmy, blotchy, pink.

That was last week. This week Janine doesn’t wait for us to jeer at her. It was my fault, she says. It was my own fault…”

By the end of their training session, the Handmaids are suppose to have been convinced to follow the new order. However, there are elements that show that it is not a completely successful course as some Handmaids, such as Ofglen still aren’t convinced and joined the rebellion. Other elements, such as the Handmaid that replaces Ofglen to go shopping with Offred seem to be convinced.

The propaganda does not have all the effects desired for the rest of society either but it can still be considered as rather successful. Indeed, there are still people who do not follow government’s policies, like those people that we find hanged on the wall or even Serena Joy who asks Offred copulate with Nick, but we can suppose that even though many women probably don’t support the government completely, most of them try not to interfere with it due to the situation of terror that has been created by the propaganda.


Handmaid’s tale, margareth Atwood


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