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We Can Do So Much Better Than Spread Handmaid’s Tale Memes

To all those who care about women’s rights, I have a favor to ask: Please stop spreading The Handmaid’s Tale memes. You know, those ones where women are dressed up in burgundy frocks and white bonnets that hide their faces? Although I admire Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel, the last thing we need in the world are more images of women who are oppressed.

A Simple Deconstruction

In The Handmaid’s Tale memes (and similar live protests) women are shrouded in nun-like costumes designed to strip them of their individuality, their sexuality, and their free will. They are grouped together with other voiceless women whose sole purpose is to produce babies. The Handmaids are a symbol of oppressed women subjugated by a white male ruling class and the contemptible women who enable them.

It’s obvious that (almost) everyone sharing these memes doesn’t agree with the novel’s dystopian theme. Some mean to bring levity to a serious topic (which, btw, isn’t funny). And we all get the “f*ck you” irony here within the context of a cautionary tale.

But we are well past the point of caution now.

This moment in history is unleashing a cacophony of protest because we all know what we’re facing with the SCOTUS leak. Yes, we need to emphasize why outlawing abortion is only going to harm more women, and ultimately society as a whole. But before we adopt the banner of the “oppressed woman” yet again, I think it’s worth remembering that the “oppressors” who aim to overturn Roe v Wade are actually a weak minority.

A False Power

Of the presumed majority of the Justices who are hellbent on overturning Roe v Wade, all but one were appointed by a president who lost the popular vote. Gorsuch and Coney Barrett were crammed onto the bench in an overt and hypocritical power grab, while Kavanaugh cried his way into a seat (as is fitting for a spoiled frat boy who can’t see past his privilege). Both he and Clarence Thomas squeaked through despite having a serious problem in the “respecting women” department.

Every last one of these “majority” Justices, Alito included, would make a believable character if they were cast in The Handmaid’s Tale TV series.

All this is to say that the power SCOTUS holds lacks integrity and is questionable at its core. The current majority Justices are hardly representative of America. The White, Christian traditionalist “majority” know their days are numbered and their displays of dominance reflect their desperation to remain in control by cheating, lying, extreme gerrymandering and who knows what else that has yet to be revealed. 

So let’s remember that whatever “majority” opinion comes out on a Roe v Wade reversal will be akin to the inhabitants of a sinking island putting up flimsy hurricane shutters in advance of the storm.

So what to do and is there a meme for it?

While those wielding this false power may aim to send us backward, we must remind ourselves that we are that advancing hurricane. We are the true majority of compassionate reason.

And there are many more out there who remain unaware, still spellbound by institutional patriarchy and binary thinking, which has convinced them to vote on a forced-birth agenda. They have been corralled into a group that does the bidding of those with power—à la The Handmaid’s Tale—and they’ve lost sight of what they truly stand for. 

Having been raised Catholic, I know how this works. The fundamental message of a compassionate Do Unto Others is overshadowed by a giant, polarized cloud of Either/Or: Either you vote “pro-life” or you are siding with “baby killers.” That’s an emotional weight that’s difficult to unhook from. And if we are to help rouse people from such a powerful trance, first we must break ourselves out of the similar spell of Us vs Them

Let’s face it, thanks to propaganda mills and social media, we’ve all been fed an “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality, which only serves to keep the battle going. But the alarm is now blaring like never before, and it’s on us to wake people up—which isn’t easy on such an emotionally-laden battlefield where logic falls by the wayside.

If logic ruled the day instead of emotions, it would be simple to convince people who say they are “pro-life” of this fundamental truth: Abortion rates will only decline when the lives of people already born are respected and cared for.

There isn’t a single, simple strategy to bring people back into the fold of compassion and reason. But I’m certain of one thing: It does not help to disseminate images that uphold a dangerous archetype of disempowered women. In my opinion, those memes only propagate an old paradigm, or worse, reinforce the division and disempowerment we must overcome. 

Instead of spreading cynical memes, three actionable things come to mind:

1.) Learn how to talk with those who don’t align with you politically, even if it involves a hard topic like abortion. Now is not the time to hide behind that old adage of “Never discuss religion or politics in mixed company.” That belief was born long long before women and minorities had access to voting and keeping it alive only serves to silence us. Now is the time to make a deliberate and serious effort toward breakthrough conversations. It’s the only way to hold the door open for a greater Us.

2. ) Vote and encourage others to vote—especially those who fear their vote doesn’t matter. I’ve organized and participated in Vote Forward and Postcards to Voters campaigns. Both are well-coordinated volunteer organizations, proven to reach marginalized communities. While it’s understandable if you’ve lost faith in the system and aren’t inspired to participate in its dysfunction, now is not the time to check out. All that would do is pave a wider path for the extremists who falsely think they are in the majority. Prove them wrong. With a simple commitment and minimal effort you (and your friends!) can make an electoral difference that matters. 

3. ) Put your money where your beliefs are. If Roe v Wade gets overturned up to half the states in the US will move to outlaw abortion.  Until compassionate, reasonable legislation is implemented by a more progressive Congress, it will fall on those who are pregnant (and for whatever reason may need a safe abortion) to travel to a state where it’s legal. That will be a burden to bear on multiple levels, including financially. Countless women won’t be able to afford the trip—much less afford to bear and raise a child. Consider donating to well-regarded organizations like Abortionfunds.org and PlannedParenthood.org (both of which received my support when writing this article). 

Like you, I’m horrified that these SCOTUS Justices dare to inflict such an injustice. That’s why we must channel our anger toward purposeful action and become an even stronger force to be reckoned with. That’s also why spreading images of submissive women—even if fictionalized and meant to be ironic—hurts our cause.

And as for the best meme to share? How about ones that represent who we really are: fierce, forward-looking women and allies, who will not let our country devolve into anything remotely like the dystopian Republic of Gilead depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale

This piece was originally published as “We Can Do Way Better Than Spread Handmaid’s Tale Memes” in An Injustice! on Medium.

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