Thursday, February 27, 2014

Knitted Together: Religious Manipulation in Orphan Black and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale

ORPHAN BLACK: A staple of any self-respecting science fiction/dystopian reading list, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale runs rampant with issues regarding feminism, gender, reproduction, identity, politics, and religion, just to name a few. With her dominion over the Canadian sci fi market so well-established, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Atwood’s work and the freshman Canadian television series Orphan Black if only you take a little time to dig.

Religious manipulation, for instance, is one such theme that is present in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Orphan Black, and a closer look yields some pretty intense parallels between the two.

ORPHAN BLACK: A staple of any self-respecting science fiction/dystopian reading list, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale runs rampant with issues regarding feminism, gender, reproduction, identity, politics, and religion, just to name a few. With her dominion over the Canadian sci fi market so well-established, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Atwood’s work and the freshman Canadian television series Orphan Black if only you take a little time to dig.

Religious manipulation, for instance, is one such theme that is present in both The Handmaid’s Tale and Orphan Black, and a closer look yields some pretty intense parallels between the two.

Margaret Atwood is the benevolent queen of Canadian science fiction,
you can't deny it, ok.
If you haven’t had the chance to read The Handmaid’s Tale, check out Wikipedia, SparkNotes, or buy your very own copy of this thought-provoking book.

Published in 1985 and set likely right around the present day, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian society where the American government has been overthrown by an extremist Christian sect and a theocracy has been put in place in the form of the Republic of Gilead. This group of religious zealots is incredibly homophobic, racist, and fundamentalist, strictly following the Old Testament. More importantly for our discussion here, their rise to power acted in response to the nation’s economic and social woes; they saw what they deemed to be problems caused by scientific advancement and society and chose to make it a crusade of their own to "right" the world. Sound familiar, fans of our favorite tortured, Jell-O eating, Ukrainian clone?


Furthermore, the Republic of Gilead uses religious terminology for pretty much everything: armed guards are known as "Angels;" Gilead’s leaders are known as "Commanders of the Faith;" and women are relegated into a caste system of Wives of Commanders, Marthas (domestics), and Handmaids (fertile women who bear the children of Commanders, but do not keep them). A similar use of religious terminology is also adopted by Tomas in Orphan Black in his interactions with Helena, which further elevates the Prolethean cause to that of "God’s will." Using religious language in such commonplace and frequent ways suggests that those who use it believe they are working on the authority of the Bible itself, and this image of authority can be used to manipulate others.

Helena, for example, operates almost entirely on what Tomas has taught her. As a result, she’s unable to question her beliefs simply because she doesn’t know any different. She believes she is the original, she is the light, and she knows this because she knows nothing else.

Likewise, in The Handmaid’s Tale, women are forbidden to read, and merely memorize and recite out biblical quotations and ideals with little idea of what they actually mean. Without education, the Republic of Gilead's corrupt ideals have permeated all facets of society to the point where they are without question. For instance:
Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed be the meek. Blessed are the silent. I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and the things they left out, too, but there was no way of checking. Blessed be those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Nobody said when. (110-111)
We see this same use of warped Biblical meaning in Orphan Black through the much occurring excerpt from Psalm 139:13-14.
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Tomas likely taught this phrase to Helena to prove her difference and support her Heavenly mission in ridding the world of the other clones. In Katja’s hotel room, when Sarah finds the decapitated Barbie, Helena has also left a Bible open to this passage along with the word "TRUTH" written alongside it.


In a grander context, while Biblical interpretation is often something best left up to each individual, to many this passage has come to refer to mankind as a whole, the miraculous nature of life itself, and the respect for a higher power that comes from the idea of being "fearfully made." Tomas, however, has warped this meaning into a personal crusade in order to manipulate Helena.

The same way that Tomas conditions Helena to violently hunt her genetic identicals, in The Handmaid's Tale the Republic of Gilead conducts a community event known as The Salvaging, where the Handmaids gather to communally execute those who have not upheld the laws of the state.
I’ve leaned forward to touch the rope in front of me, in time with the others, both hands on it, the rope hairy, sticky with tar in the hot sun, then placed my hand on my heart to show my unity with the Salvagers and my consent, and my complicity in the death of this woman. I have seen the kicking feet and the two in black who now seize hold of them and drag downward with all their weight. I don’t want to see it anymore. I look at the grass instead. I describe the rope. (345)
The same occurs during the event known as the Particicution, where the Commanders of the Faith bring forward a man, accused of raping a pregnant woman and causing the loss of the child, and let the Handmaids loose upon him in a murderous frenzy. They swarm the man and beat him to death, fueled by a rage placed in them by the language and ideals of Gilead.

There is a clear connection here, for these violently moralistic ideals have been engrained into the Handmaids by their superiors just as Helena’s assassin mentality has been put in place by Tomas. But, this is also where a lot of our empathy for these characters originates. When we see Helena and Offred believe so strongly in something that has been forced upon them, and then see both of them come to terms with the fact that this ideology may be wrong, it leads to a form of self-realization that then moves the plot forward as these characters come closer to their own personal truths.

Seestra?
Finally, it’s interesting to note how, in Orphan Black, this air of religious authority created by use of language is juxtaposed against that of scientific authority. By creating an entirely new unit of scientific language with the concept of Neolution, the characters who utilize and manipulate this language also hold power over those below them who may not fully understand its context. Dr. Leekie's followers, for example, seem to blindly follow a radical movement simply because it is represented by a charismatic figurehead who makes use of such language. The "Freaky Leekies" are willing to change their behaviors and appearance at a mere suggestion, which is really not so different from Helena or Offred's conditioned belief in their purpose and place within their respective societies.

The way that religion and science are used as a tool for manipulation forms a perfect bridge between the world of Orphan Black and the world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. To reinforce this bridge, it’s also worth mentioning the possibility that Orphan Black’s Maggie Chen could, in fact, be named after Atwood. Admittedly, Margaret is a fairly common name, easily shortened to Maggie, and not independently all that special, so the name might be little more than a happy coincidence. But, as Helena says to Sarah, before she saw the light and joined the Prolethean cause, “Maggie helped make you.” As a character tied up in both the scientific and religious aspects of Orphan Black, it’s doubtful Maggie Chen could have a more apropos namesake.

Margaret Chen may or may not have been named for Margaret Atwood–frankly we’ll probably never know for sure–but at the end of the day the queen of Canadian literature’s influence is definitely stamped all over Orphan Black, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.




Written by: Melanie
Melanie is a future cat lady, current university student, and fearless pilot of a lime green bicycle. She lives for the moments in buffet lines when she can lean over to the person next to her and say: "Wow, this cantaloupe sure looks MELONIE!"
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4 comments :

  1. This article interested me greatly and I ended up purchasing Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale" and I found another interesting paralleling with Orphan Black

    "But on one bag there's blood...it makes another mouth, a small red one, like the mouths painted with thick brushes by kindergarten children. A child's idea of a smile." (32)

    This passage is eerily similar to the scene in "Effects of External Conditions" when Kira is seen painting a dripping red smile on her drawing. The music turns fast and induces anxiety in the viewers as they see the trails of red drip from the page.

    Thanks for writing, it's really original.

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  2. Melanie! awesome read, I have just put the Handmaids Tale on my booklist. I also love Cosima best... looking forward to reading more posts from you :)

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  3. Cool comparisons! I was just thinking about the handmaid's tale in the season finale, when they were all looking at signing those documents... It was all such a discussion of freedom to and freedom from, like the aunts used to discuss with the handmaids. Leekie's offering them a freedom from certain things- and Alison took that, which will be interesting to look at.

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  4. Clearly, it is the rigidity of doctrine without any openness to discussion that gives religion a bad name.eye of the psychic

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