Written by Tracy Lawson.
“The United States of America once ranked above all industrialized nations in the realm of teen pregnancy. We were the undisputed queens of precocious procreation! We were number one before, and we can be number one again!” –President’s State of the Union Address, Bumped
What’s to be done when a country faces an infertility crisis? Women of childbearing age become the most precious commodity, the most sought-after natural resource. Will they be celebrated and pampered—or subjugated—to spur the creation of the children essential to the society’s survival?
That’s the question in both Bumped by Megan McCafferty and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The societies depicted in these novels both formulate plans to replenish their populations through surrogate mothers, and their governments launch propaganda campaigns that sanction and even glorify using women as breeders.
Though teen sex is glorified in pop culture and slang in the young adult novel Bumped, the actual details of bumping are kept appropriately veiled, while in the dystopian horror story The Handmaid’s Tale the rituals of mating with a surrogate are relayed in stark detail.
Religion and its influence on people’s attitudes toward procreation is central to both stories. In Bumped, the Goodside religious community seeks its own solution to the country’s infertility issues, and in The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic government blames the lack of healthy children on a permissive, promiscuous society, and aims to correct the problem by properly subjugating women.
In Bumped, 75% of the teenagers in Melody Mayflower’s high school class are infected with HPSV, the Human Progressive Sterility Virus, and will go irreversibly sterile sometime between their eighteenth and twentieth birthdays. These stats are the norm nationwide, and the teens in Bumped are bombarded with songs whose lyrics glorify pregnancy. Trendy stores at the mall that sell provocative clothing and “fun bumps,” strap-on bellies that show the girls how sexy they’ll look when pregnant. Even school clubs like the Pro/Am Pregg Alliance put the focus on procreation.
Teens are pushed to have as many children as possible before they reach the age at which they’ll become infertile. They use the drug Tocin, which lessens inhibitions and causes memory loss, to help set the mood and make it less embarrassing to bump with partners they barely know. Later, they’re told, after they become sterile, they can attend college, get married, and adopt children of their own, and build their lives with someone they love. But for now, bumping with lots of partners is a way to keep the human race going until the full effects of the virus are known.
“A free society cannot force girls to have children, but a free market can richly reward those who do.” Ashley and Tyler Mayflower, PhDs, Princeton University
Melody’s parents, both economics professors, adopted her when she was a baby, and they’ve spent her entire life developing her brand and molding her into the perfect Surrogette—beautiful, accomplished, and intelligent. When she was fourteen, Melody’s virginity was brokered to the highest-bidding couple, which was a radical idea at the time, but now pregging for profit is something to which teen girls aspire. Melody received a six-figure signing bonus, and, In exchange for giving birth to a healthy child, she can count on a new car, liposuction, and college tuition. She’s been paired with Jondoe, the most genetically flawless bumping partner available, and they’re scheduled to do the deed as soon as possible. Melody’s been preparing for this her whole life. So why is she having reservations?
It turns out there’s more than one obstacle blocking the successful execution of her parents’ plans.
The first hitch shows up on Melody’s doorstep, in the form of her long-lost identical twin, Harmony. The girls were separated at birth, and Harmony, the frail, sickly twin, was adopted into a religious sect called Goodside. Now, Harmony’s run away from her community to save her sister from a life of sin. And she’s got a few ideas about saving herself, too.
Though Harmony has been reared to believe that life for a woman is JOY: Jesus first, Others second and Yourself last, she’s not comfortable with all the tenets of her faith-based community, and is especially distressed by the scripture in 1 Corinthians, which dictates that the wife’s body belongs to her husband. Early marriage and procreation are of paramount importance in the theocratic communal society of Goodside. Girls are raised to be mothers, nothing more. Harmony’s not sure how she feels about arranged marriage, and she flees rather than commit to a lifetime with someone she doesn’t love. When Jondoe mistakes Harmony for Melody, she’s more confused than ever.
Melody’s BFF, Zen adds to the problems. He’s sweet and charming and would be the perfect boyfriend, except he’s not “upmarket” enough to be Sperm for a Surrogette like Melody. Though he’s desperately in love with Mel, is Zen destined to be just an “Everythingbut” for a professional pregger like her?
Neither situation is healthy for these young girls. Melody feels responsibility as the president of her school’s Pro/Am Pregg Alliance to set an example of pregging for profit that influences other girls, for better or for worse, never mind that she’s the oldest virgin in the club. The girls in Otherside may believe it’s easy to stay emotionally detached while having sex, giving birth and then turning their children over for adoption, but Melody learns that’s not always the case.
Harmony rebels against her austere and restrictive upbringing, while Melody rebels against her parents’ plan for her. But at least in Bumped, the girls retain some autonomy. The decision to bump or not to bump is still theirs, despite peer pressure and a growing demand for children to adopt. Many teens will enter the baby market, but they won’t have to pregg at the point of a gun.
“Our big mistake was teaching them [women] to read. We won’t do that again.”
The Handmaid system of repopulating the Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States) came about after a decline in healthy births in the late 20th century, which was attributed to many factors, including the rampant use of birth control, abortions, AIDS, syphilis, nuclear accidents, and the uncontrolled use of herbicides and insecticides.
At first, surrogates were hired, but when the number of healthy births continued to decline, the government declared all second marriages and non-marital liaisons adulterous, arrested the women in those relationships, and confiscated and adopted out their children to upper class families. The women were given the option of becoming surrogates. But it was never really an option.
Childless or infertile older women were recruited as Aunts to help run the Handmaid indoctrination programs, and wives who were unable to have children of their own took part in and supported the system that made sex slaves out of other women. After all, a little power is better than no power at all.
“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
Commanders, men highly placed in the regime, chose Handmaids for their households from among the indoctrinated women who had demonstrated reproductive fitness.
“Not every Commander has a Handmaid; some of their Wives have children. From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts.” Take away free access to information and enslave.
The mating ritual was an absolute horror which forced Commander, Wife, and Handmaid to take part in a regimented copulation designed to reduce the Handmaid to nothing more than a vessel held by the Wife to receive her husband’s seed. To say that it warped the sex act for all concerned would be a gross understatement.
Many Commanders of the regime came in contact with a sterility-causing virus developed by scientists, Pre-Gilead, which were intended to be used on the Soviets. But it was against the law to insinuate that a Commander could be sterile, so Commanders, Wives, and Handmaids went through the horror of the mating ritual, month after month, until the Handmaid either conceived, went insane, or was traded in by the family for a better specimen. Younger men of lower classes were shut out of marriage entirely. But Handmaids often risked their lives to use these men as studs when their Commanders failed to impregnate them. The risk was great, but the reward for producing a healthy child was even greater: it guaranteed that a Handmaid would never be sent to any undesirable location, never be made to shovel up the polluted waste in the Colonies or be a prostitute at Jezebel’s gentleman’s club.
Handmaids were identified by their red full-length robes and veils, and were tattooed on their ankles, a “passport in reverse…supposed to guarantee that they will never be able to fade, finally, into another landscape. I am too important, too scarce, for that. I am a national resource.”
The narrator in The Handmaid’s Tale never gives her real name. Handmaids were stripped of identities other than “Ofglen” or “Ofwarren” which associated them with their Commanders. If they changed households, they changed names. Handmaids were discouraged from forming relationships of any kind with the families they served.
“We lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.”
Both novels demonstrate how far things can spin out of control when people are forced into unnatural behaviors and brainwashed to believe that it’s just business as usual.