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Claiming the “Bastardes”

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.[1]

A bit cheeky, perhaps a little rebellious. Definitely fun to say (And I’ve read it’s a very popular tattoo.)

The phrase, as you may know, comes from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel that imagines a near-future theocracy, Gilead, where religious fundamentalists have remade society along rigid gender lines, including enslaving the remaining fertile women (the environment is in ruins) as “handmaids” who must procreate with the “Commanders” of the society in a perversion of the story of Rachel and Bilhah in Genesis 30. Offred, the novel’s Handmaid narrator, discovers the words surreptitiously scratched into wood of her closet, and she seizes on this “schoolboy joke” in Latin as a message of encouragement from the unknown woman who was Handmaid in the house before her. And not just encouragement, but part of her motivation to resist.

Maybe it’s the times we’re living in, but resistance seems to be a key theme popping up everywhere in popular culture.  I commend to you, for example, Rhiannon Giddens’ February 2017 solo album, Freedom Highway, which chronicles the painful path of struggle in African-American history from colonial times to #BlackLivesMatter. Giddens, who performed as a member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, mixes her incredible voice with  profound historiography.

And in the last month, I’ve been struck by the commonality of three of the most compelling and critically reviewed productions: Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale; Netflix’s multi-part documentary, The Keepers; and the recently released film Wonder Woman.

On the surface, these may seem quite different in genre and in plot. The Handmaid’s Tale’s bleak dystopia. The Keepers’ true crime chronicling of two 60-something women, Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, who investigate the 1969 disappearance and murder of their teacher Sister Cathy Cesnik, who taught at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. And Wonder Woman: the origin story of a cartoon superhero, born on the mythical island of Themyscira to Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazons.

But of course, the stories are more complicated than these brief synopses. And, while avoiding “spoiling” any of them, I want to argue that at their core they are all examining a similar question: what moves us to fight against injustice, especially when that injustice originates with people and institutions with religious/moral authority?

Part of the answer is that, like Giddens’ recounting of African-American history, these three stories have to explicitly name the evil that their protagonists are up against. Wonder Woman begins with the sense that people are inherently good—and must come to a more complicated view. The real-life wonder women, middle-aged (and truly fierce, by the way) amateur detectives, Abbie and Gemma, find that the high school they thought they had attended was really something else altogether. And Offred has to come to terms with the pre-Gileaden history and complicities that allowed oppression to happen.

Call me Reformed, but the naming of depravity is powerful. Each of these stories makes clear that brokenness is the absolute norm. Indeed, these stories are unapologetic in exposing it.

And once articulated, it’s also clear why action is necessary. You cheer as the women in each story begin working, always—importantly—with others, to repair community. Total restoration, of course, isn’t achieved in any of them, but the trying is enough to feel inspired to stand up to the “bastardes” present in one’s own life.

[1] At least that’s what the mock Latin is supposed to mean.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I am professor and chair of the Calvin University English department, where I have taught a range of courses in literature and composition since 1998. An Army brat, I have come to love my adopted hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m also the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture. My book, Nourishing Narratives: The Power of Story to Shape Our Faith, was published in July 2023 by Intervarsity Press.


  • Karen says:

    Thank you Jennifer… I appreciated this… As I watched Wonder Woman recently, I thought of the religious overtones!!

  • Deb Byl says:

    This is great Jennifer! Thanks! I plan on quoting you when our book club discusses this book next week! Always love your writing!

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    So instead of a prosperity gospel of “name it and claim it”, we have one of “name it and fight it” kind of like Hermoine in Harry Potter who was one of the few who dared to name, “he who must not be named,” right?

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