A Different Handmaid’s Tale: On Joanne Ramos’s “The Farm”

IN MARGARET ATWOOD’S seminal dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, disenfranchised fertile women are forced by a totalitarian regime to bear the children of the powerful yet largely infertile ruling class. In Joanne Ramos’s The Farm, disenfranchised fertile women also bear the children of the powerful and infertile but in this highly plausible, near-future tale, the trade is not the work of some scary, fascist government; these women “choose” to take on the arduous task of childbearing because it is their best and sometimes only option for survival in capitalist America.
Instead of being locked up in the spartan homes of Commanders, these women, called “Hosts,” are confined to the sprawling grounds of Golden Oaks, a luxury surrogacy clinic complete with swimming pool and nature trails hidden away in Upstate New York. Their uniform consists of layers of thin, soft cashmere, the work is well paid, and impregnation takes place in a lab — not during a ceremonial rape. Yet for all its cushy comfort, and solicitous “Coordinators,” Golden Oaks, nicknamed the Farm, bears at least one striking similarity to Gilead: the women — largely minorities with few other employment options — are only as valuable as the fetuses they will deliver to more powerful individuals. To protect the Client’s investment, and ensure the quality (health) of the fetus, Hosts are forbidden from leaving the premises or receiving guests. They are watched around the clock, their diets and activities heavily restricted, and they must wear a WellBand on their wrist, which reports heart rate and location directly to the clinic’s unseen Data Management Team.
The novel centers on Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines who is first shunted into a well-paying job as a live-in baby nurse when her ailing aunt Ate begs her to fill in for her. Jane has a one-month-old daughter named Amalia and, since splitting from her husband, she’s been living in a dorm with Ate and 30 other Filipinos, most of whom hold similar jobs in care services. Jane knows the situation cannot last and, though reluctant to part with her child, she ultimately decides to leave Amalia in the care of her 70-year-old aunt and move in with a rich Tribeca couple to care for their new baby. At the Carters, Jane is introduced to “a self-contained world […] all but divorced from the one she and Amalia and anyone Jane really knew inhabited.” She watches as “the world […] came to the Carters’ home”: gourmet groceries, organic beauty products, dry-cleaned shirts, designer clothes, also health care. When baby Henry develops a cough, a doctor is called for so that they can avoid the “petri dish” that is public health care. The Carters’ wealth shields them from the drudgery that is early parenthood; it is Jane who wakes in the night to feed Henry and it is Jane who tries to entertain him while Mrs. Carter’s friends are visiting. Meanwhile, Jane’s own baby is far away, living in cramped quarters with her aunt, and Jane, who doesn’t own a breast pump, locks herself in the bathroom to “milk herself like a cow,” with her own hands. It is a stark illustration of just how different parenthood looks at either end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and raises the question: In late capitalist America, who gets to be a good mother? Or rather, who can afford it?
According to recent research, parenting behaviors within the United States continue to stratify across class lines. Parents with higher education spend more time with their children than less educated parents, but they also spend that time differently: enrolling their kids in extracurriculars, worrying about their fragile egos, obsessively organizing their academic and social schedules. However, a survey which polled 3,600 parents with children ages eight to 10 who were demographically and economically representative of the national population, found that most parents — regardless of socioeconomic status — aspired to this level of hands-on parenting. It’s just that only the upper middle class can afford to do it. And so: Inequality is further reproduced in the next generation. And as Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti’s, professors of Economics at Northwestern and Yale, further research predicts, we can expect this trend to grow more extreme. In their book Love, Money, and Parenting, Doepke and Zilibotti found that parents were far more likely to be intensely involved in their children’s lives in societies with high inequality, like the United States, Russia, and China. These parents were more likely to emphasize “hard work” and less likely to emphasize “imagination” than their counterparts in Sweden, Germany, and Norway, all of which have lower levels of inequality. It’s not hard to figure out why. In societies with high inequality, the importance of achievement rises as a child’s access to good education and a suitable career vary according to socioeconomic background. Parents want their children to have a leg up on their peers in a ruthless, free-market world.
At Golden Oaks, privilege of this kind begins in utero: the hosts’ diet and activities are minutely calibrated to yield supremely healthy “uber-babies.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Farm’s started shooting up our fetuses with brain boosters,” observes one host. Jane, suddenly initiated into a world of Baby Mozart classes and low-sugar diets, laments how little she knew when pregnant with her own child, “eating Big Macs and all those bags of chicharron.” It is a cruel and essentially American irony that mothers like Jane would only become worthy of prenatal care when they are pregnant with the babies of the wealthy. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that African-American, Native American, and Alaska Native women are about three times more likely to die from causes related to pregnancy, compared to white women in the United States. One can easily imagine that, if their pregnancies had been assigned a substantial monetary value, as in The Farm — Hosts are, after all, essentially carrying highly bespoke, luxury products — these women would have fared far better.
As opposed to The Handmaid’s Tale, it is rich women, rather than powerful men, who ultimately make the decision to use surrogates. That certainly makes the arrangement more palatable but taken to its natural extreme, is it really any better? While the Clients’ identities remain a mystery to the majority of the Hosts, most of them are super successful career women who have either passed the age of viability or are unable to take a break from their grueling schedules to carry a child. In other words, they are the type of women who are celebrated as feminist icons today. Indeed, their decision to use a surrogate can also be seen as a feminist act, but for whom? One of the critiques of what is sometimes called “white feminism” is that it ignores or obscures how factors like race and class can also lead to a person’s oppression. While second-wave feminists successfully fought for the right to work outside the home, the task was at least in part accomplished on the backs of poorer, nonwhite women who picked up as cleaning ladies, nannies, and cooks. It is not so hard to imagine that this trade-off would eventually extend to child labor itself.
Still, The Farm doesn’t always make it easy to classify who exactly is the oppressed and who is oppressor, and this is one of the book’s strengths. Mae Yu, the canny and cutthroat director of Golden Oaks, would be the likeliest candidate for villain, and yet Ramos shrewdly cultivates our sympathy for her. Raised by a Chinese immigrant father and an American mother who never quite forgave her husband for not being rich, Mae is an emblem of the American Dream. She overcame prejudice and poverty to put herself through university, eventually working her way up the corporate ladder at Holloway, Golden Oaks’s parent company. Golden Oaks is her baby; she considers it to be the future of procreation for women like her, women who are too busy smashing the glass ceiling to take time out for pregnancy. She is nothing if not a zealot of capitalism.
When one of her prospective Hosts, a girl named Reagan, worries that there might be something potentially exploitive about Golden Oaks, Mae counters with a pithy lecture on free market capitalism, stressing that “free trade — voluntary trade — is mutually beneficial.” While she acknowledges that many of the Hosts are making such a “voluntary trade” in the absence of any other real options, she argues that surrogacy at Golden Oaks “is still the best option available. And without the trade, without this relatively better option, the one party would be worse off, don’t you think? It isn’t like we force our Hosts to be Hosts. They choose to work for us freely.”
A Marxist would remind us that exploitation needn’t occur through explicit duress, physical threat, or external force; instead, it is through the capitalist’s vastly superior economic bargaining power over workers, and the lack of any real alternatives for workers, that exploitation is made possible. The women at Golden Oaks might have agreed to the contract, but Ramos makes clear that most of them lacked any other choice. The arrangement is made even more problematic by the fact that Hosts are paid a small amount each month, but “the bonus, the big money Ms. Yu promised […]? That is only at the end.” If a Host miscarries, misbehaves, or delivers a child that is some way defective, that bonus will be revoked.
This is Ramos’s first book. The author, born in the Philippines, moved to the United States when she was six, where she lived in an immigrant community in Wisconsin. She earned a BA from Princeton, worked as an investment banker, and wound up as a staff writer at The Economist, before she started writing The Farm. According to a press release from Random House, Ramos “has straddled both worlds, and animates her cast on both sides of the economic divide with real depth and compassion.” While this is true, by the end of the novel it seemed to me that Ramos hadn’t quite picked a side, ideologically. At times, The Farm reads like an explicit critique of capitalism; at other times, it’s more like an apologia. Some elements of the plot seem transparently designed to increase tension or introduce an argument that Ramos wants to sink her teeth into. There is the mystery of which Host is carrying the “billion-dollar baby,” the spawn of an über-wealthy Chinese billionaire. There is also the matter of a lump found on the collarbone of one of the Hosts, whose identity is at first withheld from the reader, in a bid, I suppose, to keep us interested. But it’s an unnecessary button to push. What’s really interesting isn’t which Host possibly has cancer, but what sort of questions it provokes: Which life takes precedence: the Host’s, or the baby’s? Can the client block the Host from undergoing chemotherapy if it would harm the fetus? This is good stuff, and Ramos plumbs both sides of the questions with sympathy and insight. Yet, it is all resolved too quickly: the lump is found to be benign, and one gets the impression that Ramos hadn’t quite figured out her own thinking on the matter.
The conclusion to Jane’s story line is similarly problematic, both too easy and ultimately unsatisfying: she’s happy, and in many ways better off than she was in the beginning, but she is still very much a tool of the wealthier and more powerful. Perhaps Ramos wanted to show how murky and inescapable the waters of capitalism may be, yet I felt as though she were walking back from some of the novel’s most interesting questions. Even so, her ability to explore the nuances of these questions in the first place — in tight, spare prose, with well-placed plotting, no less — makes me hopeful that Ramos will pen another book soon. If she does, let’s hope she pushes it in a more conclusive, concrete direction. Stylistically, she’s got the chops to do just that.
There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to use a surrogate. Mothers have always been the subject of intense scrutiny going back all the way to the Virgin Mary, and are too often the target of unfair judgment and vitriol. There is no “right” way to conceive or give birth, and women should be able to choose the option that works best for them. What is wrong, however, is a society that only extends options, health care, and education, to one socioeconomic group of mothers and not to others.
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Hayley Phelan writes about culture, style, travel, food, and the internet for The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Elle, Conde Nast Traveler, Business of Fashion, and The Cut. She also has a column in the New York Times Thursday Styles Section.
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