The Farm By Joanne Ramos
New York, NY; Random House 2019, 336 pp., $27.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Katherine Ouellette
Just as the publishing industry became fatigued by the onslaught of dystopian fiction brought on by the success of the Hunger Games franchise, titles like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale eked their way back onto bestseller lists before sales exploded after the presidential election. The seemingly extremist views explored in these books were suddenly not as distant as white readers had previously perceived. But the circumstances that white readers have long considered as “dystopian” have often been realities for people of color. When faced with harmful political rhetoric that could affect white people personally, privileged readers (like myself) finally realized this was never a fictional phenomenon. The Farm by Joanne Ramos is firmly rooted in a contemporary setting, but the events that unfold could have easily been a primer for The Republic of Gilead.
The protagonist of The Farm, Jane, is not a heroine who reluctantly challenges a fascist regime, but a new mother who is struggling to support herself and her six-week old daughter Mali. She works for minimum wage and lives in dorm with her seventy-something-year-old cousin, Ate Evelyn, and half a dozen other Filipina immigrants like them. Since Jane can’t count on her cheating husband to contribute to childcare, Ate suggests a potentially lucrative opportunity at Golden Oaks as a surrogate. The financial bonuses granted to the surrogates—or “Hosts” as Golden Oaks calls them—for the successful completion of first trimester, second trimester, and delivery would be life-changing for Jane and Mali. And after Jane gets fired from two jobs within the span of a month, she doesn’t have many other choices for gainful employment.
The author alternates between the perspectives of Jane, Ate, Mae (the woman who runs Golden Oaks), and Reagan (a white Host). Ramos writes with equal authority over the voices of a desperate young mother, a no-nonsense nanny with a knack for securing loyalty from wealthy employers, a college-educated daughter of a Chinese businessman, and a white photographer wracked with guilt for living a privileged life. The story is made all the richer by having the motivations for each character laid out for the reader, instead of limiting the reader ’s understanding of Golden Oaks to Jane, who just wants to fly under the radar and get paid. Ramos describes their individual worldviews with striking precision, addressing unconscious taboos about class with such frankness that it forces the reader to reconcile with these unwritten social rules.
For example, when Ate gives Jane advice about nannying, she says the parents, “will tell you to call them ‘Cate and Ted,’ very American, very equal— but it is always ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ They will tell you to ‘make yourself at home’—but they do not want you to make yourself at home! Because it is their home, not yours, and they are not your friends. They are your Clients. Only that.” This distinction between the Client’s purview and Jane’s foreshadows how far systemic inequality will be carried out.
The rhetoric used in The Farm is not dissimilar from what you might find in a corporate licensing agreement. Mae tells Jane that Golden Oaks wants her to, “understand fully what you’re committing to. Because once you’re impregnated—once there’s another human living inside you—it’s no longer just about you. There’s no going back.” Not only does this philosophy echo the concerning rhetoric of “life begins at conception,” but it also paints a sinister illustration of the class divide between the uber-rich and the working class. It’s made abundantly clear that Golden Oaks bestows preferential treatment towards the fetus over the Host’s own health because the fetuses belong to billionaires and the Hosts would never be able to afford lawyers to protest less-than-ideal working conditions. As another Host puts it, Golden Oaks is “a factory, and you’re the commodity.” (Or in another world, this is the Commander’s household and you’re the Handmaid.) Even though the Hosts theoretically sign this employment contract willingly, they have as few rights as the Handmaids who are forced into sexual slavery.
Similar to how Handmaids suddenly receive luxury treatment when they finally conceive, a repeat Host advises Jane that she will receive more lenient treatment from Golden Oaks about their rigorous schedules and limited family visits if Jane gets her Clients invested in her individual wellbeing. The key is to portray herself as a virtuous vessel for their unborn baby, as opposed to just someone who deserves a comfortable living wage. But Jane doesn’t get the opportunity to woo her Client like this, so she gets sucked into a factory-like system that effectively removes her bodily autonomy. Hosts receive focused diet plans, specialized exercise classes, and frequent doctor’s appointments—where the doctor talks to the Client over the phone about the fetus instead of the woman who is actually receiving the examination. (This draws an unexpected parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale, when the wives try to simulate the conception and the birthing experience while the Handmaid does the real work.) If that isn’t disconcerting enough, when the doctor discovers a lump on Reagan’s breast, she keeps Reagan in the dark about the potential risk. When the doctor is finally forced to acknowledge this health concern to Reagan, she tries to assure Reagan it’s nothing to worry about. Sensing something is amiss, Reagan tries to search for other symptoms of Hodgkin’s lymphoma on one of the Golden Oaks computers, only to find that term is blocked by the network.
If Golden Oaks is a factory and the Hosts are the commodity, the commodification of the female body is facilitated by censorship and constant surveillance, much like 1984. Hosts are forced to live on the premises for ten months—away from home and loved ones without any cell phone service or WiFi. Reagan brings her camera to take photos of the lush Hudson Valley surroundings, but that’s also confiscated upon arrival. Hosts can make video calls home during the scheduled technology room hours, so long as the slow connection doesn’t freeze, and Hosts don’t mind a group of other women at their own computers overhearing their conversations.
The Hosts don’t suspect foul play at first, but the reader sees through Mae’s eyes that every moment of the Host’s life is monitored by a surveillance system appropriately called the Panopticon. If a Host has an emotional outburst or appears to get too chummy with known troublemakers, the Golden Oaks staff employ techniques to convince the Host to “behave optimally” of her own accord, whether that’s through schedule changes or subtle emotional blackmail. Mae dangles visits with Jane’s daughter as a reward for her ideal behavior, and the visits are taken away just as quickly as a punishment for Jane, which makes a reader wonder if the visits were ever really going to happen. And Reagan can’t research for herself if she’s developing a life-threatening condition because treatment would be harmful to the fetus.
Later, this lack of consideration for the Host’s health is extended to grim extremes. When one of the fetuses shows signs of trisomy and therefore presents a risk of Down syndrome, the Client chooses to have the fetus aborted. Reagan is horrified about how swiftly Golden Oaks terminates an otherwise healthy pregnancy without consulting the affected Host, but other Hosts expected nothing less. “‘Do you understand: they forced Anya to abort... It’s a complete violation—’ ‘Not of the contract.’” Reagan comes from a family of privilege, so she never experienced catering to the will of a rich employer before. But by this point, the reader has practically received an instruction manual (via Ate’s voice) for how working class women—often women of color—have to appear non-threatening to mothers who don’t want to admit caring for their own child is difficult. Women of color have long been nannies and wet nurses for white children for hundreds of years. Becoming the surrogate for upper class women who want to control everything—and up until that point, have succeeded in controlling everything due to their wealth—is the next logical step. They don’t have a say in how a Client runs their household or their pregnancy, even if the pregnancy is being carried out by someone else.
Even though most of the Hosts are women of color, some Clients “are willing to pay a premium for Hosts whom they find pretty, or ‘well-spoken,’ or ‘kind,’ or ‘wise,’ or even: educated,” which is code for: white. As Ramos puts it, “Most Clients cannot help but feel that the Host they choose is not only a repository for their soon-to-be-baby but an emblem of the lofty expectations they have for the being to be implanted inside,” even though the Hosts are not contributing their DNA to the fetus. As a college educated white woman, Reagan is considered a “premium” Host, but she does want to be hired for the sake of a Client’s vanity. She has aspirations to carry for a woman who had biological difficulties conceiving a child for herself. Because Reagan the commodity is more profitable than the Filipina and Caribbean Hosts, Mae is willing to appease Reagan and hires a stand-in client to make Reagan think her position was more meaningful, and therefore behave more optimally.
The Farm ultimately centers around Jane’s fierce desire to protect and provide for her daughter, though it’s intriguing to contrast her experience with Reagan’s rude awakening to her performative altruism in a capitalist structure. (After all, Reagan still needs and accepts her salary as a Host.) Jane astutely observes that “people are not as free as Reagan thinks they are,” which is especially obvious when we also compare Jane’s journey to that of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, who is assumed to be white. Jane doesn’t have her credit cards and bank accounts stripped from her name to remove her financial agency and independence, she barely had any savings to begin with. Mali isn’t kidnapped from Jane to remove her from her own family obligations, she is safely under the care of Ate while Jane is at Golden Oaks—but Jane’s burning questions about Mali’s health and safety provide just as strong emotional tension as Offred’s concerns about her own daughter. Jane isn’t raped in order to provide an heir to a powerful family, but she is still under lock and key and surveillance of an isolated household. The Farm isn’t a dystopia, it simply highlights the very real desperation of the working class versus the luxurious accommodations and “experiences” catered to the ultra-wealthy.
Katherine Ouellette is a freelance writer with bylines at Bustle, The Hippo, and Women’s Review of Books. She lives in Boston, MA.