The Handmaid's Tale: From dystopian feminist horror in 1984, to horrifyingly real in 2017
Hulu’s TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale feels eerily relevant
“Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. 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.”
Goosebumps. Chills. Very few lines from contemporary literature have had the same effect on me as these startlingly scary ones from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The firm belief with which the “Aunts” in the story — women with cattle prods slung from their belts, which they use freely on the women they’re in charge of, i.e. the “Handmaids” (who they train and indoctrinate) — utter these lines, is reason enough to pause.
Their argument with the Handmaids (the only fertile women in a land otherwise rendered infertile due to environmental degradation and an antibiotic-resistant virus) is that, in the patriarchal theocratic dictatorship called Gilead in which the Handmaids find themselves as childbearing properties of high-ranked men (Commanders and Angels) and their “barren” wives, they’re truly free.
According to the Aunts, the women may have lost everything (their previous normal lives, including their jobs, their husbands, their wives, their children) and they may have lost the freedom “to” do as they want, go where they want — the freedom to work and read and dance and love and live — but that instead of mourning this, the Handmaids should be thankful for what they now have, which is the freedom “from” sexist catcalls, lecherous gazes, and potential abuse from strangers. Never mind that they’re raped once a month by the men of the households they’re assigned to — that time of the month when they’re most fertile. Of course. Because that isn’t abuse, surely. That’s them fulfilling their purpose on earth — to breed. Cue, horror!
When Hulu announced that they were adapting Atwood’s famously feminist novel for television and streaming audiences, the timing couldn’t have been more apt. America had just elected a comically inept and a caricaturishly sexist white man to their highest office, as President of the United States. White women had supported him in hordes, voting for him over a capable and qualified white female candidate in mass numbers, despite knowing his stance on women’s rights and his party’s stance on women’s reproductive rights.
Right-wing conservatives and alt-right white extremists have since wreaked havoc within and outside the US; as for women’s rights, a day after the presidential inauguration in January, we witnessed the largest single-day protest in US history in Washington. Termed the “women’s march”, it actually protested the new administration’s position and statements regarding everything from women’s rights to immigration reform, healthcare reform, reproductive rights, climate change, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, and freedom of religion, among other things.
By February, Atwood’s book (going on 30 years and notwithstanding bans in conservative school libraries nationwide) had soared to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. In March 2017, when the Texas Senate passed an anti-abortion bill to the house (a bill that bans a safe and common procedure used for second trimester abortions), a group of activists arrived at the Senate chambers dressed in the inimitable red-robe-and-white-bonnet uniform of the Handmaids from Atwood’s book; this was before Hulu’s adaptation had premiered. A month later, photos surfaced of an all-white, all-male administration looking smug as the President signed the anti-abortion legislation. The time was ripe. The world had never been more ready for The Handmaid’s Tale to be on screen.
Elizabeth Moss, who famously and fabulously played Peggy Olson on Mad Men, scored the role of her career when she was cast as Offred. No, there’s no last name. Just Offred (“of” as in “belongs to”; “fred” as in Frederick T Waterford, the Commander of the Faithful and the highest ranking officer in the fictional Republic of Gilead). In a hard-hitting nutshell, Offred “belongs” to Fred, as his property. Why? As one of the few fertile women still remaining in Gilead (the erstwhile USA), Offred is one of the Handmaids — women whose sole purpose in life now is to breed children and thereby bless the infertile land of Gilead with its next generation.
Offred has the “honour”, so an Aunt would say, to serve her purpose by bearing the child of the Commander (played by a completely-unlike-the-Bard-in-Shakespeare-in-Love Joseph Fiennes) because his wife is barren. In Gilead, “There is no such thing as a sterile man anymore, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that's the law.” Because of course — an “infertile” or “sterile” man exists in Gilead as much as he does in the Bible. Biblical references are abundant in The Handmaid’s Tale — stores are called Milk and Honey, Loaves and Fishes; the brothel is named Jezebel. Handmaids greet each other with a solemn and downcast “blessed be the fruit” or “may the Lord open” (to encourage fertility). In a March 2017 essay in The New York Times on what The Handmaid’s Tale means in the age of Trump, Atwood herself confirmed that “the Republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern day America we thought we knew.” And so, the wife is always to blame.
The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (played by Yvonne Strahovski) — blond, young, tightly wound, and Offred’s harshest opponent — is deeply offended at having another young woman in her household, especially when that woman is having sex with her husband in her presence, while she holds the Handmaid’s head in her lap as her husband rapes the Handmaid in a twisted, grotesque, and horrifying ritual known as The Ceremony.
A state-sanctioned rape of the Handmaids would seem highly unnecessary in the age of technology and IVF, but Gilead believes in going back to a simpler way of life (cars in Gilead are all hybrids, btw). The Ceremony isn’t about sex, or even procreation, to be honest. It’s about the power that men hold over the women of Gilead — the Handmaids and their wives. There’s something about the wife having complete control over The Ceremony (or at least so we’re informed), only to have that myth shattered to bits along with Serena’s ego when the Commander not only reaches the designated room late one time, but in a later episode when (after he has made attempts to “befriend” Offred by playing Scrabble with her and giving her access to fashion and women’s magazines), touches Offred inappropriately while he’s raping her. Something he isn’t supposed to do, even as he rapes her. Welcome to Gilead, your dystopian nightmare.
The nightmare exists for those who oppose the regime as well — if the Handmaids object, they’re banished to the Colonies (nuclear wastelands where a slow painful death is guaranteed) along with Unwomen (feminists), Gender Traitors (lesbians), and other enemies of the state. Some enemies are also hung publicly. Some women become Marthas (domestic servants in officials’ homes), while others become the aforementioned (and truly frightening) Aunts — armed with tasers, the Aunts are tasked with “caring” for Handmaids (which is shorthand for “physically and mentally abusing them into obedience, even if it means gouging their eye out or sexually mutilating them”) at the Rachel and Leah Center (Biblical reference number….I’ve given up!). The aunts also oversee other important things, like the rare new births in the regime and the women’s executions. All in a day’s work for these female zealots.
There’s a resistance rising — we see Offred and Ofglen (Offred’s shopping partner who’s lesbian; she was happily married in the pre-Gilead world) testing each other out in the first couple of episodes, as each is wary of the other being an Eye (secret police officers who work for the Republic of Gilead, the Eyes drive around in black vans monitoring all suspicious activity in Gilead and have the power to arrest anyone who they believe is a traitor). Played beautifully by Alexis Bledel, Ofglen has a combination of strength and vulnerability with an indecipherable amount of sadness lurking behind her eyes (episode 3 shows us the reason behind her insurmountable sadness).
In 1990, The Handmaid’s Tale was adapted to the large screen in a movie with a stellar star cast. The late Natasha Richardson played Offred, Faye Dunaway played Serena Joy, Robert Duvall was the Commander, and a gorgeous young Aidan Quinn played Nick the driver. According to Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic, “In the late ’80s, the playwright Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for a movie adaptation that few actresses wanted to be involved with, and few studios wanted to touch. Finally, the German auteur Volker Schlöndorff signed on, and the British actress Natasha Richardson was cast as Offred. The movie was a failure, but a fascinating one. Pinter, Atwood told me, wrote the script incorporating Offred’s inner monologue, and Schlöndorff and Richardson filmed it as such. But in editing, Schlöndorff cut the voiceover that Richardson had recorded, making her performance seem flat, and her character’s motivations hazy. Offred had been robbed of her voice.” I haven’t seen the 1990 movie yet, but keeping Offred’s inner monologue was one of the best decisions creator Bruce Miller made! One of many great decisions.
Understandably, and smartly, Hulu’s TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale veers away from its literary path by making all the necessary changes relevant to 2017. Atwood’s book takes the reader right into Gilead, with very few references to the time before. On television, there is mounting dread and tension as we watch Offred, known as June in the pre-Gilead world, being slowly and deliberately punished for being a woman. She looks on helplessly (shaking her head with incomprehension and in visible scorn) when her manager announces that all women at their office are being let go. No explanation, no preamble. She stares in disbelief at an ATM screen as it refuses to let her withdraw cash. This is America, you can see her think, surely this can’t be happening. Later, when she and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) are casually called “sluts” by a barista, they’re shocked. As I’m sure most women would have been while watching it. These “smaller” injustices somehow shock as much as the state-sanctioned power-play of the rape in The Ceremony. It all feels too real. Too near to us.
A lot has been said about the men in The Handmaid’s Tale — the good ones (June’s husband Luke, who was assumed dead until a couple of episodes back), Nick the driver (who’s of such a low ranking that he doesn’t even have a handmaid “assigned” to him), and the rest (the Commander, the doctor who gently suggests having sex with Offred and impregnating her in order for her to avoid the wrath of the Waterfords if she can’t bear the Commander’s child — because she would naturally be blamed for it), and how all of them are the enemy. It’s shocking that in a television show about women, with female protagonists, and with barely a handful of men who are even named at all, the presence of men is so overarching. Men, even when they aren’t named or seen on screen, are still insidiously felt in their overbearing presence on the psyche of the women on the show.
As a culture, I think we’re more than ready for a show like this — something that shocks us, but still enrages us to the point of wanting to do something legitimate about it. Referring to Ivanka and Melania Trump as “Ofjared” and “Ofdonald” is a sad takeaway, one that will hopefully disappear asap. It doesn’t do justice to Atwood’s remarkably fierce legacy, and it doesn’t do justice to the kind of life the Handmaids are forced to live — both in the book and the TV show. The consequences faced by the Handmaids in Gilead are unimaginably gruesome, but Atwood did imagine them. Miller, Reed Morano (the brilliant cinematographer and director of the first three episodes), and the entire cast and crew of the TV show are re-imagining it. The least we can do is read the book, watch the show, be inspired, and understand that we have the freedom “to” do something about the state of things in the world.
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