By: Andrew Nichols
The Handmaid’s Tale is an American dystopian television series created by Bruce Miller, television writer of Eureka and The 100, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel of the same name. The Handmaid’s Tale premiered on the Hulu platform on April 26, 2017, consisting of one season with ten 45-to-60 minute episodes. Taking place in postmodern United States after a nuclear civil war, the series focuses on Offred, one of the few women who could still bear children after sexually transmitted diseases decreased fertility rates during the war. Offred was taken to be a “Handmaid”, under the control of
Fred Waterford, a commander of the new corrupt government, Gilead. Handmaids such as Offred suffered from the worst of punishments for the tiniest mistakes, and they were forced without consent to have children with their masters. Offred can remember the days when she was free and could be with her family, but she knows she must subject to Waterford if she wants to have a chance to be free once again. As the season progresses, tensions increase and the oppressive, violent nature of Gilead is even further revealed as flashbacks detail Offred’s past and the rise of Gilead. The season ends on a cliffhanger when a black van in search of Offred comes to Fred’s estate shortly after the Handmaids protest the unfair punishment of another Handmaid, and Offred, unknowing of what awaits, decided to enter the van.
Historical and Cultural Context
The Handmaid’s Tale series from 2017 is based on a novel by Margaret Atwood. She wrote the novel mainly in Alabama, around the time of the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, in the midst of a strong conservative revival. Along with the increased conservatism came a standstill in the women’s rights movement as well as the sexual revolution of the previous two decades. Many feminists wanted to counter the diminishing of women’s rights, the same rights they spent massive time and effort to fight for in the 1960s and 1970s.
Authors such as Atwood noticed the increased struggle and consequently wrote feminist novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale to demonstrate the importance of women’s rights in society. For example, the novel basically takes away all the rights of women and reverts society back to a time where they had no rights, illuminating the consequences of the lack of these rights in a dramatic fashion. Atwood associated the conservative revival with religious conservatives taking power. One possible explanation for this seizure of power by conservatives, Atwood believes, is the lack of teamwork among feminists in the Second Wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement. This wave occurred mostly during the 1960s and focused on debate over topics such as “sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities” (Britannica). Although many women were fighting for the same or similar rights, they were not united as a team or a sisterhood, but rather divided in separate, generating very little power and momentum for the movement. One of Atwood’s goals in writing her novel was to detail a situation that could potentially occur in America if women did not united and form a sort of “sisterhood.” (Callaway 67)
The TV series builds on the themes discussed in the novel but in the context of 2017. Premiering just after the election of Donald Trump and in the context of his offensive comments and demeaning views on women, the series provides modern insight and emphasis on the fact that there are still issues with women’s rights today. For example, according to CNN, as of 2016, women only make about 82% of the money that men make. The Handmaid’s Tale takes this pay gap to the extreme, as women in the series as not only prohibited from being employed but also from owning any property. Bruce Miller portrays women in the dystopian series as having little-to-no financial or economic power, prompting viewers to think of a future American society in this situation.
Themes and Style
Some of the major themes in The Handmaid’s Tale are suffering, feminism, and sisterhood. These themes are developed by following one character, Offred, through her experience as a handmaid, deprived of all her rights, as she fights for freedom from the control of the powerful Gilead. The series uses an interesting rhetorical strategy to convey feminist themes; instead of directly promoting women’s rights, the series takes them away and displays a society that almost resembles the past, with women suffering due to their lack of simple human rights that everyone deserves.
One major theme discussed in The Handmaid’s Tale is suffering. For example, Offred suffers from the separation from her family, as evidenced by various emotional flashbacks Offred has of her family in episodes 2, 5, 7, and 10. These flashbacks cause her thoughts of Gilead’s unjust oppression to begin brewing, inspiring her to find out more about Gilead resistance movements such as Mayday. Many characters also deal with physical suffering, such as Ofglen, a handmaid who was beaten and captured as a result of homosexual acts in episode 3, which were punishable by death under Gilead. Ofglen was only spared because of her fertility.
Feminism is another major theme found in The Handmaid’s Tale. As Offred and her fellow Handmaids battle sexual, financial, and gender injustice, they must stand up for the rights they deserve and suffer the consequences for this defiance against Gilead. For example, in episode 10, Ofglen speaks out against an unjust execution of a Handmaid and is beaten as a result. Anti-feminist backlash also appears in Gilead, as Waterford’s wife, Serena, although being an active feminist before the takeover of Gilead, publishing a book titled A Women’s Place containing the staple line “do not mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness,” as seen in episode 6, Serena then became huge contributor to the rise of Gilead and greatly benefitted from the new gender egalitarian social structure.
An additional key theme in the dystopian television series is sisterhood. After Gilead destroys Offred’s church, the only sanctuary Offred had during the chaos, it does not take her long to learn that no Handmaid can defeat Gilead alone; they must be a strong team to stand a chance. This is evidenced by Offred writing “You are not alone” on the closet wall in episode 8. The sisterhood developing among the Handmaids is seen in episode 10 after Ofglen speaks out against the execution; the other Handmaids, resembling a powerful army, drop their stones and defend Ofglen. In addition, at the end of episode 10, Offred receives a package full of letters from other women who have been enslaved by Gilead, showing her that she is not alone.
The dispossession of rights serves to illuminate the great value of women’s rights in society today, but also that women’s rights can still further be developed and advanced in modern America. In addition, focusing on one character allows viewers to more closely sympathize with the character and the situation as a whole, invoking a more intense emotional response to not only Offred’s story, but that of all the women in the series, and ultimately women in general. The way women are “enslaved” in the series and in society today is, in a way, is evidence of an “afterlife” of transatlantic slavery.
Some of the main controversies about The Handmaid’s Tale are whether it is a feminist series or if it just a series about injustice in general, and whether the events in the series are likely to occur in any magnitude. Some writers, such as Phoebe Reilly from The Rolling Stone, believe that the series directly focuses on feminism, as evidenced by their focus on Trump’s influence on women’s rights and role in society and its relevance to the series. Reilly argues that the ideas and themes presented in the series have not completely been “invented wholesale” but rather “plucked from history,” implying that similar events from the past and present influenced the plot and situation in the series. Margaret Atwood, in an interview, agrees with Reilly, calling the series a “protest symbol” against those who don’t support women’s rights. She describes her novel and the resulting television series as “speculative fiction,” suggesting that she believes that a situation similar to the one in the series could potentially occur in the not-so-distant future inAmerica, likely in a less exaggerated manner than those in the series.
On the other hand, writers such as Zahra Hemmati believe that the treatment of women in the series is just one example of injustice between gender, race, and the elite. Hemmati claims that The Handmaid’s Tale is a satire illuminating general injustice, as “Atwood mocks our society through this novel. She admonishes us exhibiting how not dealing with true quandaries could bring a situation kindred to [this] one.” In addition, Jennifer Dunn in “CRITICAL CONTEXTS: Feminism and the Handmaid’s Tale.”, claims that The Handmaid’s Tale as a novel is not feminist, but rather a novel that uses feminist ideas to reveal further injustices in all of society as a whole, such as economic and racial injustices. Dunn states that “The Handmaid’s Tale is a rewriting in many ways, drawing on the tropes of the gothic genre, satire, and the slave narrative to tell a new story about women’s experience,” implying that rather than telling a new story about feminism, Atwood and Miller are actually using gender inequality as a medium of retelling an old story, perhaps the story of transatlantic slavery. This claim suggests that since this situation is a retelling of past events, the past could repeat itself and the series could potentially become reality in some form. Despite this debate, critics tend to agree that this series is very valuable with regard to highlighting discrimination and prejudice in modern society.
Building on this discussion, Angelica Jade Bastién, writer for vulture.com, argues that “[t]he most incisive aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it portrays America not as it could be, but how it’s always been,” bringing to light that although the series was clearly inspired by slavery (as confirmed by an interview with Bruce Miller), it doesn’t handle race very well, as it uses a racially diverse cast where black handmaids are treated the same as white handmaids. Bastién sees this as a missed opportunity, as the show had a very easy way to incorporate racism among the Handmaids that could have greatly added to the value and complexity of the show. Jenae Holloway of Glamour.com agrees with this assertion, noting that “[she] find[s] [her]self a little frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding, instead of an alarming recount of a very real and dark past” and that “It likely means that you’ve never had to truly envision yourself as the victim of systematic oppression. The concept of being assaulted, caged, mentally and physically oppressed, and repeatedly sexually violated gets to be a fictional concept in your mind, not a part of your family’s history.” Holloway is concerned that she show doesn’t do a sufficient job pointing back to the past and the legacy of slavery, but rather emphasizes on the future and the danger society could potentially reach.
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Burkett, Elinor. “Women’s Movement.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2 Aug. 2016, www.britannica.com/topic/womens-movement.
Callaway, Alanna A., “Women disunited : Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a critique offeminism” (2008). Master’s Theses. 3505. http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/etd_theses/3505.
Dunn, Jennifer E. “CRITICAL CONTEXTS: Feminism and the Handmaid’s Tale.” Critical Insights: The Handmaid’s Tale, Jan. 2010, pp. 74-88. EBSCOhost, prx.library.gatech.edu/ login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=48267757&site=ehost-live.
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Hemmati, Zahra. “THE HANDMAID’S TALE: A FEMINIST READING.” Human Rights International Research Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, www.imrfjournals.in/pdf/MATHS/HRIRJ-NEW-JOURNALS/HRIRJ-51/22.pdf.
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Reilly, Phoebe. “How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Became TV’s Most Chilling Trump-Era Series.”Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 25 Apr. 2017, www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/the-handmaids-tale-tvs-most-chilling-trump-era-series-w478718.
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Devi, C. Nandhini, and Swamy, Sumathy K. “Dystopic Vision of Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale.” Language In India, vol. 15, no. 12, 2015, p. 129.
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Jennings, Thelma. “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Though A Plenty’: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women.” Project Muse, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 25 Mar. 2010, muse.jhu.edu/article/363025/summary.
P, A F. “Margaret Atwood Hails ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Protesters.” The Citizen, The Citizen, 10 Mar. 2017,citizen.co.za/lifestyle/your-life-entertainment-your-life/1675211/britain-literature-canada-us-politics/.
Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body. 2nd ed., Vintage Books, 2016, books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Te-LDQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR1&dq=black+feminist+reproductive+justice&ots=3aOOqDHgPX&sig=OgUA1N1XVsFT-9W2cL-SZP_Zah4#v=onepage&q=black feminist reproductive justice&f=false.
Roman, Shaun. “The Handmaid’s Tale and Counting Sperm: Are Fertility Rates Actually Declining?” The Conversation, The Conversation US, Inc., 7 Sept. 2017, theconversation.com/the-handmaids-tale-and-counting-sperm-are-fertility-rates-actually-declining-81826.
The Handmaid’s Tale