The thing about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is that it’s a woman’s book. That doesn’t mean men can’t read or appreciate it, but it is women, who daily experience life in a patriarchal society, who best understand its meaning and feel its truth. On the surface, it’s a dystopian novel about the lives of women in a future America in which a fundamentalist, totalitarian Christian government has implemented a draconian, oppressive social system for women. In the new “Republic of Gilead,” located in what was once New England, women become literal slaves to men, vessels whose sole purpose is bearing children and serving their male owners.
They are given names that only describe them in relation to men (for example, the protagonist “Of Fred” becomes Offred), and they are prohibited from reading, having jobs, or having any of their own possessions. On a thematic level, The Handmaid’s Tale is about power dynamics and collaboration. The men of Gilead are able to subjugate half of Gilead’s population only with the support and collaboration of many women, who rigidly enforce the very system that oppresses them. At the same time, these “pious” men and women lack total commitment to their own ideals, and display a hypocritically flexible relationship with its tenets. Oh right, and “Children of Men”- style pretty much everyone is infertile because of environmental contaminants. So there’s that environmentalist message, too.
Atwood was inspired to write The Handmaid’s Tale based on anti-feminist patterns of thought and behavior that she saw in the United States in 1985. For the book, she imagined what these trends would look like if taken to their most extreme. Although many people since the book’s publication have dismissed the possibility of such an anti-woman, totalitarian society emerging in the West, Atwood persisted for decades in arguing that such a scenario was not altogether exaggerated, citing attitudes towards women in Afghanistan and other Third World countries as examples.
Although the Hulu series of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was commissioned well before the November Presidential election, depending on your political beliefs, its airing now seems a timely call to arms for women. After all, in most pictures of the signing of new laws concerning women’s health and abortion, it is a room full of only men smiling and shaking hands. There are no women present to have a voice in their own future. The epitome of this “women as objects” attitude is the response of Representative Justin Humphrey to criticism of Oklahoma’s House Bill 1441, which would require women to obtain written permission from their male partners before seeking an abortion. He said,
In Humphrey’s worldview, women are dehumanized vessels whose rights are secondary to those of others…which leads fittingly to Hulu’s first episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Okay, everyone wearing their pussy hats? Because I’m pretty sure that by episode three we’re going to be all wearing red robes and plotting some major feminist butt kicking. Or I hope so. Don’t let me down, women of America. Persist, resist.
We begin with an interracial couple and their small child driving a 1990s Volvo along a desolate mountain road (we later learn in a run for the Canadian border by way of Maine), chased by police sirens wailing in the distance. The adults’ faces are strained and anxious, the child’s scared. The car runs off the road and the woman, who we will eventually know as “Offred,” and her daughter flee in one direction while her husband bravely stays behind to delay their pursuers. Seconds later, shots are fired and Offred’s eyes show she knows she is now a widow.
Convinced they can’t outrun their pursuers, Offred and the girl crouch behind a boulder and hold their breath, but it’s in vain: they’re caught. Offred’s daughter is taken from her and in that moment we notice an anomaly: these aren’t uniformed men. They’re heavily armed civilians wearing balaclavas. Where are the police? Who are these men?
Open scene onto a wonderfully, artistically filmed moment in which a woman sitting in front of a window is framed by the bright yellow light streaming in. Her blond hair is covered by a vaguely Amish-like bonnet and she’s wearing a deep red dress. It’s an iconic image, but one that also immediately registers as somehow…wrong. A light female voice intones,
Chair. Table. A lamp. And a window with white curtains. The glass is shatterproof, but it isn’t running away they’re afraid of; a Handmaid wouldn’t run far. It’s those other escapes; the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge or a twisted sheet and a chandelier.
Creeeeepy. Oooh, that’s dark. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Offred, for we see now that it’s her, then explains she had another name, but it’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now. Between when she was captured and now, Offred has become a “Handmaid,” a class of women in the Republic of Gilead who act as surrogates for couples in which the Wife is unable to conceive.