“I know this may not seem ordinary to you right now, but over time it will be. This will become ordinary.”
These days, words of caution like this sound like they could come from any number of progressive political pundits commenting on the rise of right-wing nationalism and all that it entails. In Hulu’s new brutal and beautiful series The Handmaid’s Tale, however, these words are murmured in confidence between women coming to terms with another kind of new normal. In this dystopian world, widespread infertility has driven the country into a panic, rendering women’s bodies devalued — save their precious capacity to reproduce. The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1984 novel by Margaret Atwood, is hauntingly effective on the screen. Searing cinematography and subtly affecting acting and music make The Handmaid’s Tale hard to watch, and harder to turn away from.
The series, a political parable for our time, is set in Gilead, a new American Republic ruled by the militant Christian ultra-right. Although largely faithful to Margaret Atwood’s original telling of the story, the creators have tweaked the details to land it squarely, and to startling effect, in the twenty-first century.
Gilead takes over the United States thanks to a perfect storm of political and social terror followed by martial law that’s not too hard to imagine. Toxins in the environment have resulted in a precipitous decline in fertility. A new and violent right-wing extremist party has taken over Washington DC and blamed ISIS for the slaughter of Congress. Soon thereafter, the Constitution is suspended amidst the public’s post-terror panic in a temporary measure to “restore safety.” And the rest follows — women’s autonomy vanishes in an instant (no more jobs, no more property ownership or bank accounts), leaving only women’s reproductive capacity paramount.
In this new world, fertile women are taken to re-education centers where they are taught that it is their divinely-ordained and patriotic duty to act as vessels for the wealthy upper-class women of Gilead — to serve them as the biblical handmaiden Bilhah served Rachel, bearing Rachel children “on her knees.” In Gilead’s interpretation of this Biblical moment, these newly-minted “handmaids” lie down between their mistresses’ legs and stare at the ceiling, while their mistresses’ husbands dully penetrate them, all the while making strained eye contact with their infertile wives.
We as viewers are confronted with this painful scene of rape over and over again — one that seems to benefit no one, physically and emotionally violating the handmaids, their oppressive mistresses, and arguably even the men who control the twisted system.
The handmaids are only allowed to speak in pious platitudes, and sacrifice their given names in favor of an almost comically patriarchal nomenclature: a handmaid assigned to Glen is “Ofglen,” and our heroine, assigned to a powerful commander (Fred) is “Offred.” We never learn her given name. The limits on women’s speech in Gilead necessitate a certain silence to the series — the comparative lack of dialogue offers viewers instead access to the rich interiority of its protagonist.
The series uses voiceover well and often, building tension through silence and music, and allowing glimpses into Offred’s internal monologue of terror, misery, and wit. The show isn’t all suffering — it is joy, memory, regret, hope, and will. It asks us: what power can women claim in a world that takes it all from them? Where can we find comrades and accomplices amidst fear, suspicion, and uncertainty? What are the limits of our agency, our ability, our will to resist what we know to be wrong?
In unnerving flashbacks, we see the world we know transform into a dystopian nightmare. We witness attempts at Northern border-crossings, police forces armed with military-grade assault weapons, and women publicly shamed for their own sexual assaults (“Slut!” women at a re-education center are forced to yell at one victim of a campus gang-rape). The undercover informers and hit-men of Gilead (called “Eyes”) are an insidious and unpredictable presence in public and private life.
Gilead’s Eyes serve the omnipotent government, weeding out dissidents and unbelievers, and confronting enemies of the state — like gender-traitors (LGBT people in Gilead-speak) — with arrest, torture, or death. “Eyes” sounds a lot like ICE to me — especially when we see them pull up in vans and detain unsuspecting men, women, and children. None of this sounds so unimaginable. To make things even creepier, the story is set in a latter-day Cambridge, MA, where I live — and so it was especially disconcerting to see protestors getting gunned down on Weeks Footbridge, bodies hanging in public warning next to the Charles, and mansions on Brattle Street turned into the elite’s paramilitary headquarters and homes.
One of the most shocking truths about The Handmaid’s Tale is that the show was conceived and produced during the Obama presidency, free of the specter of a Trump/Pence regime. Of course, the rollbacks to women’s autonomy that loom under the indelicate rule of our 45th president are nothing short of horrific, and it’s easy to put on rose-colored glasses and look back to policy of years past with wistful nostalgia. But we can’t blame everything on Trump. Religious objections to birth control access, mandated waiting periods for abortion, and myriad state-based barriers to reproductive justice have been in place — and steadily growing — for decades.
Lest we forget, the creators of the show remind us with clever visual cues that sexual and reproductive policing is nothing new. When the credits roll, all text appears in black and white except a blood-red letter “A” in “Handmaid” and in “Atwood” — a brilliantly subtle wink to The Scarlet Letter and the seventeenth-century Puritan sexual and religious strictures on women that set the stage for the kinds of legislative interference with women’s bodies that still reign nearly 400 years later.
At the end of the day, we can fall asleep at night reassuring ourselves that the nightmare fantasia we see in The Handmaid’s Tale won’t become literal truth in the years ahead. But in some ways, that doesn’t matter. As it stands now, Congress and the Supreme Court need not be overturned by an extremist militia in order for oppressive measures to be enacted. The Handmaid’s Tale works in the way that the best allegories do — by making us notice and examine all the ways in which our world could slip — or has slipped already — into obsession with the surveillance and objectification of women’s bodies and lives.
In the second episode of the series, Offred reflects: “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen.”
Let this masterpiece serve as a beautifully terrifying, engrossingly grotesque wake-up call for what we must not allow to transpire on our watch.