At this point, you’ve probably heard of the Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale. Starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, the series is set in Gilead, a totalitarian and ultra-conservative Christian fundamentalist theocracy. This means that society is structured on the Bible (i.e. extreme patriarchy, with very Old Testament punishments meted out like gouging out eyeballs). It is based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian book of the same name, published in 1985.
It follows the story of Offred, a “handmaid” in the house of Commander Fred Waterford. A handmaid is one of the last few fertile women left, the designated babymaker in every household of the (male) congregation leaders, whose wives are infertile because of environmental pollution. She fulfills her duty by having sex with her commander on the regular ー under the bitter and resentful eye of his wife, of course. Offred and the other handmaids are basically house property, so much so that the handmaid takes the names of their assigned commanders: as in Of + “Fred”, Of + “Glen”. As if that’s not ridiculous enough, the leaders of Gilead justify all this with the appropriate Biblical passages.
It’s a difficult watch for sure, but the show creates a world that reflects the rigid societal structures of Gilead while remaining beautiful, realistic, and human. Millennials won’t miss the fantastic composition, wonderful colors, and significant set design that brings the series up to speed to current times. Both Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel (who plays Ofglen, another handmaids) bring so much raw emotion to their roles. Both register such compelling emotions in such subtle and multilayered ways. We can’t help but feel their seething rage while they maintain a veneer satisfying enough for the Eyes (a.k.a. spies) of Gilead.
These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction. When Atwood wrote the novel in the mid-80s, she had no idea that infertility via toxins in the environment was only 30 years away from becoming reality (as is the looming possibility in China). Who knew that we would reverse all progress made over the last decades by insisting on the enslavement of women to her capacity to give birth? In our very own country, the access to contraceptive pills and implants is threatened by conservative religious communities. Abroad, Trump and the US Congress have threatened ーand have partly succeeded ー in de-funding pro-choice institutions such as Planned Parenthood. Today, racism, sexism, homophobia, and general cultural backwardness is the ugly throwback our generation reckons with.
It is easy to forget that oppressive religious beliefs are the foundations upon which many modern societies today were built. We see this with the Puritans and the Pilgrims in America: ultra-conservative Protestants who believed it was their God-given right to violently exile their new land’s true natives. (The Puritans first settled in New England, and this significance is not lost on Atwood, who set Gilead in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in New England.) We witness this even now, through ISIS and their extreme brand of Islam, seeking to establish their caliphate through ruthless violence, one town at a time. The show reminds us that the democracy that we enjoy now was fought for by countless men and women before us. It shows us how many centuries of religious oppression we have to counter to build the truly just and equitable society we all dream of. Lastly, it shows us how, if it could happen in modern America, it could happen here, too.
The Handmaid’s Tale depicts what happens when the wishes of a select few (men) come true. Through the eyes of characters like Offred and Ofglen, the show reminds us to treasure liberties we may be taking for granted, and we must borrow their steely determination and courage to make sure that the Republic of Gilead never reaches our shores. For this reason alone, to behold the strength and resolve of woman, The Handmaid’s Tale is a must-watch this season.