The Handmaid’ s Tale – A Review
“Keep your shit together”, she keeps saying to herself, as she recites the woman-hating words along with the rest of them: “Her fault! Her fault! Her fault!”
"...it was a sign of what was to come. Of that misogynistic righteousness that was boiling over, of that old primal male need to judge women by their body, to brand them by their sexuality, which is to their eyes threatening and offensive and in need of “punishment”. It is out there in our own societies too. In victim blaming when it comes to rape, in schools that teach abstinence and encourage girls (only girls of course) to sign “virgin pledges” and offer them to their fathers (!), in women being slut-shamed for having relationships or (the horror, the horror) children out-of-wedlock. In the specific and increasingly more popular narrative favoured by porn and pop culture, in which the man is the punisher and the woman wants nothing more than to be punished, that subtly works on a subconscious level as a very affective way of bringing back the traditional gender roles of old, systematically altering the way relationships (in sexual as well as psychological, political and social terms) are being viewed by a whole generation of young people! "
Margaret Atwood’ s 32-year-old, gripping novel The Handmaid’ s Tale, about a near-future dystopia has been recently adapted into a TV series by Hulu, and it is absolutely brilliant (and if you are a woman, also utterly terrifying). Atwood constructs a nightmarish world in which the government of the United States, after an unspecified environmental catastrophe which had rendered most of the women sterile, is replaced by Gilead. That is a religious fundamentalist regime (of the Christian variety), that aspires to “return to traditional values” (that again!) by stripping all women of their rights, and reducing them into breeding stock.
It is the kind of show that redefines TV storytelling: thought-provoking, engaging, artistic, beautiful, and with heart. In a time when being “gritty” is TV’s greatest concern, The Handmaid’ s Tale shows us how it’ s done. How you can go to dark, scary, places, without sacrificing your humanity in order to get there: it is that rarity of a contemporary TV show in which violence against women is not there to serve the usual, porn-inspired voyeuristic purposes. The kind of show that you both can't stop, as well as dread watching... It is well written, with inspired direction, and costume design, not to mention it has Elisabeth Moss, the show’ s greatest asset, who deserves every acting award that’ s out there - and a few that have not been thought of yet… She gives a multifaceted performance (mostly with her eyes), rich with nuances and delicate subtleties, which breaks our heart in every scene.
When The Gilead theocracy comes to power, when women are told they have no rights, people go to the streets. They react with protests and marches (that look cunningly like the ones that took place all over the world, after Donald Trump was inaugurated) which are met with gunfire. And then the women are taken. Those who cannot have children are “reclassified” as “unwomen” and sent to the “colonies” to shovel toxic waste and die from it. (Because a woman’ s only real purpose within any Patriarchy, within any religion, is after all motherhood. If you don’ t have children, you are a waste, you are an “unwoman”, a nothing…)Some women become “Marthas”: nameless servants toiling away so that the upper echelons of the regime are kept in luxury, taking their common name from the biblical Martha, Lazarus’ s sister, who unlike her sister Maria would rather busy herself with household chores than show any interest in Jesus’ s teachings. That’ s what Marthas are supposed to be: mindless servants, hands that clean and cook and nothing more. The rest, the few, the “lucky ones” who are still fertile, are first sent to concentration camps, in order go through the process of having all traces of independence (physically and mentally) beaten out of them.
The signs were there from before of course: as the heroine and her friend go for a run and stop at a coffee shop, the waiter looks at them and for no reason whatsoever calls them “fucking sluts”. They laugh it off and leave the place, but it was a sign of what was to come. Of that misogynistic righteousness that was boiling over. Of that old primal male need to judge women by their body, to brand them by their sexuality, which is to their eyes threatening and offensive and in need of “punishment”. It is out there in our own societies too. In victim blaming when it comes to rape, in schools that teach abstinence and encourage girls (only girls of course) to sign “virgin pledges” and offer them to their fathers (!), in women being slut-shamed for having relationships or (the horror, the horror) children out-of-wedlock. In the specific and increasingly more popular narrative favoured by porn and pop culture, in which the man is the punisher and the woman wants nothing more than to be punished, that subtly works on a subconscious level as a very affective way of bringing back the traditional gender roles of old, systematically altering the way relationships (in sexual as well as psychological, political and social terms) are being viewed by a whole generation of young people! (Is it any wonder that young people, who are mostly taught about gender roles and sex from social media and porn) are according to new studies embracing again the “female homemaking” / “male breadwinning” / and “male authority in the home” mode? - see: 1* )
The world before the Gilead theocracy was one like the one we know: women were falling in love, going for a run, having coffees and secret affairs, and jobs, and ambitions, and families, and then one day, they were told they were not allowed to. That’s how it started in Afghanistan before the Taliban, or in Iran, before the revolution, by the way.Afghan girls were free to get an education, go to college, be dressed as they chose, have jobs and options which were all taken overnight when the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, prohibiting women from work, andintroducing Islamic punishments such as stoning to death and amputations. Likewise, women in Iran before the 1978-79 revolution were free to live their life as they chose. They were caught on camera dancing, doing the 'Tehran twist' to local rock bands, wearing miniskirts and hot pants, sunbathing by swimming pools and enjoying life. And then after the revolution, they’ ve stopped being considered human beings. Their existence became offensive and their bodies a threat that needed to be hidden, controlled, punished.That’s how it can begin. Overnight. The liberties that were earned at high costs, and which we tend to take for granted, that’s how they can be taken away from us. Overnight.
"When they slaughtered Congress, we didn't wake up," the heroine remembers. "When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn't wake up then, either”, she warns us. Doesn’ t it sound familiar? Using terrorist attacks as an excuse to take away people’ s civil liberties? Using their fear to justify injustice? The streets are suddenly packed with heavily armed soldiers. The disobedient, the abortion doctors, or those who are gay, are being hanged in public executions. “Hello” and “Good morning” are replaced with biblical greetings (“Blessed be the fruit”, “Peace be with you”, “Praise be His bounty”, “May God make thy truly worthy”, and all that) that constantly remind women that they are nothing but “hosts” (as real-life, Oklahoma Republican Justin Herny also claimed a few days ago incidentally).
In The Handmaid's Tale universe, the nightmare begins when all bank accounts in women’ s names are frozen, their money being transferred to their husbands’ s names or male next of kin. Then women are told they are not allowed to own property or have jobs. “That’ s Ok baby. I’ ll take care of you” the heroine’ s husband – who is one of the good guys by the way - says to her, and as much as it is something out of the nothing with which she is left, it also feels – one imagines - like a slap in the face. In one single moment, she is rendered helpless. And grateful. Placed into her husband’ s hands. She has no power, no control over her life (or her body as she will discover soon enough) unless a man, to whom she will be indebted, is giving it to her. That’ s how it works. That’ s how it did for thousands of years. That’ s how marriage had endured as an institution for so many generations. This is its real purpose. To keep you safe. And small. If you are rendered powerless you start needing a savior. A man to take care of you. To give you an allowance. Just like to a child. And if there is violence out there that is specifically aimed at you, you start being scared. You start needing a protector. That’ s the way it goes. It is a trusted model. It has worked before. It kept women obedient, silent, needy. And grateful. In their place. Using their bodies (as sexual partners, wives, mothers, or prostitutes) as currency. Because they were left with nothing else. Patriarchy just doesn' t work if women have options that include other non-domestic related dreams. If they get to have choices other than being pretty and well-behaved, getting a husband, then keeping a husband, having kids, not ageing. This is full spectrum of things that are available. Patriarchy just doesn’ t work, if women start believing that there are other kinds of lives out there. If they are strong, self-sufficient, self-reliant, not economically dependant on men. If they are more than their bodies. How can it?
We might as well face it: that thing that brought about the collapse of the “old world” and made room for the Gilead theocracy is here. We feel it too. That religiosity, that hypocrisy, that masked-as-concern-about morals cruelty, that need to “return to traditional values” that is revisited, that old obsession with marriage and child-birth that is becoming a woman’ s supreme goal again (even a fashion thing!), that old misogyny, that old male rage, that need to rape, to punish, to have women obey, occupy less public space, made smaller, pushed out of the political arena - unless they look like Barbies and speak like men of course. That primal, ugly, scary thing that HAS to put us in our place. For speaking out, for not being obedient enough, silent enough or satisfied enough to be only concerned with our looks and our roles as mothers. It becomes “official” with laws that attempt to control Women’s reproductive Rights and support economical inequalities between the genders. That’s how it starts. For now. It is a beginning. And it does the job.
In The Handmaid’ s Tale, as soon things start going south, the heroine with her husband and daughter try to escape to Canada (sounds familiar?), but her husband gets killed by the militia (or so she thinks), and her daughter is taken from her, because her husband was married before, and in the eyes of the religious regime, it makes their child illegitimate and no longer theirs… As she is still fertile, she ends up in a Concentration Camp to be with the rest of the fertile women properly disciplined. Trained in the ways of the New World. There, the captive women are basically taught by the “Aunts” (stern, pious, chillingly cruel older women who put nurse Ratchet to shame), that from now on, they will be nothing but wombs. They are told about the “plague of infertility” and how it was their fault. They were “Dirty women! Sluts! Birth control pills, morning-after pills, murdering babies, so they could have their orgies!" (all on their own apparently…) If any of them reacts to this, she is tasered with a cattle prod (because what are they if not cattle?) by the Aunt who recites biblical quotes as she is doing it, or worse, they are blinded (“If my right eye offends thy, pluck it out” and all that) They sure know their scriptures, and they take them upon their literal meaning, as cruel, misogynistic, self-hating people often do, turning the clock back to the Old Testament Times.They torture the undisciplined fertile women, gouge out their eyes, mutilate their genitals if they are lesbians, cut off their finger if they are caught reading a book, (and if they are caught a second time, their entire arm), but they don’ t kill them. “We are not without mercy”, they say. Their ovaries are too precious after all. And they are nothing more than two-legged ovaries for the regime… They even have plants to send them to Mexico and trade them for chocolate. Like commodities.
“He (meaning God of course) left you intact for a biblical purpose”, they are told. They are also taught that being raped is a woman's fault. “Who let them on?” the Aunts ask. “Whose fault was it?” “Her fault! Her fault! Her fault!” the women are taught to chant in unison, being indoctrinated in systematic misogyny, in the blind surrender to male needs, in the male perspective of things, and in that good old victim-blaming that biblical prophets, Muslim fundamentalists and Right wingers love so much. “And why did God allowed such a horrible thing to happen?” the Aunt continues. “Teach her a lesson!” “Teach her a lesson!” “Teach her a lesson!” the women chant back obediently. And if they don’ t, they are taken away and return with one eye… It’ s a simple enough system. And it works. “Keep your shit together” our heroine keeps saying to herself, as she recites the woman-hating words along with the rest of them: “Her fault! Her fault! Her fault!”
Even their names are taken away from them. They are to forget them and take the names of their masters. Our heroine whose master is Fred, is therefore named Offred (as in “Of Fred: the one who belongs to Fred”) for as long as he is her master. Margaret Adwood is a cunning one. She hits the nail right on the head. Even the nail you don’t see it’ s there. She reminds us of how absurd our present is, while she seems to be talking about this grim, made up future: don’ t women still take the patronym of their fathers (despite the fact they are given birth by their mothers, and even when they are mostly, or often solely raised by them?) Don’ t women give their husband's family name to their kids as if they, themselves do not exist? As if they bear no relation to them? And don’ t they take their husbands’ s names when they get married? Gladly, as if it is a natural thing, a desirable thing to do? “It shows love, it shows respect”, they say to this day as they are changing their names, loosing gladly a part of them. Can we see what it means? What it represents? How it is one of the millions little things by which we are - willingly - made smaller?
But there is no nightmare greater than the one described as “the ceremony” for which these women are kept alive. Each one of them is assigned to a family that belongs to the ruling class of the Commanders who have no children, so that she will be forced to mate with one of them. If she gets pregnant, the child will be taken from her and given to his wife, who is by the way present during the “Ceremony”. The sex slave is kept in the house pretty much like a prisoner (much like countless married women around the world). She is only allowed to run errands at the supermarket which looks more like hospitals, with their symmetrical stacks of wholesome, identical, unbranded goods which are labeled with pictures (because women should not read…) They go in pairs “for their protection” (much like college students are told to go in pairs at modern-day campuses as a precaution that will keep men from raping them) But the handmaids also go in pairs in order to spy on each other. Everywhere they go there are “Eyes”, spies who can report any transgression and punish them for it. “Darkenss and secrets are everywhere”…
The only liberties the handmaids are allowed, is to stand in military formation to watch executions, and in the case or rapists, to become the executioners themselves: when a man rapes a handmaid (other than the Commanders who have the “God-given” right to do that of course), the handmaids are allowed to kill him themselves. They start by hitting him all of them at once, and as the memories of their daily humiliations and assaults turn to wild rage, they (who are in Atwoods words “so rigidly controlled") become like the maenads of Greek myth,and it won’ t be long before they tear him to pieces with their bare hands! This ritual is a “steam valve” of course: a clever way of directing the pent up rage that is building up inside them onto these random rapists who act as scapegoats, keeping the Commanders (the legal rapists) safe...
Each “caste” of women is dressed in their assigned identical uniforms that indicate their roles: The Aunts are dressed in matronly browns, and their uniforms seem to be referencing early 20th century female prison guards / police officers. The Marthas are dressed in their shapeless Puritan / pilgrim-like blunt greens, and the Handmaids with their 17th century New England / Puritan-inspired dresses, which when they go out of the home they cover head to toe with cloaks, for the same reason Moslem women are covered: to keep them “safe” and to keep them from tempting men, because it is their fault if men are tempted (after all, only their commanders have the legal right to rape them!) Their faces are hidden behind their high bonnets, and their cloaks / uniforms are red: red as the colour of menstruation and childbirth, and so a constant reminder of their role as breeding stock.They are also referencing, according to Atwood’ s novel, the red markings that were sewn onto the uniforms of German WWII prisoners in Canada, that were meant to be seen from afar in order to alert the authorities of escape) The wives’ clothes on the other hand, reflecta 50s inspired feminine “perfection”: they all wear high heels, identical well-tailored green dresses with a tight waist and a full skirt or a knee-lenth, tight one, and have their hair styled in immaculate chignons. (Funny how all sexists turn their eyes to the 50s with predictable nostalgia. Back to the time when women had to leave the factories and the jobs they took on account of the war, and forced to learn their lesson, forced to return back to their corset-wearing / breeding stock / roast-pork-cooking destinies, looking like they really mean it…)
Serena, the Commander’ s wife played by Yvonne Strahovski, (the karate kicking spy from "Chuck"! showing here some serious acting chops) wants a child so badly that she is (like the rest of the “wives”) OK with watching her husband rape another woman in her presence. She is a bitter, cold woman who hates Offred as much as she needs her too. Full of self-loathing for her own infertility, and rage for them both, she is caught in her own private hell. She fought along with her husband for this world to come about, that would “save” women from “choices” (like so many modern-day , well-groomed American Republican women who leave the rest of us wondering “what the hell?"in disbelief as soon as she they open her mouth), and she is ironically caught in the same trap. When for example she is upset for being refused to read the speech she prepared for an event celebrating the new regime, this is seen as a female “weakness”. “This is our fault. We gave them more they could handle” the other commanders tell to her husband. “They put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition, we let them forget their real purpose. We won’ t let that happen again”. (What girl who has “ambitions”, dreams that go beyond marriage and kids has not heard the same words again and again, I ask you?) She used to be a writer (albeit of books on sexist propaganda) which she is now not even allowed to read (reading being a sin for women!)and spends her days gardening, or paintings watercolours like some idle Victorian lady, living a slow and insignificant life of luxury and privilege, but there are rooms inside her own home where she is not allowed to go. Rooms where her husband goes to talk with other men about serious matters. Matters that are no woman’ s business. Like in all patriarchies, her power is only over other women.
On “ceremony” nights, Serena, Offred and the Commander (played by Joseph Fiennes) are reenacting the biblical story of the childless Rachel who wanted children so badly that she asked her husband Jacob to have sex with her handmaid Bilhah, who acted as a surrogate mother (without being asked I bet, but that little detail did not make it to the Scriptures). Offred, is in her own words “bathed and brushed like a prized pig” and then led to the couples’ s bedroom. The ceremony starts with the reading of the story of Rachel “Give me children or else I die” (Gen.30:1). Offred then lays in Serena’ s lap, who holds her down as the Commander rapes her. Their copulation is a clinical, mechanical business (sex within the scope of religion is solely for reproductive purposes after all), and watching it, is deeply disturbing. In fact it feels like a punch in the gut.Offred is obviously nothing but an object. Much like the Germans were unable to see any humanity in the Jewish people they were torturing or gassing, or how the slave owners in the American South were unable to see their slaves as actual human beings, Offred is less than nothing to their eyes. A necessity. An object to be used and discarded.
This is more familiar than we like to think, and it is I believe not just meant to reflect the complexities involved in surrogacy, but alsothe cruel complexities and daily indignities of traditional marriage, the whole book being an allegory of that as well: how many women from all over the world and for countless generations have been “buying” their own children at high costs: their desire to have a family planted in their heads from an early age by religion, culture, the mechanics of Patriarchy, and their own biology, which prompts them (when they are not forced) to get married with guys they don’ t love, respect, tolerate, or even met before their wedding day, or stay with them after they’ ve stopped loving them, enduring their cheating, or bad sexual practises, and now-a-days porn addictions, and their own private, daily humiliations and loss of potential, for those old fashion reasons: because they feel helpless, desperate, without a voice, prisoners inside their own life, with no options and possibly above all, in order to have kids, and when they do have them, “for their sake”. This is how it still goes for countless women out there. This is the reality that is hidden behind God knows how many closed doors, God knows how many closed female hearts… It also hints on the fact that in many places around the world, marital rape is socially acceptable, as well as legally permitted, not to mention rapists are offered the legal loophole to avoid punishment and prosecution by marrying their victims – so they will get to rape them for life and at their leisure… In the Gilead theocracy, the rape of the Handmaids is seen as part of the “sanctity” of marriage, which makes it all OK: marriage is sacred, marriage is good, and so is everything that goes on within it…
It is not long of course, before the Commander begins to get ideas and be no longer satisfied with their clinical arrangement. He soon starts asking her to meet him in his room (which goes against the rules) for secret games of scrabble, and he offers her fashion magazines (which are now forbidden) as a form of flirting, and speaking about the “ceremony” he complains that he “finds the whole thing to be so impersonal” (Ya think?) Asking her to give him a ‘real” kiss, which causes her to brush her teeth so frantically after it, that her gums bleed… He is - like most men are - unaware of the complexities of her soul, of her torment, of the rage that is seething underneath her calm surfaces. He treats her as if she is a child, a love interest he is trying to seduce with little treats. He obviously feels flattered that she comes to their secret meetings, conveniently forgetting that she is his prisoner. A prisoner he monthly rapes.
When Serena gets mad at her for not getting pregnant (this too being her fault) Offred is banished in her tiny room that has shatterproof windows (so she can’ t slash her wrists with glass and kill herself - that would be a waste of a perfectly good womb). When Serena despairs that maybe her husband is infertile too (though it is actually forbidden to even imply that men can be sterile…) and all their efforts are wasted, she enforces Offred to reenact the raping ceremony with Nick, the Commander’ s driver. This is a particularly cruel twist, as Offred has started having feelings for him. (Nick is played by Max Minghella – admittedly, the only casting choice that is a bit of a head scratcher, not necessarily on account of his acting, but because despite his age, Minghella still looks like a brooding adolescent)
Offred’s companion at the daily trips to the shops is Ofglen (portrayed by a surprisingly good Alexis Bledel – she of the Gilmore Girls fame - who is here playing against type, and is giving the performance of her life). Ofglen who used to be a lecturer in cellular biology, is now reduced like the rest of them, into a breeding slave. Even though all the college professors were sent to the colonies, she was spared on account of her “good ovaries”. She is a lesbian (or in terms of the new regime: “A gender traitor, a disgusting beast”) and when she gets involved with a Martha, she is arrested, gagged and sent to trial. Laws have been replaced with biblical ones: “The accused stands charged with Gender Treachery and Violation of Romans Chapter one, Verse 26”. The Martha, her companion, is hanged in a public execution, but Ofglen is spared on account that she is fertile, and sentenced to “Redemption”: She is forced to endure a clitorectomy . She is “reformed”, so that “she won’ t want what she cannot have”. When Offred meets her again, she has changed master and name (she is now Ofsteven) and is obviously broken, but there is still something in her that fights back: in a moment of mad rebellion, she runs into the crowd and steals a car and just drives, even though she is not allowed to. She drives and drives in circles, saving her soul, before she is of course taken by the guards…
“They didn’ t get everything, there was something inside her they couldn’ t take away” Offred thinks. When she returns home, she runs to Nick’ s room and they make love, as if they are free… As if it is still allowed. Is if they are still themselves.
Offred is a slave but there is still a spark in her. Something that it is undefeated, something that is still unbroken, that fights back. She acts like she is obedient, simple-minded, grateful, but inside her, there are storms raging and we hear her voice (through the narration) resisting, holding on, while we are watching her being humiliated and treated like a child, or like cattle. And she has her own moments of private rebellion, like for example when invited to the birthing ceremony of a handmaid who is giving birth with all the other handmaids around her chanting their “Breath. Breath, Breath, Exhale, Exhale, Exhale” mantras in unison, and she stumbles upon the gathering of the wives who are having their tea and their cakes, and one of them asks condescendingly: “Would you like a cookie?” as if she talking to a child. “You should not spoil them. Sugar is bad for them” another replies. When the first woman offers her the cookie, and Offred takes it, one of them says about Offred (who by the way used to be an editor in a publishing house…): “Oh, isn’ t she well-behaved!” (as if she is a dog) and another adds “Little whores all of them!” Offered pretends that she doesn’ t mind, that she doesn’ t get what they are talking about, but when she goes to the toilet, even though it must have been a long time since she’ s eaten anything that good, she crumples the cookie and throws it into the sink. Or on another occasion, when she refuses to take the new magazines the Commander offers her, after he assures her how this New World Order was for their “own good”, because now women“have protection to fulfil their biological destinies in peace” and then goes on to inform her what happened to Ofglen. Or like when the Aunt is using the cattle prod while saying to them “Blessed are the meek” and Offred looks at her in defiance, and reminds her what the rest of the verse is: “for they shall inherit the Earth” (Mat 5:5) implying that maybe their own day will come. And that’ s how she gets not to be broken altogether. By her tiny, private acts of rebellion, which keep her spirit intact.