Probably the most amazing part of literature (in all its forms), is the ability to peer inside another reality – whether good or bad – and critically evaluate your own reality. Handmaid’s Tale is one of those shows that does this exceptionally well.
And the Handmaid’s Tale reality is not an easy one. The show leaves no space for relief as they dive into the dark side of control, morality, feminism, literacy, reproduction, violence, totalitarianism and familial bonds.
Handmaids, that’s like medieval, right?
In short… no, and yes. The Handmaid’s Tale world was created by Margaret Atwood in 1985. It tells the story of Gilead, the fictional totalitarian regime (just a fancy term for a government that allows no opposition and requires complete subservience) and how the government leverages sexual slavery by making use of a twisted moral justification – kind of like medieval handmaids.
But this is where Handmaid’s Tale gets a bit scary as one quickly realises that they are not recounting past events, but predicting future ones. The show takes one step into the past, to predict the future – and that future looks extremely grim. The dystopian reality created by Atwood hits a little bit too close to home.
So, how did it get to this point?
Remember that ‘moral justification’ I was referring to earlier? Well, because of the rapid increase in infertility (which the architects of Gilead believe to be a direct result of a sinful existence), citizens of Gilead turned to their religious roots to create a society where women are stripped of all their freedoms: the freedom to read, to listen to music, work, and more.
The remaining fertile women are rounded up and trained as handmaids. They assume a new identity in relation to their commanders – June, for example, is renamed Offred (literally, the handmaid of Fred). They are forbidden to use their own names and must remain in this identity-less state.
Inspiration for this set-up is drawn from the biblical Rachel and Leah who were both married to Jacob. Rachel, who was infertile, gave her handmaid to her husband and she gave birth in Rachel’s lap and they considered the baby to be hers.
In the same way, (non-consensual) intercourse in the Handmaid’s Tale transpires during a ceremony where the husband is meant to impregnate the handmaid in the lap of the wife. Once the handmaid gives birth (also in the lap of the wife), the baby is considered to be that of the wife and husband.
Infertile women, on the other hand, are sent to the colonies to work in dire circumstances, cleaning up toxic waste – the same waste credited to bringing about the infertility epidemic.
Dystopia? Or possible reality?
There are a few fundamental ways in which the story, Handmaid’s Tale, can come into fruition today.
1. Climate Change
Food shortages and infertility go hand-in-hand in the show as a direct result of climate change. This brings about a complete societal collapse. Several reports issued by the UN, as well as reports that originated from the COP21 summit in 2015, predict more or less the same thing.
2. Women’s rights
If the Trump campaign has taught us anything, it is that there is still a need to fight for women’s rights. Abortion rights in the US are now more contested than ever, as male figures in power attempt to restrain women’s reproductive rights. It is also not limited to the US, several countries still do not allow women to own property, or even have their own bank accounts.
People of colour, referred to as Children of Ham in the Handmaid’s universe, are relocated to areas known as the National Homelands (novel version). Sound familiar? It is exactly what the Apartheid government used to do. We only have to turn on the news to find everyday instances of how race still defines our societies today.
Does the continuation of the series soften the message?
Season 2 of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale surpasses Margaret Atwood’s initial narrative. Atwood, who gave her blessing for this continuation, allows the writers to explore what critics have long since called ‘an unfinished story’.
In my opinion, it is this fear of losing sight of this important message, that drives the second season to be exceptionally brutal and violent. Offred’s fight for survival loses no momentum from the first season and tension builds throughout the second season.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not an easy watch – season two even more so than season one. Where Atwood initially only gave a peak into the Gilead world, season two opens that window even further to reveal a terrifying, emotional experience, with a few scenes that might be bordering on torture porn.
That does not mean that there is no story left to tell – the origins of Gilead is still greatly unexplored. The show creators have a chance to fully create this dystopian reality – handmaids and all.
Some interesting views on the The Handmaid’s Tale situation in the present, and possible future:
Want to Guess? NowThis Her asked the cast of Handmaid’s Tale if the following laws exist in Gilead or real-life?
*Featured image from Variety.com
**The first season of Handmaid’s Tale is available on Showmax