“One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the “nightmare” of history … God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.” Margaret Atwood.
Since its publication in 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale has been considered one of the most influential pieces of dystopian fiction and its recent adaptation into a TV show by Hulu has brought it once again to the forefront of cultural awareness. Set in the totalitarian regime of Gilead, where plummeting fertility rates have led to an extremist religious uprising and a “return to traditional values”, the remaining fertile women are forced into surrogacy for the ruling elite, following the Bible tale of Rachel and Leah. This disturbing future seems too horrific to be true, yet this is not just a piece of dystopian fiction, but also one of devastating fact. Against the darkening political climate, the TV series has a new poignancy as details are added and characters are developed to starkly mirror and even blur the lines between Gilead and our society.
When reading the novel or watching the show, the presence and the sheer number of female characters is staggering. In a vehemently patriarchal setting, it is the women of Offred’s life (particularly Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy) who are most regularly inflicting the cruelty. Atwood saw what she viewed as a stagnation and acceptance within feminism, and created a future evidencing the results when women are negligent to change and complicit in their own oppression and downfall.
Echoing the rise of “traditional” morality in Gilead was Trump’s campaign for conservative, family values that made him so popular, particularly among (white) women, 62% of whom voted for Trump. His election has led to the signing of a legislation aimed to cut funding to US abortion clinics such as Planned Parenthood, leaving the women who voted for his presidency complicit in the restriction their own rights. Both in Atwood’s original novel and in the TV adaptation there is a keen awareness of the possibility of gradually sleepwalking into oppression, by not appreciating the gravity of every decision made for us. As Atwood wrote, “In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it”.
Despite the US being in the news for the restrictions recently placed on their family planning services, in many countries across Europe women are still unable to access these facilities at all and do not think the UK is a bubble where similar restrictions do not happen. The subject of abortion is still taboo and many face prejudice from family and strangers. The figure of 3,265 women who travelled to the UK from Ireland to get abortions in 2016 is severely underestimated; a restriction or ban of abortions has never stopped them happening, and it won’t in the future. What it does is stop women having a safe and protected control over their future and bodies, and to the Republic of Gilead, that’s all the Handmaids are: bodies. In Gilead, people are greeted with the words “blessed be the fruit”, yet the woman is not sacred or blessed, she is simply carrying out “her purpose” until she no longer can.
For a Handmaid choice and consent does not exist. Raped once a month in the form of “the ceremony” this, along with their gift of fertility, is presented to the girls as an honour bestowed upon them by God. The rape culture within the UK and US is still huge, with ‘stealthing’ being described as the new sex trend by many, when unprotected sex without consent is first and foremost rape. The concept of no meaning no still seems to elude some people, and whilst one can have their refusals taken seriously for almost any other offer, when it comes to sexual advances it is somehow viewed as coy or teasing. Offred belongs to her Commander, her identity is erased and she is literally ‘Of’ him. In Gilead’s view, without him she has no identity, the same belief held by ‘family annihilators’, men who coerce and control their families, who cannot see their wives as having separate identities outside of the marital unit and destroy them when they try to leave.
I ask you to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, to read The Handmaid’s Tale, but do not see it purely as a work of fiction.
Watch the trailer for The Handmaid’s Tale here