– J.W. Fox –
One of the darkest dystopian shows ever made won 8 Primetime Emmy Awards. Perhaps that says something about the country’s mood. The Handmaid’s Tale dominated that night, winning Outstanding Drama Series among other major awards.
Based on the classic novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a near future society where women are stripped of nearly all rights. It is dark, disturbing, but also brilliant. The Creators kept close to the original story while adding some well-crafted additions to give it a broader view of the dystopian world and lay the groundwork for a second season, one that will extend beyond the novel.
The story takes place in the very near future when the world is dealing with an unprecedented decline in birth rates. In some cities, there are no children being born at all. A radical Christian fundamentalist group blames our overly-permissive modern society and our abandonment of traditional values. Fear, desperation, and the lack of answers coming from science allow them to grow in influence from the fringe to a legitimate faction, to the masterminds of a coup. Our liberal democracy built on Enlightenment principles is replaced with an archaic Christian theocracy. Nearly all law is taken from the Old Testament and interpreted strictly. They call their new nation Gilead.
The novel and most of the show is from the perspective of June Osborne or Offred. June is a handmaid, a special role assigned to fertile young women who have broken God’s laws. In June’s case, she was the second wife of a man who improperly divorced his first wife to be with her. Under the new regime, their marriage is unsanctioned and her role in breaking up his first marriage is a sin. They had a daughter, which proves she is among the few young women still fertile. For that reason, she is sent to a reconditioning center to become a handmaid. She is assigned to Fred Waterford, a Commander in the Gilead government. She is renamed Offred as in “Of Fred.”
How Did this Happen?
The flashbacks also show the gradual collapse of American liberal democracy around June. It begins small. A barrista at a local coffee shop calls her a slut for wearing what we would consider normal workout clothes. A couple flashbacks later, Gestapo-like forces close borders, set up check points, round up women and execute those that help them escape to Canada. All the while June and her friend Moira are shocked at the changes taking place in the US.
Many viewers probably wondered how June and Moira could be so blind. How could two college educated women living in Massachusetts be taken by surprise at the radical changes in their country? If they had been a little more perceptive, they could have fled across the border to Canada where Western values still reign. In reality, revolutions tend to take their people by surprise. They transform institutions so quickly that many people later swear they never saw it coming. This is true of many who lived in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Russia in 1914, and Cambodia before the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
These things happen and they can happen quickly.
Real World Gileads
There are societies on Earth today that have similar oppressive patriarchal theocratic systems. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and the Taliban’s Afghanistan are examples. Many are Muslim but not all. Numerous other societies grant women very few rights, more than Gilead but still extremely unequal. These societies are rarely depicted on US television and often dismissed as faraway problems in faraway places. To depict a Western version of such an unequal theocratic society makes it all the more provocative and much more real to the audience.
Offred has no rights but the novel and show focus on the particular oppression unique to the handmaid, the oppression of sexual and reproductive rights. Offred has no control over her body, something she and other women took for granted. For a woman to first experience sexual freedom then be forced to live in one as oppressive as Gilead creates a shocking contrast. Offred’s sexuality, as well as that of other handmaid’s struggles to break through. In the latter part of the first season, Offred sleeps with Nick, the Commander’s driver. It is the first real time she demonstrates any agency over her own body.
Every bit of it is deeply disturbing. Offred and the other handmaids are treated as walking uteri. Several handmaids take their own life, preferring death than endure a life of rape, physical abuse, and oppression.
Amazing Cast and Writing
Elisabeth Moss is superb, delivering feeling even when she has no dialogue. Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia delivers a complex performance as both oppressor and occasional protector of the handmaids. You hate her so much at first then later witness some surprisingly soft moments. Samira Wiley also shines as Moira, June’s best friend. Josephn Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski are creepily stoic and a little unhinged as the Waterfords. Max Minghella does a decent job as Nick the driver but almost all of his screen time is spent staring creepily at other characters and occasionally delivering two or three word lines.
Creator Bruce Miller did an amazing job, writing several episodes himself but also bringing in several other talented writers who paid proper respect to the classic source material. Overall, they deserved their Emmys and the recognition, even if most of America isn’t watching the show yet.
A Cautionary Tale
Some critics, columnists, and Hollywood big shots have said The Handmaid’s Tale is timely given recent events. There is concern of a growing conservative fervor in the United States, which has culminated in the election of known misogynist Donald Trump. Yet, it is extremely difficult to see Trump leading a Christian conservative revolution. His ideal society more resembles Las Vegas than Gilead. Both misogynistic but in much different ways. His coalition is not built upon Christian fundamentalist values but rather on nationalism, economic populism, and mindless reality TV entertainment.
At the same time there are some prominent politicians that have publicly expressed some beliefs that are derived from scripture as well as misperceptions of human anatomy. Former Senate candidate Todd Akin infamously implied women cannot get pregnant from rape. More broadly, there is a sense that the current culture war taking place in the US is also connected to the themes of The Handmaid’s Tale.
There are some disturbing trends in public discourse and American politics, but there does not seem to be a trend that resembles the ideology behind Gilead. The cultural war seems to be primarily focused on matters of race, nationality, ethnic background, and income bracket. These seem to be driving the anger and sometimes violence among radical factions. The Handmaid’s Tale, as a cautioary tale, is not a direct analogue to a specific threat to liberty today but a much broader one that warns of what happens when a country reaches toward radicalism.
Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste
It is important to realize that the nation of Gilead is built during an absolutely unprecedented crisis. The dramatic drop in birth rate presses humanity into a panic, one where they reach for answers in the most radical of places. It is the radicalization of normally moderate, reasonable people that is of particular note. Whether the radicals be left, right, religious, racial, ethnic, or ideological it is their tendency towards the extreme is the real threat.
In dire times, reasonable people cannot let themselves be carried away by anger or fear.
The more relevant impact of the show is Gilead’s similarity to oppressive societies that exist on this Earth today. The US does business with some of them, even calls a few of them allies. It is this real world fact that disturbs me more than any “what if” scenario of such a regime taking power in the US. Women are oppressed, perhaps treated like handmaids in places across the world. The Handmaid’s Tale, Americanizes the reality of millions of women, making it far more tangible in our imaginations.
J. W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.