The Handmaid’s Tale in the Modern Eye
Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale brings to life Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name. A highly acclaimed series, The Handmaid’s Tale features a dystopian world set a few years from our current time period. The show places us in front of a caricature of our own world: a place where democracy is abolished and everything that could go wrong becomes a reality.
Timeless Issues in the Cyclical Nature of History
History repeats itself and The Handmaid’s Tale seems to prove this by focusing on timeless issues. The show explores a variety of topics: power and politics, religion versus science, the threat of global warming, and the importance of gender equality and women’s rights. It reminds us that these issues have been around and will be around regardless of time period.
Power and Politics
Politics impacts our government, national security, the way we live, and our country’s unity. It’s so deeply embedded in both our society and Gilead, the society in The Handmaid’s Tale. Despite this, Gilead features a totalitarian theocratic government that differs from the democratic American government we uphold.
“We only wanted to make the world better. Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some.” 1 ―Commander Waterford
Andrew Heywood’s Politics defines politics in relation to many factors, such as “the exercise of power, the science of government, the making of collective decisions, the allocation of scarce resources, the practice of deception and manipulation, and so on.” 2 Heywood states that politics can be power, “the ability to achieve a desired outcome, through whatever means,” and can also revolve around “oppression and subjugation.” 3 These definitions present the relationship of politics and power as something inevitable to a society’s government. This is apparent in The Handmaid’s Tale as power and politics are integral to Gilead. In the show, a religious group known as The Sons of Jacob rises to power. Led by Commander Fred Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy, the Sons of Jacob attack the White House, Judicial Courts, and Congress. They overthrow the American government and establish Gilead as the new government. Power becomes a key feature in the construction of Gilead’s politics. For instance, under Gilead’s law, women are prohibited from reading and writing. This law exhibits how Gilead’s leaders use politics as a way to abuse power and control its people, especially the women.
Politics is a multifaceted issue. From the perspective of Gilead’s supporters, everyone who is against the regime are either conspirators or betrayers. Thus, people known as Eyes work as a secret police force to eliminate Gilead’s enemies. These enemies face brutal punishments that range from amputation, mutilation, and execution. Even people of high-ranking positions become oppressed and subjugated to cruel treatment. In “The Word,” Serena Joy and the other Wives approach the Council, a group of Commanders who tends to Gilead’s political affairs, in hopes of amending the law. She proposes that both genders should be given the right of literacy and breaks Gilead’s law when she begins reading from the Bible. Consequently, the tip of Serena’s pinky finger is later amputated as punishment for reading. These events illustrate how Gilead’s leaders abuse their power, showing how their politics support a cycle of oppression and fear.
Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale premiered soon after Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Since then, viewers have drawn political connections between America and Gilead. For example, current events at the United States and Mexico border are similar to the “forced separation of children from their mothers in Gilead.” 4 In addition to this, extremely conservative politicians who are anti-abortion have aimed to shut down Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides health care. The events of defunding Planned Parenthood would “punish women and hit people with low incomes, people living in rural communities, and people of color the hardest.” 5 This reflects the lack of power women and minorities have under Gilead’s law. These connections between our reality and Gilead draw attention to the possibility that our politics could become corrupted in a similar matter. Furthermore, the shocking depiction of power and politics in The Handmaid’s Tale encourages us to be more politically aware.
Reed Morano who directed episodes in season one felt that recent political events coincided with one of Moira’s line in the show: “We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late.” To Morano, this line of dialogue reflected “America in many ways” as it seemed we were too distracted to recognize what could happen if Trump became president. 6 All of a sudden, corruption and chaos felt possible in our own government and world. Although President Trump is not as radically religious as the politicians in The Handmaid’s Tale, many people felt uneasy or fearful with this new shift in power.
Religion Versus Science
Science appears to be abolished in Gilead. Instead, religion controls the nation. The Handmaid’s Tale zeroes in on the misuse of religion and how this affects human society. In an interview, Samira Wiley who plays Moira in the show said that “people can feel a slave to their religion, or get so caught up in the rules they lose sight of the overall picture.” 7 Wiley’s comment captures how religion negatively influenced Gilead’s leaders. In the show, the Wives and Commanders are bound by their religious beliefs to the point where they justify crime with religion and turn a blind eye to evil. For instance, in “Postpartum” in season two, Eden is executed after being sentenced for infidelity—a violation of Exodus 20:14. She is given the chance to be pardoned if she renounces all her sins and asks God for mercy. However, her reluctance to do so results in her death. Gilead’s justification for Eden’s execution relies heavily on religion. They execute her in God’s name and believe that doing so is in His will. Religion overshadows Gilead and leaves little room for logical reasoning.
The misuse of religion and absence of science is apparent in The Handmaid’s Tale. Fertility is interpreted as a biological purpose gifted from God. The Ceremony, an event where the Commander of the household rapes a Handmaid to impregnate her, presents human reproduction as a biblical process. Through the viewpoint of Offred—whose real name is June—we learn that the Ceremony is based on Genesis 30:1 from the Bible. The word “infertile” is banned and women who cannot produce children are dubbed as “Unwoman.” Science and knowledge are pushed aside. Teachers are stripped of their jobs. There is no science in the world of Gilead.
Similar to the society in The Handmaid’s Tale, religion and politics seem to be connected in our world. A Pew Research Center analysis found that “God or the divine is mentioned at least once in each of the 50 state constitutions and nearly 200 times overall.” 8 The presence of religion in our society has further been shown through President Trump’s beliefs. During Trump’s 2016 campaign, Trump “pledged to defend religious liberty, stand up for unborn life and appoint conservative jurists to the Supreme Court and federal appeals court.” 9 At a glimpse, Trump’s support of religion, pro-life, and conservative officials seem to mirror Gilead. The main difference between our politics and Gilead’s, however, is that we do not become enslaved by our religious beliefs nor do we cast aside science. Instead, religion has become a way for our society to hold onto morality and hope. Thus, even though religion and politics in our world share a connection like the government in The Handmaid’s Tale, the dynamic is significantly different. The Handmaid’s Tale blows the function of religion in politics out of proportion and turns it into something that overshadows morality rather than upholds it.
While The Handmaid’s Tale presents the two as opposite ends, science and religion does not entirely cancel each other out. Everywhere we look today, science is relevant and very much present. It is because of science and technological advancements that we live the way we do. Our methods of transportation, communication, and basic living has in one way or another been affected by science and technology. According to Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, science plays a huge role in society and “religious leaders [who] want to see their communities not just survive but thrive” need to “learn how to incorporate science and scientists into their faith communities.” 10 Gilead fails to uphold this mixture of science and religion and instead introduces a world where this balance does not exist. It’s a world that we aren’t familiar with; one that does not exactly resemble our own. But the more we look at it, the more Gilead reverberates with warnings to what our world could become had our government not separated church from state or supported technological advancements and scientific research. The Handmaid’s Tale takes two important aspects of human life that we are all too familiar with only to exaggerate the conflicts of this dichotomy.
The Rise of Global Warming
Global warming plays a huge role in The Handmaid’s Tale. With the declining birth rate in correlation to the amount of pollution present, Gilead is formed to resolve both these problems. The creation of the colonies becomes one of the ways that Gilead targets the environmental issues.
In “Unwomen,” we are given the first glimpse of the colonies and its function as a work camp to combat pollution. The episode takes us through Ofglen’s experiences. Ofglen—whose real name is “Emily”—works in the field at the colonies. Here, the land is practically uninhabitable. The Aunts who stand guard wear oxygen masks to protect themselves from the dangerous fumes, while the Unwomen are forced to clean up the waste with little to no protection. Death is inevitable for these women as they will slowly and painfully succumb to the colonies’ severe conditions. These environmental problems shape Gilead to what it is. With such extreme environmental conditions, Gilead retaliates with an even more extreme solution.
The issue of global warming in The Handmaid’s Tale is relevant to environmental problems in our world. Climate change, melting icebergs, and rising sea levels are all advancing at a continuous rate. Scientists have acknowledged that “today’s warming is primarily caused by humans putting too much carbon in the atmosphere.” 11 The Handmaid’s Tale brings this component to life and exaggerates it to the extreme. Although the leaders of Gilead are depicted as corrupt, they feel responsible to do whatever it takes to correct the damage humans have done to Earth.
Likewise, we acknowledge the damage we’ve done to the environment and have taken steps to correct it. Agencies and organizations like National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Geographic have brought awareness to our environmental issues. There has also been action to confront these problems under the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is a global effort that “brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.” 12 This agreement signifies a universal acknowledgement to the environmental issues affecting us, unifying humankind together against global warming and climate change. However, under Trump’s presidency, the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement in June 2017. The United States’ withdrawal caused national concern over the country’s role in fighting global warming. These events made the environmental crisis in The Handmaid’s Tale appear as a possible future to our own world. The show makes the reality of an environmental deficit more tangible and threatening, showing us what could happen should we fail to take control now.
Gender Equality and Women’s Rights
Throughout history, fighting oppression has been an ongoing battle for so many women across various cultures and communities. Gender equality and women’s rights are a crucial aspect of our community and nation. It brings people together, spreads love, and encourages equality for all.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no gender equality let alone basic human rights. Women are stripped of autonomy and agency. They are reduced to their biological purpose of human reproduction. We see men rise to power in elite positions, while women are forced to adopt stereotypical feminine roles. There are the Wives who overlook the Marthas—the faction in charge of house duties, such as preparing meals—and the Handmaids who are raped every month to produce children for the Wives and Commanders. The women in Gilead have no rights. They are prohibited from reading, writing, and holding positions in the government. Failure to uphold Gilead’s law results in severe consequences of physical abuse. The Handmaid’s Tale takes us into a society where stereotypical gender roles are exaggerated. There is no equality and the patriarchy reigns supreme.
In our world, The Handmaid’s Tale has become an avenue for women to find empowerment, a voice, and a sense of unity. Kari Skogland, one of the directors for The Handmaid’s Tale, stated that the show “is absolutely inextricably linked to the #MeToo movement.” 13 This movement has brought survivors of sexual assault together, giving them a voice and reminding them that they are not alone. Through this movement, survivors become empowered while simultaneously showcasing the widespread problem of sexual assault and harassment. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the Handmaids take part in their own #MeToo movement. The movement is set in motion after June retrieves a package for Mayday, the resistance force in opposition of Gilead, in “The Bridge.” The package is filled with letters written by Handmaids. These letters tell their stories of abuse in Gilead. Nick gives the letters to Luke who in turn releases it to the public in “Smart Power.” These events cause the public to protest against Gilead, resulting in the end of Gilead’s negotiations with Canada. The letters parallel the same effect of the #MeToo movement by providing survivors a voice and forming a unified stance against sexual violence. It demonstrates the strength of survivors and how their stories are continuously changing the world for the better.
The show has allowed women to come together in protest against sexual violence. Recent allegations of Judge Brett Kavanaugh committing sexual assault against Doctor Christine Blasey Ford in the past caused outrage among the public. In response to this, women found their voice through The Handmaid’s Tale. These women dressed in Handmaid attire and silently lined up outside the hearing room where a group of senators questioned Kavanaugh. 14 The Handmaid outfit became a symbol and sign of protest against those who threaten women’s rights. Similarly, in “Night,” the Handmaids collectively rebel against Aunt Lydia’s command of stoning Janine, a fellow Handmaid, to death. Instead, they one by one drop their stones and eventually march home together. In this moment, the Handmaid outfit unifies them. They realize they aren’t alone and become empowered through their connection to one another. The episode ends with a voiceover of June that reiterates this sense of female empowerment in relation to the Handmaid’s outfit:
“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” 15 ―June
The Handmaid’s Tale not only presents us with problems in gender equality and women’s rights but pushes us to confront these problems in our world. The show introduces us to a world that lacks democracy and equality. Yet, at the same time, it depicts the resilience and power of women. Through The Handmaid’s Tale, we are reminded of the importance of fighting for gender equality and women’s rights.
Dystopia is defined as an imagined world where typically everything has gone rotten and downright bad. A cautionary tale, on the other hand, is a story that warns others of certain dangers. The Handmaid’s Tale is just that: a cautionary tale of a dystopian world. It creates the message of how terrifying reality can be and warns us of human society’s flaws. Moreover, it focuses on issues in our world in a satirical, extreme way. The end result is increased attention to these issues and social attraction to the show. Margaret Atwood, who authored The Handmaid’s Tale, “believes that the Trump presidency has helped fuel the show’s success.” 16 Likewise, Samira Wiley who plays Moira in the television series said that the “show parallels what’s going on in our world right now” and that “our entire society is acting out of fear.” 17 The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately reflects modern issues in politics, religion, the environment, and human rights. As a result, many people have come to relate the show to our world.
But why use something so horrifying and shocking to make a statement? Showrunner Bruce Miller believes that The Handmaid’s Tale is “graphic about things that are happening just out of our sight” and that bringing “them into our sight [he thinks] is a general good.” 18 The Handmaid’s Tale creates shock and captures people’s attention. Even years later from the original publication of the novel, the recent television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale brings back this message: we can be better and we must be better.
It’s also important to note that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t only relevant to the modern age and the 1980’s era but also to humankind for many years to come. Perhaps, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t resonate solely with us in this current time period. It’s relevant to all humans, regardless of generation. Elisabeth Moss—who plays June in the show—believes that even though The Handmaid’s Tale “was written in 1985 and it was relevant then” that “it would have been relevant for women in 1700s America, and it would have been relevant for many, many other countries over many years.” 19 Similar to how history is cyclical and repetitive, humans tend to look towards the past and carry it to the future. The Handmaid’s Tale becomes something that connects us to the era before us and the many generations to come, allowing us to realize that we’re not too different from each other. We’re all human and we all share the same problems.
- “Faithful.” The Handmaid’s Tale, season 1, episode 5, 10 May 2017. Hulu, www.hulu.com/watch/ebae93e6-dd44-40e7-9c2f-57177a4e31f3 ↩
- Heywood, Andrew. Politics. 4th Edition ed., Red Globe Press, 2014, 2. ↩
- Ibid., 10. ↩
- Zaragoza, Alex. “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is Way Too Real – and Watching It Has Become Masochistic.” The Daily Beast, 3 July 2018, www.thedailybeast.com/the-handmaids-tale-is-way-too-real-and-watching-it-has-become-masochistic. ↩
- Parenthood, Planned. “‘Defunding’ Planned Parenthood Defined.” I Stand with Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc. and Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Inc., www.istandwithpp.org/defund-defined. ↩
- Utichi, Joe. “How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Became The Year’s Most Politically-Charged Show.” Deadline Hollywood, 9 Aug. 2017, deadline.com/2017/08/the-handmaids-tale-elisabeth-moss-reed-morano-emmys-interview-1202144439/. ↩
- Combemale, Leslie. “The Handmaid’s Tale’s Samira Wiley Talks Religion, Love, and Season 2.” Motion Picture Association of America, 23 Apr. 2018, www.mpaa.org/2018/04/the-handmaids-tales-samira-wiley-talks-religion-love-and-season-2/. ↩
- Sandstrom, Aleksandra. “God or the Divine Is Referenced in Every State Constitution.” Pew Research Center, 17 Aug. 2017, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/08/17/god-or-the-divine-is-referenced-in-every-state-constitution/. ↩
- Thiessen, Marc A. “Trump Might Be the Most pro-Religion President Ever.” The Des Moines Register, 29 Mar. 2018, www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/2018/03/29/trump-pro-religion-president-christian-conservatives/470261002/. ↩
- Ecklund, Elaine Howard and Christopher P. Scheitle. Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, 3. ↩
- “How Do We Know That Humans Are the Major Cause of Global Warming?” Union of Concerned Scientists, 1 Aug. 2017, www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/science/human-contribution-to-gw-faq.html#.XB0B_y-ZP6Y. ↩
- “The Paris Agreement.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement. ↩
- Malkin, Marc. “How ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Costumes Became a Symbol of the Resistance.” Variety, 25 Sept. 2018, variety.com/2018/tv/news/handmaids-tale-costumes-protests-resistance-metoo-1202954906/. ↩
- Haslett, Cheyenne. “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Protesters Target Kavanaugh.” ABC News, ABC News Internet Ventures, 4 Sept. 2018, abcnews.go.com/Politics/handmaids-tale-protesters-target-kavanaugh/story?id=57592706. ↩
- “Night.” The Handmaid’s Tale, season 1, episode 10, 14 June 2017. Hulu, www.hulu.com/watch/39c08515-b833-4245-b482-3a057b072505 ↩
- Evans, Morgan M. “‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Author Margaret Atwood Says Hulu Show Is Made to ‘Reflect’ Trump-Era Reality.” Fox News, 14 Apr. 2018, www.foxnews.com/entertainment/handmaids-tale-author-margaret-atwood-says-hulu-show-is-made-to-reflect-trump-era-reality. ↩
- Combemale, Leslie. “The Handmaid’s Tale’s Samira Wiley Talks Religion, Love, and Season 2.” ↩
- Villarreal, Yvonne. “We Talked to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Showrunner Bruce Miller about That Season 2 Finale.” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2018, www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-et-st-handmaids-tale-season-2-finale-bruce-miller-20180711-story.html. ↩
- Utichi, Joe. “How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Became The Year’s Most Politically-Charged Show.” ↩
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