The current push to defund Planned Parenthood has an air of depressing familiarity. For decades now, the American right has evinced an obsession with the unborn while showing little concern for the health of women’s bodies. There’s also nothing new in that the governing powers behind the push, in both the White House and Congress, are overwhelmingly male. Conservative men have vehement disagreements about the trade deficit, but the one thing they’ve long agreed upon is the need to curb reproductive rights.
This is the political climate now, and this is how it was in 1985, when Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was first published. In addition to the pleasure of re-reading it—it is a first-rate novel—it is astonishing to consider the continued relevance of Atwood’s dystopic vision.
The novel is set in the Republic of Gilead, a kind of militaristic theocracy that, in a time of environmental catastrophe, has overthrown the American government. Minority religions like Catholicism and Judaism have been outlawed; gay people are hanged or exiled to the “colonies,” where they face an agonizing death from toxic waste. It is illegal for women to earn money or own property. The laws of Gilead are enforced by the Eyes, the fearsome secret police who roam the streets in black vans.
Due to declining birthrates, Gilead forces fertile women to serve as “Handmaids”—a kind of human breeding cow. Offred, the novel’s narrator, is one such Handmaid. Before Gilead, she had a job, a husband, and a child; now her life is torturously proscribed. She’s not allowed to read books or watch TV. She’s not allowed anywhere unattended. Her mistress, Serena Joy, is cruel. And at fertile times of the month, she must endure “the Ceremony,” when she is forced into coupling with Serena Joy’s husband, the Commander—the “Fred” in Offred. If Offred does bear a child, it will be raised by Serena Joy; if she doesn’t, she’ll be sent to the colonies.
The genius of the novel lies in its plausibility. Some readers perceive Gilead as a kind of paranoid progressive invention, but the fact is that real people have been thinking about this stuff. The theocracy of Gilead calls to mind the harsh “biblical” worldview of Christian Reconstructionists, whose founder, Rousas Rushdoony, argued for a reinstatement of Mosaic Law—devoid, obviously, of the tempering authority of the rabbinic sages. In other words, Rushdoony supported the death penalty for gay people, adulterers, blasphemers, and so on. Reconstructionists may seem like a small minority of cranks, but their ideas have made their mark: Rushdoony was an early and influential proponent of homeschooling, believing solely in the educative powers of Scripture and parental authority.
Of course, most American men do not long for Handmaids. But it is fair to say that many American men do have a powerful ambivalence about women, especially when it comes to their sexuality. Consider how our leaders represent the twin poles of misogyny: the president who jokes about grabbing women’s privates, and the vice president who believes it sinful to join an unaccompanied woman for lunch.
With all this mind, Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is smart and timely. And thankfully, at least for its first three episodes, it doesn’t mess with the source material too much. The setting is still Atwood’s chilling Republic of Gilead, where cattle prod-wielding “Aunts” mold independent women into red-clad Handmaids, Catholic priests swing from the gibbet, and everyone lives in fear of the Eyes.
The performances in The Handmaid’s Tale are particularly strong. Elisabeth Moss, as Offred, is excellent as an intelligent young woman concealing her rage, shame, and crushing boredom. There’s an obvious comparison here to her performance in Mad Men, another TV series that explored themes of female constraint and misogyny. But the directing in Mad Men was generally too stiff, too flat; in The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss can show her chops. The viewer cringes in sympathy whenever Offred is forced to endure the humiliations of the mercurial Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
The Handmaid’s Tale is a nightmarish scenario, but as with Atwood’s novel, the show is too smart to depict women solely as victims. In Gilead, as in any totalitarian regime, the oppressed fight for scraps. Everyone is cruel to the Handmaids—the Aunts who torture them with cattle prods, the mistresses who call them “whores,” the Marthas—domestic servants—who radiate contempt. It never seems to occur to any of them that they too are trapped.
One interesting departure that the television series takes from the book is in the use of race. The novel’s Gilead is deeply anxious about the decline of Caucasian birthrates, to the point where they “resettle” the “Children of Ham” (a kind of quasi-Biblical shorthand for Africans, and a reference to Noah’s son, whose descendants were cursed into servitude after Ham witnessed his father naked and drunk). As with every resettlement, we can be sure it’s not a good thing. In the Hulu series, white people are still in charge, but they are less stringent about race—women of color show up as Handmaids, men of color as Eyes. It’s a clever creative decision, in that it allows for a more diverse cast, without sacrificing the main themes of the book.
This is a good show. It might become very good, if it could forego its occasional lapses into artiness. The effectiveness of the novel was in its straightforwardness. If not exactly dispassionate, Atwood’s writing is restrained; it lets the tragedy of Offred’s predicament do the emotional heavy lifting. The show, however, relies on lazy devices like slow motion for dramatic effect, and too often the soundtrack is used to convey emotion: a punk song to show defiance, an 80s song for levity.
The show might also be better off not attempting to improve upon Atwood’s prose. In the novel, a birthing scene is described as having the wonderfully specific “smell of the plaid blanket when the cat gave birth on it.” In the same scene, the show’s voice over describes it as “the smell of Genesis,” which makes me think of Phil Collins’s aftershave.
That aside, The Handmaid’s Tale is a fine example of how some of the most interesting and challenging cultural expressions are happening on television. And if many Americans, on the left and the right, are disturbed by the path the country has taken, we’re still far enough from Gilead that we can watch The Handmaid’s Tale for its thrills and chills.
Still, let’s not forget that in Nigeria, Boko Haram kidnaps and impregnates teenaged girls. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive or vote. The modesty police roam the streets of Tehran, admonishing and even arresting women for showing too much hair. In Pakistan, most women are illiterate. The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction. For countless women, though, Gilead is real.
Gordon Haber writes about religion and culture. His debut short story collection, Uggs for Gaza, is available from Dutch Kills Press.