I just watched the first three episodes of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been so spooked by fiction. I did read the book and saw the film many years ago, but this recent adaptation brings it nearer. Of course dystopian fiction feeds from proximity to real life, but this one feels like a patchwork of reality; I’ve yet to spot one major component of this hellish, compelling tale that hasn’t happened in recent history. Not in the same order, but still…
Gilead is a polluted, oppressive state where fertility levels have dropped to alarming levels, and where fertile females are renamed to reflect their new masters (June becomes Offred — “Of-Fred”) and rounded up into compounds to become “handmaids”: breeding cows who are posted to privileged, child-free houses where they are subject to ritual rape until conception, and forced to bear children that they then lose to their “households”. Once the babies are weaned, the handmaids are recirculated into the central pool, renamed and sent out to further placements until they are no longer fertile. All done under the watchful eye of a patriarchal god. Lesbians are labelled “gender traitors”. Anything seen to conflict with the breeding programme is banned and branded a punishable sin. Anyone rebelling is quashed with extreme violence: interrogated with electric shocks, punished by the removal of eyes, hanged, subjected to FGM, or banished to the colonies to clear up radioactive waste. No handmaid is allowed to keep any child from before; we have not yet been told what happens to these children, whether they normalise what is happening, or understand that these handmaids are their mothers.
There are chilling devices.
Euphemism is used to full effect, “you are hereby sentenced to the common mercy of the state.” Common mercy?
There are the strong characters, whom we grow to love (Moira, fabulous best friend), who are beaten by the system. (If we were in the story, would we survive?)
And so many components of the story are real. The century in which I was born saw British women unable to vote or own their own property; all title belonged to the husband. Slavery has existed since the dawn of time. Wives are raped; in the UK, the marital rape exemption was abolished in 1991, just 26 years ago. Women have always been expected to bear and raise children, a process often controlled by those who call themselves religious. In the UK from 1929 to 1990, over a million children were adopted, most taken from (“immoral”) unmarried mothers and given to (“moral”) infertile married couples. Gay men were subjected to chemical castration; look at Turing. Amnesty still calls for the end of torture as an interrogation device. In a world where these things happen, and where totalitarian rule intimidates populations into silence, is there any part of this story that is not real?
Episode 1 shows a talk to the new handmaids by “Aunt Lydia”, their evangelical prison guard, who just tasered a woman for swearing,
“Girls, hm, I know this must feel very strange, but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This might not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”
We watch the programme and we want to feel safe, so we look for the gap between this hellish vision and us. This is terrifying but it could never happen to us, because… Because what? Did the characters deserve it? All they did was remain fertile; if we place ourselves in this film, we find ourselves or our loved ones in the position of handmaid. That won’t do. So what else saves us? Time? Politics? We would never let this happen; we live in a more progressive society (in our back yard at least); unmarried mothers can be parents, gay people can marry. Only we know that not all of us are progressive, and in this world today, some are becoming less so.
Still, we are nowhere near being handmaids. We can relax. It’s just a film.
Episode 3 opens on June’s (Offred’s) internal dialogue,
“Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before; that’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
It could never happen.
Except, let’s look at June. Offred. This character: already, even just after watching a few episodes, how do we know her?
Google “handmaid’s tale main character”.
What is everyone calling her? Already, in our minds, she is more Offred — “Of-Fred” — than June.
Her. Name. Is. June.
This story doesn’t let us off so easily. And nor should it.
Episodes can be watched on demand.