'The Handmaid's Tale' // Examining Our Own Gilead



Eve Jones is a new intern for Boshemia based in Plymouth, UK. This is her debut article as a staff member.

32 years after its publication, Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has become a staple novel in international literature and has been translated into over 40 languages. It has also been adapted into plays, opera, film and, most recently, a Hulu TV series.

After a significant decline in the world’s fertility, Gilead is a dystopian United States, in which the government (now exclusively male) have taken control of women’s reproductive rights. Governed by extreme religious zealotry, women are colour coordinated according to fertility, the ‘fruitful’ are red Handmaids and the ‘barren’ blue Wives, green Marthas or striped others. These Handmaids are then divvied out between homes of the elite ‘Commanders’ to be raped once a month in an attempt to further the human race. The Handmaid’s Tale follows one such ‘two-legged womb’, Offred (portrayed by Elisabeth Moss in the new series), as she navigates this grave new world.

Speculative Fiction is a genre engineered to be didactic—to teach us about ourselves. Bruce Miller, producer and writer of the most recent TV show, worked alongside Atwood to update and expand the novel’s relevance through new plot lines and exploring characters in greater detail. How do these additional scenes parallel our political climate and call us to action?

LGBTQ representation

From text to screen there is an increased number of openly gay characters. Not only does this more accurately represent modern Western society, but it allows attention to be drawn to the adversity still faced by the LGBTQ+ community. One such character is Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), a Handmaid whose sexuality and fate are undisclosed in the book. In the adaptation, she describes her former wife and their child in direct comparison to Offred’s more nuclear family. Miller goes on to form a new narrative for Ofglen in which she has an illicit relationship with a Martha. Upon their discovery by Gilead officials, ‘eyes’, the Martha is ‘sentenced to the common mercy of the state’: hanging. Her unceremonious death, is made even more sickening by her dehumanisation (named only as ‘6715301’) and her removal from the world by a piece of machinery in a construction site as if she is just a piece of brickwork that didn’t quite fit.

The brutality continues as it is revealed that Ofglen’s ‘redemption’ necessitates genital mutilation. The barbarity of these practices may seem exclusively dystopian, but Offred’s Commander’s trivialisation of Ofglen’s sentence ‘We had a doctor take care of the problem. It’s a very small problem’ hauntingly mirrors the Chechen Police force’s term ‘preventative mopping up’to describe the killing and abduction of gay men in Chechnya today. And let me remind you that Gay conversion therapy is still legal in the UK.

FGM as ‘solution’

The explicit addition Ofglen’s clitoridectomy to the Hulu series highlights the ongoing issue of female genital mutilation worldwide. It is estimated that 200 million women alive today have undergone FGM. ‘We helped her, we saved her’ the Commander claims—again a sentiment that reflects much FGM justification—protecting young girls from their sexuality, commonly thought to be insatiable if parts of the genitalia, particularly the clitoris, are not removed and to ensure virginity before marriage. Miller has said that he very specifically ‘didn't want to do it for shock value, even though it's very shocking’and this is evident from the episode’s direction; it is not visceral but charged by great emotional complexity. Throughout the episode Ofglen is literally and metaphorically silenced, we only learn of her operation after the event and Bledel’s facial acting conveys the unimaginable mental trauma, even when exposed to numerous shallow depth of field close-ups. These cinematic choices accentuate the harrowing subject matter, providing one of the series’ most disturbing episodes.

Unemployment as control

In both the original text and Miller’s adaptation, women become enslaved over time through the systematic removal of their rights. One such right is their right to work. When questioned on this concept, Atwood commented ‘if you want to get women back in the home you need to take away the alternatives’. But, recent events make this form of discrimination feel more relevant than it did in the 1985 context. How do you exclude minorities from society? Force them out of it, force them out of their jobs. And this is exactly what not permitting transgender people to serve in the military does (over 6000 trans people will have lost their jobs). This is what dismantling the DACA does (all of the 800,000current DREAMers will be losing their work permits by 2020). These startling similarities force viewers to question the morality of both fiction and reality with every scene.

Diversifying Gilead

In her novel, Atwood quickly established a white Gilead with all POC being ‘resettled’ outside of Gilead but relinquishing responsibility to accurately portray these minorities is inconceivable for a 2017 Prime Time TV show. Miller consciously diversified Gilead with Moira, Offred’s best friend, Offred’s Husband and her daughter all being portrayed by black actors. Asian, Latina and black actors also represent every echelon of Gileadean society, but as Angelica Jade Bastien articulates in her article for Vulture, colour-blind casting is not tantamount to a racially-sensitive show. It pretends that these are characters who happen to be black rather than characters who are (or at least were before Gilead’s transformation) constantly informed by their race amidst white supremacy. And, in light of (most recently) Charlottesville and the Black Lives Matter movement, it seems increasingly important to get this right.

It is easy to suggest that the parallels drawn here are tenuous, but dystopian fiction is not intended to horrify readers and viewers into muteness, neither is it necessarily saying the X happening in reality is as bad as the Y happening in the fiction. Instead, it wants us to question if we are capable of X, what’s stopping us from getting to Y? It is an appeal for the audience to be the barrier between these two worlds.

And Atwood notes that it is easy to become complacent: Trump’s electoral success was largely the result of people ‘sitting on their hands’. As the post-election mantra goes, we have to ‘stay woke’. But simply waking up is not enough anymore, as Elisabeth Moss urges—‘after you wake up, you should get out of bed and start doing things. There is no time later’.