Margaret Atwood’s dystopian futuristic 1985 novel doesn’t seem to be her magnum opus as it is a relatively short obscure read that feels more like a fast write than a masterpiece. Dream-like, taking place primarily in the main character’s head, The Handmaid’s Tale is a surreal nightmare-become-reality for women in Gilead, the new martial law nation that is the United States’ predecessor after a violent coup.
But where the novel is obscure (yet powerful), the Hulu series is fully fleshed out, forceful, and eventually leaves June’s head to roam freely into other characters’ emotional territories, weaving in and out of their memories of what came before Gilead existed.
Central to the story is the fact that fertility has declined drastically all over the world due to pollution and other unknown factors, to the point where an extremist Christian sect sees it their duty to take over the U.S., subjugate its fertile women, and dictate every detail of its citizen’s lives through threat of death and torture. All in the name of Christianity and furthering humanity, and in the case of the series, reducing carbon emissions in a last gasp to save the planet.
In the political sense, the story is not necessarily anti-Christian – the extremist group could have been any religion – but it’s possible the creators of the series included the carbon emission issues in order to muddy the waters politically and make it harder to accuse them of a liberal bias. What is clear though, is that the series central emotional pull is female empowerment.
The men in The Handmaid’s Tale are clearly the winners of this violent overturning of the government. Women were involved, specifically the wives of the now-rulers, but were betrayed by the husbands who, by following the rigid standards of The Bible, have kicked them out of the decision making process. The wives now dress in dark green, are forcefully held in place by codes of conduct, and their only jobs are managing the households while the men come and go as they please.
And this is the crux of the story to me: that men don’t necessarily want the debauchery and depravity to end – they just want to control every aspect of it and dole out favors and privileges to those that prove their loyalty and accept (or at least seem to accept) their new lot in life.
The commander, June’s benefactor and hopefully the father of her baby if she manages to conceive, as that is the limit of her role in the world now, appears somewhat compassionate in his dealings with her, at least in private. But we soon see that he is reveling in his new powerful position. We also see that in his past life in regular old America, his wife was the powerhouse and intellectual in their relationship, writing books and even being taller and more imposing than he was/is.
Some may say The Handmaid’s Tale is a paranoid feminist nightmare. A feminist nightmare it definitely is, but perhaps “paranoid” is not the best word to describe it. Paranoia literally means “baseless or excessive suspicion” and in this case, women have been fighting for sovereignty over their own lives and reproductive decisions for as long as written history exists. Women may currently have more or less equal rights in the U.S. and other western countries but you can travel across the Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East and Africa and see women being subjugated right now. Vaginal circumcision is still common in many places. Saudi Arabia could be seen as a parallel to The Handmaid’s Tale: women cannot exist in that society without a male guardian to give them permission for any public activities – they only recently were given they right to drive.
So paranoid fantasy The Handmaid’s Tale is not. Currently men are devising ways to limit reproductive freedom and curtail women’s decision making about their own bodies (and yes, women are devising right alongside them too, as in the series). Things are changing, yes, but all that is needed is a real or perceived threat to humanity, and extremism could be the law of the land. That’s what The Handmaid’s Tale warns against, and what a prescient admonition it is, as sensible a concern as it was in the 1980s.