Madonnas, Whores & Margaret Atwood: A Look at Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Based on Margaret Atwood’s renowned feminist novel, the new series The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a dystopian future where women are turned into baby-making-slaves in a military patriarchy (dark). Episode 4 airs tonight! Here’s why it’s important to watch. By Michel Ghanem.

When Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction novel The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it jolted all sides of the political spectrum. While critical feminist insight inspired an abundance of scholarly texts analyzing the novel, the religious Right worked hard to get the novel banned from high school reading lists due to its “sexual” and “obscene” content (instead of, you know, its violent, apocalyptic premise based on religious extremism). Bruce Miller’s Hulu television adaptation will unquestionably jolt you, too—plus we’ll be seeing much more of Elisabeth Moss, producer and star, who signed on for a five-to-seven year contract.

To remark on this show’s timeliness is probably beating a dead horse, at this point—its not-so-distant dystopic future is a United States wherein the legacy of twentieth-century feminism has been completely undone. As far as we know, the Republic of Gilead, a militaristic theocracy, has eliminated the federal government in order to facilitate a society that prioritizes reproduction amid a rapidly plunging birth rate. Intermittent flashbacks interspersed with the stark present of Gilead offer glimpses into a world we know well: Offred (then June) sharing a joint with her college friend Moira (Samira Wiley), waiting for an Uber, or listening to Peaches on a casual run. These flashbacks link Offred’s pre-Gilead world to our 21st Century present, showing us the series of events leading up to the coup—women getting fired from their jobs en masse, having their financial assets frozen, protests gone awry, and so on. The class-based society of Gilead reinstates the Victorian cult of domesticity, and all ‘residents’ are expected to speak awkward phrases from biblical scripture (“blessed be the fruit!”). Gilead enforces heteronormativity, outlawing gay women as “gender traitors”—punishable by death, or genital mutilation if their fertility needs to be prioritized.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s genre as speculative fiction serves to ground us within the series—and although the show was greenlit far before Trump’s inauguration, it would be silly not to think about its relationship to the current political climate. As Moira Weigel wrote for The New Yorker, the story resonates (in part) through “its vision of a society that compels women to keep reproducing even when it’s become increasingly difficult.” She points out America’s 2017 falling birth rates, as Americans are unable to afford children in the midst of student debt as Republicans continue to push for privatization of childbearing support resources. With Trump’s continuous legislative assault against women’s rights, the reinforcement of ‘law and order’, among other things, Gilead feels too close for comfort.

That said, this is hardly the only chilling take on fertility as a natural resource in popular culture. As scholar Lisa Jadwin explores in Critical Insights: The Handmaid’s Tale (2009), this cultural anxiety is reflected in artificial wombs from Stars Wars to The Matrix, test-tube babies in Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, genetic screenings in Gattaca and Code 46, and the reproduction farm on Battlestar Galactica. Rather than relying on vague scifi technological advancements, The Handmaid’s Tale “builds its dystopia on nothing more sophisticated than the missionary position—coupled with the threat of force,” Jadwin says.

Missionary is mandatory for Offred’s regular “impregnation ceremony” with her assigned Commander (Joseph Fiennes), and our initial exposure to this ‘ceremonial’ rape is directed carefully by season-long cinematographer Reed Morano (Looking, Divorce, Vinyl). The ceremony begins with Offred’s point of view, gazing up at the ceiling, to reveal her head in the lap of the Commander’s wife (Serena Joy). No one is enjoying themselves, per se—the Commander thrusts with his hands on his hips, unable to make eye contact with anyone in the room, and his wife holds an emotionless gaze. During the second ceremony, Offred’s voiceover wishes he would “hurry the fuck up.” Later, she notes that after every ceremony she can feel  “the Commander’s cum running out of me, I can smell it.”

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In a military patriarchy that has outlawed pretty much everything except for spoken bible scripture, Offred’s explicitly detailed account of her thoughts, feelings, and surroundings work to subvert her demanded obedience. Gilead’s organizing principle is based on the Handmaid’s objectification, and her uniform, fake name, and vocal regulations are made to repress her individuality. Pulling inspiration from Miuccia Prada’s 1990s militaristic collections, costume designer Ane Crabtree uses colour and form to distinguish between Gilead’s social classes: the male elite in black suits; Wives in blue; Handmaids in red; disciplinary Aunts in olive-brown; and Martha servants in drab blue-greys. Crabtree also threw in little visual Easter eggs—for example, the Aunt’s collars are inverted vaginas, if you look closely.

In her essay, “Feminism and The Handmaid’s Tale,” literary scholar Jennifer E. Dunn notes the contradictory sexual significations of the Handmaid’s uniform. The show’s screen is often dominated by a river of red robes, which Dunn suggests represents menstruation blood and reproduction (a Handmaid’s lifeline), and holds symbolic connotations of both sexual allure and shame (think Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter). The Handmaids are protected in some senses—in that their ability to reproduce is valuable currency—but are simultaneously objects of taboo desire. Their Dutch bonnets, reminiscent of the medieval European wimple, prevent them from seeing and being seen—but they are constantly under surveillance. They’re Foucauldian docile bodies, disciplined and rendered paranoid within the panopticon of their new reality (they use “under his eye” as a common greeting and benediction, kind of a religious nod to Big Brother).

Their contradicting desirability, a Madonna-Whore dichotomy women deal with throughout their lives, also accounts for the Commander’s fascination with Offred, inviting her to his office for a secret game of Scrabble. While the meeting is not explicitly sexual, the game is sensual insofar as it crosses lines of accepted vocabulary and interaction. Her first word, nation, is itself an idea of unity and culture the leaders of Gilead want forgotten. She is also given the space to forgo bible talk and make eye contact (previously prohibited) with the Commander over the duration of the game. While she may have lost the game by a few points, she leaves knowing his curiosity will give her a few advantageous moves down the line.

At an outdoor meeting, we learn a pregnant Handmaid has been raped and subsequently lost her baby. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) instructs the Handmaids to beat this man to a pulp—the otherwise restrained Offred taking the lead, an opportunity to vent her anger in ‘acceptable conditions’. The haunting scapegoating scene further illuminates the Handmaid’s position as Gilead property, but the rape hints at contradictory politics of desire that runs through the structure of Gilead as a whole. The Wives call the Handmaids sluts and whores every chance they get, but yearn for their fertility, and shower them with ice cream, roses, and full meals once pregnant. A guard may succumb to a Handmaid’s seduction, but won’t hesitate to physically abuse their captor. They are told to eat healthily and avoid sugar, but are disciplined with a cattle prod. They’re further objectified through Gilead’s confusing definition of rape—they are told to punish a “rapist”, but as property of the Republic Handmaids are told when and where they will be raped for maximum fertility results (*shudder*).

The book has been criticized for “taking from the oppression of Black women” and applying it “indiscriminately to white women,” as Priya Nair explains for Bitch Media. Between lynchings and a Handmaid’s treatment, the book borrows heavily from slavery’s history—and ignores the racial conditions of 17th century Puritan America. On the other hand, the adaptation includes people of colour (sometimes queer) throughout, but with no mention of race-based treatment (thus far at least)—except for the Commander/Wife elite classes, who are all white. This “post-racial” dystopia attempts to place emphasis on the importance of reproduction over skin color. Angelica Jade Bastién explores this in her New York Times coverage of the series, pointing out its seemingly halfhearted feminist aims: “American history is rife with the stories of black women who were sterilized, experimented on, and stolen from, their bodily autonomy erased in the favor of a “greater good” they would never share.” These early critiques are important for a show still developing its voice, and this will hopefully continue to unfold as the series evolves. “To ‘uncover’ the dystopia of American history without centering on Black people is yet another story in the service of white supremacy,” writes Nair. The fight against white supremacy does not begin and end with appropriate representation.

As Aunt Lydia says during ‘training’, “ordinary is just what you’re used to.” In this dark future, daily life is choreographed so as to distance its prisoners from their past lives and sexuality. While the show’s Emmy-worthy performances are certainly grim, unnerving, and horrific to watch, The Handmaid’s Tale is densely layered with endless room for important discourse on its relationship with our own lived experiences and political context—and is sure to disturb you out of your own daily routine.

Michel Ghanem is researching fashion and television at Ryerson University’s Fashion MA program.



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