The Handmaid’s Tale, created by Bruce Miller, is a TV adaptation of the novel of the same name written by Margaret Atwood. Set in a dystopian America (now known as Gilead), in a not so distant future, the series narrates the story of a society ruled by a totalitarian theocracy. Gilead is plagued with institutionalised sexism and misogyny, in which biblical laws are taken literally, and, as a result, women’s civil rights are stripped. They become less than second-class citizens; mere instruments with mostly passive roles. Wives, dressed in blue, take care of the homes; Marthas, in green, are cooks and cleaners; Handmaids, in long red dresses, are forced birth surrogates. They have sex as part of the “ceremony” with their master and his wife, in allusion to Abraham and Sarah’s parable in the Bible.
An environmental disaster has caused a wave of infertility. The handmaids, a select group of fertile women, are the solution. They are tools, unable to read, go out without permission being only required to fulfill their “biological destinies.”
“Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some,” says one of the characters to the protagonist’s dismay. She is Offred (Elizabeth Moss) a handmaid to the Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski). Offred, once a free woman called June, is stripped of her rights and forced to assume the passive role of a handmaid, being forbidden to read, engage with others or lead a life of her own. Although Offred does what is necessary to fit in in Gilead, she resists being brainwashed, and through her witty and angry narration, we witness her rebellious spirit.
Inevitably, some critics and viewers have drawn connections with the current social climate and political situation in the United States. Not long ago, a picture of Donald Trump signing an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by white men sparked an outrage. It suggested a society in which men claim ownership over women’s bodies, an ever-present theme throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. Other familiar elements we’ve become used to see in the news are also featured such as the government’s exploit of fear of Islamic terrorists to push their agendas, fake news, political trauma, protests and police brutality.
Some were quick to deem the show as an unnecessary jab against the current president (as seen in youtube’s comments session), some applauded the move, and others called it self-entitled. In my opinion, I believe the series makes brilliant work of incorporating those issues to reflect on how the impossible can become possible, how nothing is really permanent and how we shouldn’t take our freedom for granted. “I was asleep before,” says Offred after going back from one of her multiple flashbacks, which depicts her life in a society of free women, similar to our own. It is through these memories and the contrast between the past and the present that The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a haunting story which makes the public reflect on some of the toxic elements of our society.
The Handmaid’s Tale is, of course, speculative fiction, however, the novel was inspired by real life events, in this case, the conservative revival in the West, by the election of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. This was a time when religious conservatives condemned what was perceived as the excesses of the ’60s sexual revolution. Regardless the series fictional status, it explores the realities of women in non-western countries. It highlights how women are restricted from doing simple things such as driving; how homosexuality is considered a sin (called unwomen and gender traitors) and how FGM as punishment is a common practice.
Although all of the sexism and misogyny is exercised by powerful men, the series does a great work showing how women can turn against each other, exemplified by the commander’s wife and “the aunts” (those who train the handmaids). These are characters who feel extremely real and believe women should have no voice and sacrifice themselves for the sake of men. Through their violence and absurd speeches, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a world of nightmares. However, despite all the horrors, it does a brilliant job at portraying the rage, hopes, fears and the spirit of rebellion in women; which is ultimately one of the major themes of the narrative.
And of course, The Handmaid’s Tale wouldn’t be as good without its talented cast led by Elizabeth Moss. I wasn’t very familiar with her role as Peggy Olson in Mad Men, for which she received critical acclaim, but her performance as Offred/June is outstanding and proves she sure can act. She embodies the submissive image of the handmaid as she is told to, transmitting feelings of claustrophobia in an environment where a little mistake can cost her life. And yet, she possesses the fire of someone who hasn’t given up; a woman determined to survive that messed up world.
Another performance worth to mention is Samira Wiley (Orange Is The New Black) as Moira, Offred’s best friend, a gay woman who fights right from the start and whose charisma makes her a favourite. I was also impressed by Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls) as Ofglen, another queer woman who doesn’t conform to her status as a handmaid either and therefore. Ofglen experiences the worst and cruelest treatment at the hands of the new government (no spoiler alert) and therefore, Bledel has the most difficult to digest scenes and does a stellar job out of it.
With five episodes so far (each one available every Wednesday) The Handmaid’s Tale promises to be one of the best shows of the year. It is a great adaptation of Atwood’s novel that goes beyond the source material to construct a story which resonates with current issues.
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