‘I want to know what I did to deserve this?’ asks Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in voiceover as she kneels in preparation for ‘The Ceremony.’ Offred is a Handmaid, in the house of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). The Ceremony is her monthly, state-sanctioned rape at both their hands; the fulfillment of her duty in Gilead as a fertile woman used as breeding stock for the ruling classes. In this context, the answer to her question is simple enough – she was born female.
The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale begins with Offred, when she was still called June, as she attempts to escape to Canada with her husband and their daughter. We know June is captured and sent to the Waterford house – renamed with the patronymic that literally brands her the property ‘Of Fred’ – when the action flashes forward to her quiet, unadorned room, in the house where she is kept prisoner.
Through a series of flashbacks we come to understand the world Offred lives in now. Several years earlier, a coup by a militant religious group brought down the government of the United States. The new republic, Gilead, is a fascist patriarchal theocracy, built on a system of traditional family values taken to their extreme in a land where religion has always had a powerful hold on public discourse. In line with this conservatism, one of the first orders of business for the new regime is to completely strip women of their citizenship rights and their freedom to do as they please.
In flashbacks, we see how this restriction of the female body slowly, insidiously unfolds. Women first lose access to their own money and property; then working outside the home becomes illegal. A barista feels empowered by the political situation to call June and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) ‘sluts.’ Finally, and plausibly, women lose autonomy over their own bodies, as the regime attempts to contain female sexuality. Women’s bodies are relocated into domestic spaces where they can be of service, or banished from the social order altogether.
Concurrent to this takeover, a fertility crisis emerges – posited as a product of a sick environment, in the natural world, and in women’s failure to accept their true purpose in life. Older women are sent to the ‘Colonies’ to clean up toxic waste. Lesbians and other women who deviate from the heteronormative script are labelled ‘gender traitors.’ Fertile women are prized and branded like cattle with an identifiable tag on their ear. But as Handmaids they are little more than ‘two-legged wombs’ – forced to bear the children of the men in whose homes they are enslaved, and then surrender those children to the men’s wives without argument.
The Handmaid’s Tale depicts systematic misogyny within a heteronormative framework taken to its logical and vile conclusion. Atwood’s novel first emerged when the 1980s backlash against second-wave feminism was beginning to gather momentum. It’s widely seen as a cautionary tale against the belief that ‘it can’t happen here’. The ‘it’ being the appetite totalitarian regimes have for eliminating human rights and freedoms. As Offred warns, ‘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.’
‘My rule for the book was I would not put anything into it that human beings had not done at some point in some time in someplace in history,’ Atwood has said. ‘Everything in the book has a precedent.’ Critics have found resonance between the world detailed in The Handmaid’s Tale and American slavery, and surveillance in East Germany, among other events. Since the series screened in the US earlier this year, many have noted its timeliness in relation to the current American political climate. In particular, the Republican-backed healthcare bill, which aims to defund Planned Parenthood, and expand the health insurance definition of ‘pre-existing conditions’ to include rape, pregnancy, and sexual assault, has highlighted a climate in which women’s bodies feel very much like they are under renewed, considered attack.
But what if a discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale would be better served by viewing it in the context not of the Trump era or larger, historical traumas, but ‘small’ daily terrors? What is most frightening about Atwood’s novel and this television adaptation is how it represents a world for women not unlike the one we are currently living in; a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. ‘Was there ever a before?’ one of the Handmaids wonders aloud. It’s a question that underlines how normal the new world has become, while also suggesting that things have always been a bit like this.
The first thing we hear in the first episode is a siren. It’s a familiar sound, but this is a world turned upside down. Rather than signalling an alert that someone is coming to help, here it means something more sinister. Offred’s memories of the past, the time ‘before’, are unnerving because they look and sound just like the world we live in now. It’s this bridge between our world and an imagined future that allows The Handmaid’s Tale to tap into the traumas, bodily controls, and threats of physical violence that many women live with and accept as normal every day.
All sorts of invisible systems exist to control women’s bodies, to measure us against one another, and to punish us when we fail to conform. Most of us understand the experience of having our freedoms curtailed in some way. We might not be owned by the state, but we certainly know what it feels like to be seen as public property. Women’s magazines, with their focus on beauty practices, fashion, and predominately heterosexual romance, have long created a landscape in which we come to see ourselves as objects to be scrutinised and tamed, with bodies that require constant modification. The social contract continues to be constructed around normative gender roles, with heterosexual marriage prized, and single women continually questioned for their life choices. We have a multitude of ways to punish those of us who don’t do gender right.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, we see this play out in the Red Centre, where the Aunts, led by the fierce Lydia (Ann Dowd) are tasked with re-educating Handmaids into feminine norms. After referring to the group as ‘a parade of sluts,’ Aunt Lydia recites pertinent passages from the Old Testament, alongside calls that the Handmaids perform their sacred duty. The violent sting of a cattle prod is an ever-present threat, reminding the ‘girls,’ as they are referred to, that they are livestock. Lydia explains that if a woman is gang raped, it is her fault – the violence happens to teach her a lesson, and because she deserves it.
In our world, those same ideas can be found in rape culture. Here, sexual violence is seen an extension of sexist attitudes towards women, as a response to something intrinsically flawed with the woman – the rape victim is blamed, the rape victim is told she asked for it, the rape victim is a ‘slut.’ If rape can be seen as another way to put women in their place, this ‘re-education’ of our bodies into proper femininity also manifests in more seemingly innocuous ways. It’s at work when men who are strangers to us pass us on the street and tell us to smile. It’s silently at play when ‘manspreaders’ subtly erode our access to public space without thinking for a moment that they should take up any less of it themselves. If we are pregnant, even those without medical qualifications have opinions about what we should and shouldn’t eat and drink. If we are a certain age and not having children, people don’t think twice about asking why. What we do and don’t do with our own wombs is constantly under attack. In Australia, we feel it every time politicians use our choices as political punching bags. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott frequently made comments, both as the PM and as the Minister for Health, that revealed a lack of understanding of the complexities of women’s experience, labeling abortion as ‘the easy way out’ and ‘a question of the mother’s convenience.’
Women live with the possibility of sexual violence in our own homes and outside them. In a recent report, the Australian Human Rights Commission stated that Australia has ‘a disturbingly high rate of violence against women.’ On average, one Australian woman is killed per week by a partner or former partner. One in four women has experienced some form of violence from an intimate partner. It is a fear that curtails our bodies’ movements out on the streets too, where we avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time while wearing the wrong clothes, because we are told that no-one can be responsible for the violence men will do to us if we transgress into spaces we shouldn’t be in. It happens in other spaces too. We police our voices and make our presence smaller, in office meetings and in classrooms. In the online space, we regularly see the consequences for female writers, like Clementine Ford or Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who dare to speak up or step out of their boxes.
Offred is denied the freedom to exercise her mind. She is imprisoned like a doll in a music box; her every movement subjected to scrutiny. The entire household knows when she is menstruating or ovulating. Within the physical space created by the series’ setting, Offred’s captivity is emphasised through long shots at angles that make rooms look as if they might swallow her whole. In contrast, when she’s outdoors, we often see her up close, claiming and filling what little public space is available to her. Women’s liberation is in part rooted in this freedom of movement and thought, and the interconnected freedom to do with our bodies as we please.
Later, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s former shopping partner, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), now renamed Ofsteven, seizes a car belonging to the Guardians (the troops of men who police, with force, women’s movements). She drives around in circles, with no real idea where to go, but we can see she’s enjoying the thrill of the ride all the same. It might only be a small act of resistance, but as Offred observes, in reclaiming what has been denied her, ‘She looked invincible.’