Angela Stapleford argues that the recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale holds up a mirror to the worst possibilities within our own world, but also shows the possibility of resistance.
Set in a disturbingly not-too-distant future, the recent TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has hit a nerve against the backdrop of the tumultuous politics of 2017. The show has been gripping, powerful and shockingly relevant as it depicts the Christian fundamentalist state of “Gilead” – the former USA – where birth rates have plummeted and women’s lives are tightly controlled.
In the 1985 novel, life under the regime is explored entirely from the perspective of a Handmaid currently named Offred – a name derived from that of her Commander. In the TV adaptation we find out her real name is June. The adaptation also provides a wider perspective by showing more of the stories of other characters including Offred’s husband, her friend Moira, and those involved in the regime’s hierarchy.
In both novel and adaptation, a coded message is passed from one enslaved woman to another. Offred finds the words “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, carved inside the closet of her room by the previous Handmaid of the house. The mock Latin phrase, roughly meaning “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”, has now been taken up widely on social media. It is being used in defiance of current backlashes from the right; including racism and sexism. The imagery of The Handmaid’s Tale has also had a resonance with protesters defending women’s right to choose. Some have protested while wearing red cloaks and white bonnets – the uniform of the Handmaids.
The story of the Handmaids – the few remaining fertile women forced by the Gilead regime into attempting to have babies for the elite – has made for uncomfortable viewing. The slut shaming of rape victims, the “Salvagings” where women are coerced to participate in executions, the “Ceremonies” in which the Handmaids are regularly raped while another woman holds their wrists, the malicious beatings carried out by the righteous “Aunts”, the mutilation of those who break the rules, the kidnapping of children by the regime.
If this wasn’t enough, the discomfort we sense in watching The Handmaid’s Tale may come from the sense that, though we are not yet living “Under His Eye”, we feel foreboding that our current world could be slipping towards Gilead. The TV show has arguably captured the imagination of its viewers so intensely because it holds up a mirror to the worst possibilities within our own world. We are aware that many of the horrific acts practised by the regime already have or do take place in some form. Atwood has commented on her novel, “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time”.
And yet, what has made the TV series so powerful to watch is that hope is evident amidst the repression. That hope can often be found in small acts of solidarity between women, for example when the trainee Handmaids at the “Red Centre” pass June pieces of food after she has been beaten.
However, more discomfort can be found in the complicity of the women who are part of Gilead’s ruling class. The Handmaid’s Tale has long been regarded as a feminist text as it portrays a world in which all women are stripped of choices about their lives and bodies. Women may not push the limited boundaries of their specific roles and functions. To ensure strict adherence they must wear clothes that indicate their purpose. Wives of Commanders wear blue, “Marthas” who clean and cook wear green, “Aunts” who control and indoctrinate the Handmaids wear brown and Handmaids wear red. All women are subjugated to men’s will and are forbidden to read or write. However Margaret Atwood has pointed out that Gilead is not a patriarchy, rather a structured hierarchical society.
Some women are complicit in the regime. This is particularly the case with Serena, the Wife of Offred’s Commander. In the novel her pre-Gilead history was as a right-wing religious TV preacher who pushed the agenda against women’s rights. In the TV adaptation, Serena is an academic who writes about woman’s domestic place. Both become ironic victims of their own success as they are pushed back into the home under the regime.
One of the strengths of the TV show is in portraying points of view. We might almost feel sympathy for Serena as her role becomes limited to tending the garden, and like other women she is not allowed to read. However, although Wives are subordinated to their Commanders, they do have power over other women. They are responsible for policing “the transgressions of women in the household”, and Serena is seen to enforce restrictions on Offred brutally.
With the Commanders and their Wives at the top of Gilead society, other men are ranked in order of importance, and women have a place alongside them. If a man performs well in his role, for example as a “Guardian”, he may be allocated a wife. In the novel it is explained that the poorer men have “Econowives”; who wear blue, green and red striped dresses. Like many women today, they perform all domestic roles; of wife, cook, cleaner and child bearer. But in Gilead they seem doomed to reproductive failure. Men can hope to achieve higher places in the regime and be allocated a Handmaid.
The enslavement of these handpicked fertile women – who have had previous successful pregnancies – assists Commanders in having the best possible chance of gaining further status by becoming fathers.
All of Gilead’s women’s lives are therefore subjugated to the maximisation of their role and participation in social reproduction. Women who are not viable for reproduction may serve the regime in other ways as Marthas or Aunts. Those who cannot or will not fulfil their allocated roles are classed as “unwomen” and suffer worse fates.
The world that gives birth to the repressive Gilead regime is in crisis over dramatically reduced birth rates. The coup by the “Sons of Jacob” faction, however, is also fuelled by racism and fear.
On the airing of the TV adaptation, parallels have been drawn with the US today, particularly over women’s rights. However, one shortcoming of the adaptation was that racism was not addressed. In Atwood’s novel the Gilead regime carried out a “resettlement of the Children of Ham”, thus removing black people from the narrative. A diverse cast with strong black characters benefitted the adaption. But simply ignoring the character’s experiences of racism raised questions about colour blindness. A ruling class as extreme as The Sons of Jacob, which is sexist and homophobic, is likely to also have precedents in white supremacism, so this gap feels out of step.
It was also highlighted that although the main focus was on the experience of June, a white woman, the repressive practices carried out by Gilead have their precedents in racism, slavery and colonialism. With a second series having been commissioned the showrunners have hinted at a more nuanced approach to the experience of black people in Gilead.
Racism is a key part of the rise of the regime in Atwood’s text. It is also a key part of the logic of the so-called “alt-right” today. If the show is to continue to hold up a mirror to our contemporary concerns, this question becomes particularly relevant in the wake of the horrifying events of Charlottesville, and Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn the terrorism of white supremacists and Nazis.
We can’t expect the show to stick to Atwood’s text to the letter, and the changes have often benefitted the story. This can be expected to continue as the first season ended where the narrative of the novel did. Anything could happen next and it’s good to know that Atwood is involved in developing the continuing stories of her characters.
One of the most important differences between the novel and the series was that the adaptation offered more hopeful moments.
The possibility of resistance became concrete during the final episode of the first season, when the Handmaids refuse to stone one of their own to death. Their refrain of “I am sorry Aunt Lydia” was an “I’m Spartacus” moment; a call of unity and defiance against impossible odds, which makes the Handmaids realise they are not as powerless as they may seem.