‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Goes Deeper Than Dystopia
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt

Dystopian worlds, as imagined by storytellers and filmmakers, are curiously compelling. When Will Smith runs down the dusty, abandoned streets of New York in I Am Legend, Jennifer Lawrence is carted through the morally corrupt capital in The Hunger Games or Keanu Reeves navigates the disorienting underworld of The Matrix, it’s darkly satisfying. Watching the most ominous parts of society play out so perilously is like schadenfreude straight to the vein. It’s also just kind of cool.

No such pleasure was derived from The Handmaid’s Tale, not even close. The breakout Hulu series, whose first season wrapped yesterday, left a horrified audience in its wake. The show is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, and it taps into a familiar dystopian ethos: America in the not-so-distance future, totalitarian rule, families torn apart. But this particular story is not entertaining. It’s infinitely harrowing and, quite simply, devastating.

The story follows protagonist June (Elizabeth Moss) as society, which looks very much like our own, crumbles under the pressure of a global fertility crisis and theocratic coup. When she tries to flee the country, husband and child in tow, she’s caught and taken to Gilead, a nightmare community operating under fundamentalist rule. She’s stripped of identity, enslaved as a handmaid and renamed Offred (a portmanteau of “Of Fred,” her master). Her sole value to the state is her ability to bear children and thus, her life becomes a dizzying loop of institutionalized rape, terrorism and abuse, all under the guise of a greater, puritanical good.

In other words, Gilead presents a horrifying world where democracy is dead, men police women’s bodies and the Bible, as a governing text, is bent to the will of the power-hungry. The timeliness of the show hasn’t been lost on viewers. Reactions have been markedly visceral, with online conversations reading as physical as they do emotional: jaws drop, eyes water, skin crawls, toes curl.

“Since the novel’s publication three decades ago, Gilead has existed as a paper nightmare that gains or loses dimension based on the state of our national politics,” wrote Sarah Jones in The New Republic. “America has never forced fertile women to bear children for infertile ones, but Trump’s pussy-grabbing presidency has given cover to the sort of blatant misogyny many thought consigned to the past.” It’s hard to shake this particular detail — that a book written in 1985 rings so true today. Truer, perhaps, than it did five or ten years ago.

The exact horror the show incites varies by viewpoint. Some people see a grim, all-too-possible future. “Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too,” wrote Jones. Handmaid’s Tale-themed protests on the topic of reproductive rights have broken out across the country. In those cases, the show’s narrative feels very literal.

“The timing could not be more fortuitous,” wrote Rebecca Mead for The New Yorker, “though many people may wish that it were less so. In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing the slogan that spoke to the moment: ‘MAKE MARGARET ATWOOD FICTION AGAIN.'”

Other critical commentary leans on the metaphorical implications. “You may not believe that anyone, in real life, is actually Making America Gilead Again,” wrote James Poniewozik in  The New York Times, “But this urgent ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is not about prophecy. It’s about process, the way people will themselves to believe the abnormal is normal, until one day they look around and realize that these are the bad old days.”

Shadi Hamid of The Atlantic agreed, urging viewers not to over-interpret the show. As he opines: “What makes Gilead, or for that matter any authoritarian theocracy, so terrifying isn’t just… religious absolutism. It’s that religious laws, once promulgated, cannot be undone through the political process, because there is no political process.”

No matter the interpretation, it’s clear that The Handmaid’s Tale feels deeply relevant, like a stomach-turning warning. Per an interview with the Times, Atwood explained that while writing the book, she based all her decisions about Gilead — the clothes color-coordinated by class, the mob justice, the forced childbearing and public hangings — on historical precedent. Actual things recorded in human history.

Maybe that’s what makes this particular dystopia especially haunting. It presents a world that looks grim beyond belief, but is not at all escapist. Instead, it’s rooted in the knotty but recognizable snarls of our flaws. There are kind-seeming men darkened by power, well-intentioned women pulled into complicity and an entire society indoctrinated. It’s too close to home. Worse, it’s human.

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  • Lindsey

    Haley, this is so well written. I was struggling to put to words what exactly about it made it so upsetting. And you’re right, it’s not just because of the female oppression, or the Bible being used to politically control everything. It’s watching the process of how it all came to pass, the slow acceptance of terrible thing after terrible thing, the justification of the horrors. *That’s* what feels so truly horrifying about it.

    • I came here to say his was incredibly well written but you already said it. Seconded.

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    DYING to see the show, and now even more so after reading this! Beautiful article!

  • Dana

    Haley, this is happening right now in Saudi Arabia. This is how women live their lives every single day knowing their daughters will have the same fate. I wish you were more sensitive to that fact than to how American women are being “persecuted”. We as a country have a long way to go for full equality however we need to remember how lucky we are compared to millions of women around the world.

    • Zarka Shabir

      Um, women in Saudi Arabia do NOT live like women in this show. That’s a blanket statement that blatantly ignores way too many nuances. Please keep your Euro-American feminism in check?

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    i’m obsessed with this show!! as you said, it feels all too relevant. imo, the show’s is 100% “feminist” (can i even use that word as an adjective). but i was disappointed to learn that the cast members don’t feel similarly.

    to quote elisabeth moss, per a popsugar article:
    “For me, [The Handmaid’s Tale is] not a feminist story,” she said. “It’s a human story because women’s rights are human rights. So, for me . . . I never intended to play Peggy as a feminist. I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They’re women, and they’re humans.”

    and madeline brewer, who plays janine:
    “I think that any story, if it is a story being told by a strong, powerful woman . . . any story that’s just a powerful woman owning herself in any way is automatically deemed ‘feminist’. I don’t think that this is any sort of feminist propaganda.”

    sighhhh. ofc they are entitled to their own opinions, but it’s like…i cannot think of another tv show that more lucidly demonstrates why we need to take women’s rights- the FEMINIST movement- seriously. it’s kind of worrying that the very people entrusted with bringing this story to life have such a different interpretation of it than i do… than most viewers, i would say. (then again, i could be wrong and maybe the show really is just a “human” story) (jk, don’t think so.)

    • Jukebox_babe

      It is troubling to read those quotes, but Elisabeth Moss clarified her stance by saying she is unquestionably a feminist, and that the story is definitely a feminist story and ALSO a human story.

      I think for a lot of people, feminist is still a dirty word that feels radical, regardless of whether they actually agree with the tenets of feminism. I don’t think it’s logical or right, but separating the word from this stigma is still part of the battle. With that in mind, I can see why the cast members may have been hesitant to label the show as feminist propaganda. If potential viewers are turned off by the label, they may lose that audience. I think that would be a travesty, because the show is excellent, but more importantly the story is impactful.

  • Greer Clarke

    That was an amazingly well written article

  • deborah j barnes

    So what to do about it? Like the witch trials, the justification of war and pollution, the lies of history and culture that save the “face” of the status quo, the harking of that mythical beast labeled growth and progress, it looks like the species has played itself right into a trap of it’s own making! The past is full of beliefs that have been dropped by the wayside and yet some core craziness seems to go forward despite adaptations. How can this be?

    The old story full of (masculine) heroes that conquer, dominate and control, empire builders that generate wealth and get pushy with power the old “winner take all” construct is an aging artifact. It no longer resonates with much of today’s knowledge – especially when it comes to concepts about connections, relationships , the entangled fields of energy. The larger, natural world is telling a different kind of tale, a story that moves past the limiting , familiar dogma of the dictatorial voice of authority.

    The new story way is something i have been playing with for a few years. I created a character that challenged my beliefs, this opened new windows into my perceptions. In turn it led to a new story about myself and my “self” in relationship to others, my species and beyond. I now see a living planet, uni-verse and myriad connections and patterns. Experimenting with ways to hold the unique, diverse “me” in a loving relationship with the whole of me 🙂 remains a challenge and yet the aha! rule. I did not see this coming and yet-YAY!

    I called my character’s mission a feminine heroes journey because it was not about adapting to the old male construct (women’s lib) as it took off in an entirely new direction. Now this journey is about facing the truth of self, understanding ego beyond identity and image and trekking about in the shadow and sneaking past those scary “No Trespassing Signs” I dared pushing past my own preconceived limits because; when a monster iis going around trashing the world, obeying said monster makes no sense!
    Now i can better understand the “monster.” have ideas on healing and living with it- think relativity! and feel a need to share it.

    Is anyone else playing in this wilderness of possibilities? Please reply.
    “We can and must do better than this” dr Suess
    thank you,

    • Nel Dunkley

      I do not understand what you are saying, sorry. I will participate in a planetary dance on 21st September, which is a meeting point at the solstice.

  • Carolyn Widener

    I remember reading this story when it first came out. It was riveting even back then and certainly left a mark on my psyche. However after reading Haley’s article, I remembered seeing a short clip on the patents of the technology that Hulu is utilizing and felt compelled to share with those interfacing with this technology so that they, too can become aware and be at choice with what they choose to uptake and digest and take into their bodies (mentally and physically). The technology and patents are discussed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qqtWomHSwok

  • C. Killion

    I’m one the those who marched for birth control, who remembers when a woman cold not get a credit card in her own name. The rights younger women have now were not gained easily, nor were those rights just somehow “always there”. Men have always wanted to control women’s bodies, to prove paternity and therefore, property. Assert your ability to vote, and VOTE.

  • I don’t know how close America is to Gilead, but you should take a look at what is happening in Poland. And that’s not the only European example of the peril of religious absolutism (nazi style…). The scary thing is that, at bottom line, those extremist christian communities have pretty much in common with ISIS than with democratic values.