As a TwentySomething female, I’ve studied the women in history who permitted me to have the privileges I’m lucky enough to live with today. To watch it all stripped away in Hulu’s original series The Handmaid’s Tale has taken me through a complex set of emotions, ranging from pity, to anger, to fear. As I dove deeply into the first four episodes, I realized these emotions were centered around the thought of something like this happening in my lifetime. The unfortunate truth is that though it didn’t occur in my lifetime, everything that occurred in the show has happened during somebody’s lifetime.
Based off Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, the series follows a theocratic society living under a fundamentalist dictatorship in the Republic of Gilead, formerly known as the United States. Here, women are forced to leave behind their previous lives and identities in order to oblige as concubines, useless to their commanders and mistresses until impregnated.
The Handmaid's Tale via Marie Claire
It’s a chilling, humbling, and disturbing plot that packages women as items. Whether the female characters are sexualized through their role as handmaids or as slaves, they all exist in a man's life – and in society as a whole – as voiceless, helpless objects.
The Handmaid's Tale, via TV Guide
Unfortunately, once protagonist Offred, portrayed by Elisabeth Moss, begins to find a voice and to commiserate with her “partner" Ofglen, played by Alexis Bledel, she quickly loses Ofglen. Their storylines separate, depicting two very different, though both oppressed, situations: sexuality versus fertility. This enforces how the female body is treated in Gilead.
Like Angelica Jade Bastièn highlights in her recap of the third episode in The New York Times, “Both Offred and Ofglen’s plots underline the ways in which female bodies carry currency in this world and how quickly this worth can change.”
When Offred is presumed to be pregnant, all behavior towards her shifts. She becomes humanized by her mistress, the help, and the men, as they become invested in her best interest and show concern for her emotional and physical state. Yet, upon learning she’s not pregnant, she goes back to being treated like an object. Watching Mrs. Waterford toss Offred back into her room demonstrates poorer treatment than before. I wondered: how do these mistresses have no empathy for their fellow woman, after coming from a society where women had come so far? How could they allow this future to happen, by reverting to traditional and conservative roles?
In Offred’s flashbacks of living with her husband and daughter, we get a glimpse of the past society. It’s also relayed through Offred’s narrative in her present life in Gilead. Her words make comments that will affect all audiences, women and men alike.
Regarding this topic, Elisabeth Moss told GQ, “I do hope – whether you’re a man, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re gay, straight, whatever religion you’re a part of, whether you’re right-wing, left-wing – whatever the hell you are, I hope that you see through your own eyes, and through your own experience, and apply what is talked about through the show through your experience. That’s how we come together, and that’s how we learn.”
And I think that “coming together” is a huge theme in the show. Each handmaid struggles with different issues, but their struggles are what bring them together. Women are much stronger together when they exist as a unifying force. Coming together is depicted both positively and negatively in the cult-esque handmaids, but it’s clear they recognize they have no other choice than to conform, and if they are to survive, they'd have to do it together.
The Handmaid's Tale, by George Kraychik
I have to echo Moss’ words – watching the show isn’t just an eye-opening experience to what women once endured, it’s also applicable to learning and understanding the present and future. It’s about survival as a humanity and a peek into how far we’ve come as a society. We’ve made too much progress to watch that unravel to the circumstances portrayed in the show, and the only way to move forward is to unite as a collective.
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