Hulu‘s adaptation of the 1985 Margaret Atwood book, The Handmaid’s Tale is creepy. AF. (Let’s cry together.) Set in the dystopian world of Gilead where a totalitarian regime has taken over the United States, the story follows Offred, one of the few remaining fertile women forced to serve as a “handmaid” for the ruling class.
It’s the worst.
From the fact that certain convos sound a little too familiar…. to the absolutely gut-wrenching, lose-your-appetite mutilations (cliterectomy anyone?), to on the regular public hangings that happen amidst casual government-watched grocery runs, it’s a me-man, me-powerful nightmare come to life. The censorship. The burning of all books. The whipping of Offred’s feet when she attempts to run. And just who made the call on the Christmas-colored uniforms? Pantone color of the year does not exist in Gilead.
This world is colored by oppression and fear. A world where fertility is scarce, women are named after their owners, no one is happy, and ideology quickly becomes more important than morality. Even those in charge have a real WTF did we do look in their soulless eyes. (To their only credit, the circle jerks in charge of this unjust new world do invest in solar power, reduce their carbon footprint, and clean up the parks! So, points for believing in global warming.) Egads, luck not be a lady any night in this new Handmaiden world.
However, tabling the big, painful, state-sanctioned rape and did I just barf in my mouth? moments aside, these aren’t the foibles that are making most of us toss and turn at night.
Rather, it’s the small moments that are really getting stomachs churning. You know, the sneaky, vertigo ones that feel like you’re walking up a broken escalator. See, in the old world women still work, use Uber, protest, and have sex with the partner of their choosing.
That is, until they don’t. And that’s exactly why Handmaid’s Tale feels part deja-vu, part oh unholy fuck.
Here are the five too relatable moments that made us wish we were still living with mom.
NOTHING CHANGES IN A MOMENT
That’s not meant to be comforting. Who amongst us isn't guilty of a little complacency.
"When they slaughtered Congress, we didn't wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn't wake up then either," says Offred, née June, in the third episode. "They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it."
That’s Gilead in a nutshell.
During flashbacks we see how slowly, but steadily this new regime got its footing. It wasn’t even totally unexpected. There wasn’t a magic hey! everything sucks now. But people started accepting the suck as a new way of life. It will be over soon, they said. (Unrelated side note: it’s only four years right?) Early on, pre-regime, when all women are forced out of the workplace, June and her friend Moira commiserate in her apartment over wine. Wine!
When they take to the streets to protest and are shot down like animals, they still don't leave. They retreat and they panic, but they don’t leave. In episode seven, during a flashback, there is a moment when June turns to her husband, Luke, and says, “We should have left when Moira did. When I lost my job!" Well, yeah.
Things change slowly as life in Gilead becomes the new reality.
In episode six, as the Handmaids are cleaning the wall by the river where numerous hangings occur, one of them asks, “It looks kind of weird without all the dead bodies, doesn’t it?”
‘Yeah,” replies Offred. “I guess you get used to things being one way,” Janine responds, somberly answering the question: how did this happen?
EVEN WOMEN IN POWER ARE POWERLESS
All women in Gilead are systematically stripped of autonomous power. The men make all the decisions. (Just call it a Freedom cockus.)
Sure, it’s better to be a commander’s wife in Gilead than a Handmaid. No monthly rape (though, you do have to watch your husband rape another woman). No servitude (again, except to any and every dude). You don’t walk as fine of a line, or risk having your eyes gauged out or your neck shocked with a cattle prod, but you are still a woman. You’re not allowed outside of the city limits and you don’t have any say in what’s happening. Like, zilch.
Pre-Gilead, Serena Joy, the wife of Commander Waterford (the husband-wife duo to whom Offred is assigned), had a very active role in establishing the regime. In her own career, she participated in activities like conference calls (!), was the outspoken author of the book “A Woman’s Place,” in which she argued for “domestic feminism,” (no thanks) and snuck home from work to have sex with her husband.
In fact, it’s during a conversation with her husband at the movies where we learn that “fertility as a national resource” and “reproduction as a morale imperative” are her ideas for her second book. “It’s a great idea,” says Mr. Waterford. In Gilead however, women can no longer read her book, or anything. And (ha! ha!) the basis for her book becomes the new world order.
Though Serena is a first true believer in “God’s work,” she soon becomes a prisoner of it.
There are the late night meetings where she’s pushed out of the conversation. This is a pain we’ve all felt— excluded or dismissed from a convo simply because you're woman. Those times in a meeting when a man in a meeting takes credit for your idea. This isn't science fiction.
In Gilead, Serena is only Mrs. Waterford, reduced to a woman who says things like, “I’m blessed to have a home and a husband to care for and follow.”
And when women no longer have agency, it’s all too easy to…
TURN AGAINST EACH OTHER
The women in Gilead have but one great purpose: “fulfill their biological destinies.” A kind of single-vision purpose that would make anyone nuts. And it does. It’s not just the men that subjugate the women. The female-on-female emotional and physical violence carried out by the wives and aunts against the Handmaids feels all too real. It's not just the machine guns on every street corner. Thousands of micro-aggressions create a climate of fear. Sure we don’t pluck each other’s eyes out, but there are lots of examples of emotional abuse in the workplace.
At the Red Center the “Aunts” are tasked with indoctrinating the Handmaids with society’s new code of conduct. Aunts help the fertile bunch accept their fate as wombs for hire with the help of tools like cattle prods and beatings. Good stuff. Once they are “placed,” the Handmaids become the property of their Commanders. The wives behave like Stepford sorority sisters whose burn books would consist of actually burnt skin, or something equally as sick. (But alas, no books.)
“I know when you’re spoken to, you’ll speak wisely,” says Mrs. Waterford to Offred on a night when the Mexican ambassador, Mrs. Castillo, dines at the Waterford home. Without context, it’s innocent enough, but the threat of emotional and physical violence is always there. If you don’t do what we say, we will hurt you.
The classicism also hits close to home. “Line them up please,” says Mrs. Waterford before a dinner where the Handmaids are supposed to be honored for their “service” to they country. She orders Aunt Lydia to, “Remove the damaged ones…you don’t put the bruised apples at the top of the crate.” Never mind that she and her cronies are the ones doing the bruising. Cut off their hands and then put them in their place. That’s Gilead.
And victim-blaming? Yeah, that's a thing in Gilead too. Feel familiar?
One of the most chilling lines from all aired eight episodes is delivered by Aunt Lydia. "Girls, I know this must feel very strange," she says. "But 'ordinary' is just what you're used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time, it will. This will become ordinary."
THE LACK OF ACCESS TO MONEY
Call this one a stretch, but pre-G, when Moira and June attempt to pay for coffee only to be told by a barista that there are insufficient funds in their accounts, it felt a little too plausible. The misogynistic barista also calls them "fucking sluts" and denies them service. The two laugh and leave, but they don't do anything about it.
While women still have access to our bank accounts, it’s a head-scratcher when you remember that women weren’t able to get credit cards on their own until the late ‘70s. There remains an access to capital problem for women who are starting businesses, even though their ideas are crucial to economic development. There are plenty of women with business ideas whose dreams die in the bank parking lot. And many women still have little financial independence from their partners.
Money is power. The men in Gilead know this.
BUT, IT'S NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM-- THERE'S MAKEUP
This has been a rough exploration. We want to leave you with something slightly uplifting. In the most recent episode Offred gets to wear makeup! Sure, it’s at the hand of her oppressive master who takes her to a brothel, and makes her get pretty for him before he rapes her in the comfort of a hotel room, but who knew this stuff even existed in Gilead?
On a less depressing tip, when she uses the lipstick to rogue her cheeks, raise your hand if you were nodding along thinking, me too, me too, I do that! It just happens to be in the comfort of your own home.
What are the moments that have irked you the most? Share in the comments below.
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