By Sara Karlovitch
This is how it starts. First, martial law is declared after an attack on Congress. Radical right-wing theological groups start to fill the power vacuum, promising safety, security and a return to “traditional values.” A falling birth rate due to pollution only adds to the feeling of uncertainty.
Next, all bank accounts belonging to women are frozen, any money they had going to a husband or next male kin. They are forced to quit their jobs and can no longer own property.
Naturally, protests break out. However, peaceful assembly is quickly destroyed when the new government’s armed forces fire on demonstrators, killing dozens.
Canada is willing to take you — if you can make it to the border without being caught first.
Most don’t make it.
And suddenly, your country is no longer your country. In just a few months, extremist, fear- mongering turns the United States of America into the Republic of Gilead, where the only rule of law is those found in the Bible and the patriarchy rules.
This is the premise of Margaret Atwood’s historic, provocative book, The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1985. The book follows Offred (literally meaning Of-Fred — the name of the commander she serves), a handmaid in the new Republic of Gilead. However, she’s not a handmaid in the typical sense. Due to the falling birth rate, fertile women, or handmaids, are forced to bear children to the upper class in what is essentially state-sanctioned rape.
Fertile women are forced to lie in the lap of the barren wives of the upper class while the commanders rape them in hope of successfully impregnating them. This tradition is based on the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid Bilhah. Rachel was infertile and couldn’t bear her husband, Jacob, any children. Rachel then had Bilhah lay in her lap while Jacob had intercourse with her. This way, Rachel could have children “by Bilhah.”
In the Republic of Gilead, handmaids serve the husbands’ wives. They are forbidden to read, go outside without permission and are at the complete mercy of the wives and “aunts.” Aunts train and indoctrinate the handmaids; their methods are inhuman and brutal.
Several people have tried, and failed, to bring Atwood’s haunting novel to life. There was an opera and a movie, both of which were not overly financial or critical successes. Atwood’s world was simply too brutal and haunting to accurately bring to life.
The online streaming service Hulu, however, stepped up to the plate and delivered in a huge way.
The first three episodes of the 10-episode series were made available April 26 with a new episode set to release each week after that. The series is extremely well done with top-shelf acting and amazing cinematography. The show perfectly captures the fear, intensity and paranoia of Atwood’s classic.
Offred is played by Elizabeth Moss whose character interacts brilliantly with Yvonne Strahovski, who plays the commander’s wife, Serena Joy. Serena and Offred’s relationship is dynamic and intimidating and at times too intense to watch without a pit forming in your stomach.
A surprisingly strong and compelling performance is put on by Gilmore Girls star Alexis Bledel, who plays Ofglen. Ofglen is a “gender- traitor,” which is Gilead speak for gay. The only thing saving her from execution is her womb.
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t compelling just for it’s stunning visuals and it’s amazing ability to make the viewer as uncomfortable as possible, but for it’s relevance. What makes the story important is its parallels to our society.
Filming for the show began well before the November election. However, recent events have given the show a sense of urgency it would have otherwise lacked. In both America and Gilead, men make the majority of decisions when it comes to a women’s reproductive health. The religious right has Congress held hostage, and women are shamed for their sexual assaults.
However, what I found the most compelling, the most harrowing part of The Handmaid’s Tale is the eagerness of women to oppress other women. In Gilead, the members of the upper crust and the aunts get a thrill out of oppressing the handmaids. They revel in it and enjoy it. It makes them feel like they have power when, in actuality, they are just as oppressed as the handmaids.
The patriarchy is propped up on female shoulders. Without women willing to sustain it, the male-dominated orders of our society would fall. Without the willing support of the wives and aunts, Gilead would not be able to continue it’s oppressive regime.
Why do the wives and aunts go along with it? Why do they willingly take part in their own enslavement? Well, why are some young women so eager to say they’re “not feminists?” Why are there women fighting against the reproductive health of their fellow women? Because it makes them feel safe. It lets them pretend they’re not second class citizens. They don’t need “equal rights” because they’re “already equal.”
They support the patriarchy because they refuse to believe there is anything on their shoulders.
The Handmaid’s Tale feels too familiar. After you finish watching, it’s impossible to not see similarities everywhere. It’s a wake up call.
The particularly cruel Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) tells the handmaids that “ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will.”
Since Nov. 9, a lot of things are starting to feel ordinary that aren’t. Waking up in the morning to check if the government shut down isn’t ordinary. Filling the streets of Washington, D.C. over outrage after outrage isn’t ordinary. It isn’t ordinary to hear about another incident of police brutality or of a federal judge ending up dead in a river or to wonder if Planned Parenthood will be able to keep its doors open open.
Yet, all that is starting to feel expected. It’s starting to feel, well, ordinary.
Margaret Atwood is yelling at us to wake up. As one March on Washington sign put it, “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual.”
It’s time to wake up, America, because this pattern we’re falling into sure isn’t ordinary.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of The Handmaid’s Tale on Facebook.
Sara Karlovitch is a freshman journalism and government and politics major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.