Two nights ago, I officially caught up with The Handmaid’s Tale. The internet is full of hot takes all over this show right now, so I’ll just offer a brief blog post on how this show lands to me personally:
As you probably are aware, the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale is that a sudden, unexplainable drop in successful pregnancies and births have caused a world panic. America has relapsed into an ultra-conservative, ultra-religious distopia called Gilead where women with reproductive capabilities are made to procreate with the leaders of the new government as many times as possible, and are tortured, maimed, or killed if they resist.
The Handmaid’s Tale successfully roots us fictional future that is our country’s current hard-right conservative movement taken to it’s logical extreme. The constant defunding of Planned Parenthood, the bizarre cognitive dissonance of making abortion access as difficult as possible (if not illegal) while also doing the same to birth control, and the pedestal mothers are put on by the religious right even as the government allows “pregnancy” to be considered a pre-existing condition are real, right-now examples of ideological similarities to the government in the show.
When conservative lawmakers already seek to control women’s reproduction, sex life, and morality, it starts to make the fiction feel a little less… well, fake.
Women watching will also recognize how Serena Joy’s role as the Commander’s cruel wife exemplifies women of higher classes partaking in the oppression of women of lower classes. In this case, class is based in reproduction and has been meticulously constructed: high class wives who cannot procreate (virginal, docile, not threatening), and lower class women with reproductive capabilities who need to be controlled less they put the entire fate of the world at risk. But these class distinctions exist along many real lines in our society. I think about the 52% of white women who voted for Trump. I think about all the women of color they fucked over.
(The slaveowner’s wife is also a common movie trope that skirts around this same issue of white upper class women taking out the subjugation they face at the hands of their husbands on the female slaves in their care–the wife’s unrelenting abuse of Patsey from 12 Years a Slave comes to mind as a recent cinematic example. Click here for a take on The Handmaid’s Tale and it’s relationship with blackness. I wonder how the show would be different if Offred was cast as black, or if we followed Samira Wiley’s character’s story instead? What would it say about America that’s different than what it says now?)
The characters who give in to their own subjugation–which, arguably, Offred does–are particularly interesting to me because it brings up a deep seeded fear I have of not stopping my government before it oppresses me. Offred tells us that nobody did anything when Congress fell, or when they passed the first laws declaring women couldn’t work. Though I like to claim my part in The Resistance, I’ve been to a total of one protest, and only called my congressman once. I would look pretty stupid if this all happened to us.
There are other, more fantastical and specific world-building tidbits that are made more visceral by all of this near-realism. I want to extrapolate the birth scene in episode 2, which, though it does not have any basis in current ideological systems and is total fiction, prompted me to tweet this:
Well the Handmaid’s Tale sure makes me feel some type of way about my body
— rachelle✿ (@rachellephant) May 17, 2017
In the birth scene, one-eyed crazy Janine (Madeline Bower, also of Orange is the New Black fame) gives birth to a baby. We have already seen the Ceremony, in which the barren wives lay the handmaids down in their lap as the handmaid’s get raped by their husbands. It’s supposed to be as if the impregnation is happening to the wife, not the handmaid.
The birth scene takes this surrogate experience to the next level. As Offred and the other handmaids walk into Janine’s Commander’s manor, they spot Serena and the other wives circled around Janine’s Commander’s wife as she does breathing exercises on the floor. They coo at her. They rub her shoulders. They reassure her that she’s doing great. In an upstairs bedroom, Janine screams as she gives birth. Moments before the baby actually comes out of her body, the wives from downstairs rush up. Janine is placed in a chair-like contraption with extra space behind her–and slightly above her–where the wife scrambles into place. She resumes her fake labored moaning and Janine continues to scream. The other wives hold her hands and pet her hair, but nobody holds Janine’s hands. Nobody pets Janine’s hair. It’s such a lonely moment.
This is one of the most horrible scenes the show has to offer, which is saying a lot. I am profoundly uninterested in child-rearing, but I’ve always been acutely aware that my body could do it. It was a couple years ago that I realized what a parasitic event pregnancy is for the woman in question. The fetus takes over the body; she is beholden to it’s needs. On top of that, people sidestep the mother’s privacy, touching her belly without permission, asking intrusive questions, and offering patronizing advice.
That’s not even counting the complications that plague many pregnancies–my own mother nearly died having me because her health complications got so bad that she could not keep down food for weeks at a time. She likes to joke that she actually lost weight being pregnant with me, but it’s not really that funny. None of it is.
I know a lot of girls who fear pregnancy, deep in their bones. Like, panic-attack-at-being-a-day-late level fear. Social stigma around teen motherhood and parenting out of wedlock does this effectively–I know a few people who got pregnant in high school, and I remember thinking, No fucking way that’s going to be me. Still, my conservative dad hated that I went on birth control at fifteen, so much that he would literally cover his ears when my mother and I talked about it in front of him. I had a steady boyfriend at the time, but I kept it quiet, or else said I went on it for my acne. This was a half-hearted attempt to control how other people felt about my body, because everyone had an opinion about it anyways.
Another jarring scene: Offred and her partner, Ofglen, walk by a storefront window displaying child-sized handmaid outfits, pastel pink. We know Offred lost her daughter, who was about the size of the mannequin when we saw her in flashback. Kids exist, somewhere in this world, and some of those kids have female reproductive systems, and some of those systems are going to be viewed as an economic commodity for Gilead to harness, utilize, trade, and abuse.
The things that the handmaids go through in The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t real, but they aren’t entirely falsified, either. This is a distopian future more believable that the one in The Hunger Games, for example. No weird reality television murder drama here–just an extension of a culture of fear, repression, and control that women and girls have been subject to for a long, long time. It’s a system we learned from our mothers, but one that, hopefully, we won’t pass on.