Hulu’s smash hit “The Handmaid’s Tale” is more than just an addictive, binge-worthy drama. It’s a terrifying story of what may be yet to come, or — even worse — what has already come to be in U.S. and international politics.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name (Atwood herself is a consulting producer on the show and has a cameo in the first episode), tells the story of June/Offred, a handmaid in the dystopian society of Gilead.
Though the series varies in certain details from Atwood’s novel (for example, on Hulu, viewers find out more about June/Offred’s husband — the novel never makes such revelations), the primary story is largely in the same. Gilead has arisen in what was once known as the United States of America. Everyone except straight, white, Christian men are subjugated, killed outright by the government, or disposed of by transportation to the “colonies,” a toxic wasteland where people die slowly. Handmaids are the objects of upper class men, to be used exclusively for their fertility.
It is possible to see streaks of reality in book’s dystopian world.
In Gilead, women are categorized into classes based on their relationship to men or usefulness to men. If you’re lucky, you’d be a “wife” in Gilead — the best women can hope for — married to a powerful man and able to sit quietly at the head of your household. The other classes of women range from utility (handmaids for their fertility, marthas for their housekeeping) to the “unwomen” — those who are infertile and therefore categorized as not-even-human and sent to the Colonies to die.
In today’s political climate in the U.S., rights over women’s bodies are argued over by (primarily) old, white men in government. In other parts of the world, women aren’t even allowed to leave the house without a man’s permission.
So begins Offred’s story of how Gilead came to be, in the novel. Offred tells of a country where the government was taken over, little by little and without much opposition. Gilead wasn’t formed in one fell swoop: it was formed in pieces.
In the world today — not just in America — fear of “others” is leading politics. Brexit is largely attributed to the populace’s disdain for the U.K.’s required stance on immigration under the E.U. President Trump’s victory, in the U.S., was on the backs of those Republicans that already believed in a more restrictive immigration policy — and Trump’s excessively nationalistic followers, of course, found much that they liked in his promises to “build a wall.”
Gilead came to be because the government instilled a fear of “others” in the masses. The same is now happening in much of the word.
Aunt Lydia, the woman tasked with brainwashing the future Handmaids to perform their government-ordained duties, repeats part of a Bible verse to them over and over: “Blessed are the meek.” Offred points out that she never finishes the verse: “…for they shall inherit the earth.”
Although not officially government-ordained, much of the opposition to homosexuality that exists in the world today — and especially in America— is supported by certain Bible passages. Christian fundamentalists that quote the Bible to oppose homosexuality often carefully forget the multiple other Bible passages that would forbid divorce or have children thrown against stones.
Selective religious fundamentalism took over Gilead and has been growing throughout the world today.
Black people, called “Children of Ham” in the novel, have been “relocated” to settlements called the “national homelands” in the Midwest. In case this feels reminiscent of real life, it’s because similar racially-segregated homelands were set up during Apartheid in South Africa.
The United States is running rampant with racial tension, stemming largely from the execution-style murders of young black men at the hands of police and the lack of responsibility attributed to those officers. As recently as last week, the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop was acquitted on all charges by a jury.
In Gilead, the government sanctions the removal of people of color. In the modern-day United States, the government stops just short of punishing those that undertake their own removal of people of color.
In Gilead, women are brainwashed to believe that any sexual assault they may have experienced was their own fault; a result of their dressing or acting a certain way. In 2017 in the U.S., when female survivors of sexual assault attempt to report their attacks, more often than not they are questioned about what they were wearing or how much they drank. It doesn’t take a leap to get from where we are now to Atwood’s dystopia — where women are responsible for everything bad that happens to them and men get off scot-free.
Atwood’s imagined Gilead may be actually dystopian — as opposed to the only-slight-off from dystopian world we’re living in today. All it took to build Gilead, though, was the silence of those that would resist and the vast expansion of government power.