The 1985 novel written by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu show based on the book is some of the darkest and amazing pieces of art I’ve ever come across. The storyline follows the life of a fertile woman in a world where the population is declining, and infertility is on the rise. It shows how because of her functional uterus; her husband and daughter are snatched away from her. So is her name and sense of self. She is not allowed to use her name. Since she is the property of her Commander named Fred, her name becomes Offred. In her words, she becomes a ‘two-legged womb with the sole purpose of increasing Gilead’s waning population’.The Republic of Gilead is a Christian, theocratic government that has taken over the former United States by staging a military coup.
The Divided Women
The women have been divided into four distinct groups determined by their function according to the few men who hold all the power. The first is the Commander’s Wives, wearing blue. On the surface, they might seem like they are free, and while they are way better off than most women in the regime, even the wives’ rights are limited. They cannot go out alone, can only take care of their homes and like all women, aren’t allowed to read.
The Aunts, who are the only exception to the rule of not reading, aren’t considered women, exactly. They wear brown and their role is to discipline and re-educate the Handmaids, by any necessary means. The Aunt in charge of Offred is Aunt Lydia, a cruel and brutal woman who doesn’t hesitate before using cattle prods on her ‘girls’. During their initiation, she chillingly says, “Ordinary' is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.”
The Marthas are the servants and cooks, there to help the Wives around the house and with a baby if they are blessed enough to get a healthy one.
The red robes and white headgear of Handmaids have become a globally recognized symbol for women’s rights worldwide today. The Handmaids are subjected to state-required rape by the Commanders, most of whom are sterile. However, the regime has decided that there is no such thing as a sterile man, only infertile women. If the Handmaid is not able to get pregnant after the Ceremony, she is deemed worthless and sent to the Colonies, doomed to clear nuclear waste until she dies.
Reflecting on Society
The most chilling aspect of the whole story, however, is that the author didn’t write anything that hasn’t already happened in human history. The writers of the show followed suit. The horrific atrocities shown to us have already happened to actual people. Some are even happening today. This ‘speculative fiction’ was written with the sole purpose of reminding us about the consequences of complacency. To remind us that our rights and freedom are not as concrete as we would like to believe they are. They can be very easily snatched away by those in power if they wish to.
One aspect of the show that isn’t widely discussed is that Gilead doesn’t only oppress women. True, the female half gets the brunt of the blow, but there are plenty of men who suffer as well. Men who are not Commanders. Men who are not heterosexual, who are not Christian, who do not agree with the Sons of Jacob and wish to fight back. Any sign of rebellion is dealt with swiftly and brutally.
The Oppressors and the Oppressed
It’s not only the men who act as oppressors. The Commanders, who constructed Gilead, wouldn’t have been able to get very far without the help of their Wives. These fanatical and selfish women care about only one thing-getting a baby. Since they are barren, they need Handmaids to bear children for them. It’s these very Handmaids that are mistreated and enslaved by them. Instead of helping a fellow woman, who very clearly needs any kind of aid, they treat her like filth, often forgetting that the baby they so desperately want will be half of this very filth. The Wives are given the duty of holding the Handmaid down while their husbands rape them. The symbolism isn’t lost on anyone, except of course the Wives.
The regime not only dictates each and every part of the lives of the people but also their language and behavior. Phrases like, ‘Blessed be the fruit’ and ‘May the lord open’ become a part of their daily lives.
The book was written in 1985, when many conservative groups were attacking the gains made by the second-wave feminist movement, like the fight for social and private equality, going one step further than just enfranchisement. Margaret Atwood created a world in which the conservative groups win.
The lives we create for ourselves have an extremely fickle foundation. If we wish to live on our own terms, we need to make sure that the foundation holds. This message that Margaret Atwood sought to give the world will remind everyone about how horribly wrong everything can go if we take our freedom for granted.
© 2020 Hansika Sachdeva