the handmaid's tale premiere

The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are harrowing to watch. Not because they contain the systematic rape of women, nor is it the violent realization of misogyny and the patriarchy that is the dystopic Republic of Gilead. It’s because the story by Margaret Atwood — originally written in 1985 — is so alarmingly prescient and timely in its reflection of today’s political climate.

That’s right, we’re going political with this article. But The Handmaid’s Tale — with its depiction of a totalitarian theocracy that actively represses women and minorities’ rights — demands a political reading, especially after that fateful November 8, 2016 Election Day that pushed America one step closer to the terrifying not-too-distant future of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid's Tale

Episode 1: “Offred” — The Complicit Women

It seems cruel to begin my Handmaid’s Tale recap by pointing out the women who are complicit in the oppressive government when the story is so clearly about feminism. If it’s a patriarchal society, shouldn’t all women be repressed? Not necessarily.

Gilead was built on complacency and complicity. As Offred intones in the third episode, “I was asleep before, that’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution we didn’t wake up either. They said it was temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously.”

The Handmaid’s Tale makes an effort to convince us that the line between the modern-day flashbacks, with its little recognizable quirks — Uber, Tinder, college parties — and the Amish-like present day in Christian fundamentalist Gilead, is thin. The traditional dresses and bonnets that the Handmaids and women wear could fool you into thinking that the series takes place in another time, but it’s also not so unbelievable to think that this is the future — especially when the Handmaids pass by a wall from the University of Cambridge, or shop in modern grocery stores. History is cyclical after all, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale took its cues from totalitarian regimes in history.

The Handmaid's Tale

Right off the bat, The Handmaid’s Tale grounds us in modern day, opening with Offred (Elizabeth Moss) attempting to flee the country and pursuing soldiers with her daughter (Jordan Blake) and husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle). However, she’s caught and brought to the Red Center an institution that re-educates fertile women to become Handmaids, surrogates assigned to well-off families to birth them children in a world where fertility has dropped to near non-existence. But the Center is run by — you guessed it — women, in the form of the abusive Aunts (Ann Dowd is particularly terrifying as the crude Aunt Lydia). The Aunts both value and devalue the women, emphasizing their special role as bearers of the next generation, but berating them as sluts and whores.

Does putting women in the power actually mean that these Aunts are feminists? Far from it. The Handmaid’s Tale only makes explicit the social divisions in which we categorize women: Handmaids, surrogates; Marthas, “the help,” the Wives, the 1 percent. But even with the Wives, such as Yvonne Strahovski‘s Serena Joy, wielding power over other women, they’re still “less than” their male counterparts.

The Handmaid's Tale

The casting of Serena Joy as a young, icy blonde is interesting — in the novel she was a former evangelist TV speaker past her prime, cowed by the very system that she helped bring about. Here, she’s the picture of a pristine wife, beautiful and willing arm candy for her husband Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), with a few cracks showing beneath the facade. She brings to mind another icy blonde who has launched a thousand think pieces: Ivanka Trump. An abettor to her father Donald Trump’s path to the White House, yet a self-proclaimed “feminist,” Ivanka Trump has rightly been called out by Saturday Night Live for being “complicit” in Trump’s actions and sexual misdeeds. Her appearance and her values soften the blow of the Trump administration’s actions — Trump cut Planned Parenthood funding? But Ivanka advocated for a $500 billion childcare plan! There’s a rise in anti-Semitic acts under Trump? Ivanka is married to a Jewish man! That dichotomy is present in Serena Joy, who we sympathize with for her pain and for her small kindnesses to Offred — yet she remains quiet and complicit in the face of a government that actively oppresses her.

But what of the victimized Handmaids? To survive and find her daughter again, Offred and the others find themselves having to comply, sometimes in the most brutal and dehumanizing of ways. After one Handmaid-in-training, Janine, lashes out against the Aunts, she’s placed in the center of an AA-like meeting of Handmaids (during which Atwood herself makes a cameo as an Aunt!), telling the story of how she was gang raped while the other girls chant “Your fault” and “slut.” Later, at the Aunts’ urging, an angry mob of Handmaids tears apart an accused rapist, Offred leading the violent charge.

But she’s doing it for her daughter, Offred tries to convince herself. But Offred isn’t snapped out of her indoctrination into this world until her walking partner Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) reveals she’s a fellow rebel and informs Offred that there’s an Eye (one of the militarized spies) in her house. At this, Offred awakens from her reverie and reveals to us that her name is June.

Continue Reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and the Unbearable Likeness to Today’s Political Climate

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