In 1985, during a decade characterised by fervent sexual politics, Margaret Atwood published her landmark dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. It prophesises that in the near future, America has been turned into a totalitarian theocracy called Gilead in which fertile women, dubbed “Handmaids”, are owned by the state and forced to partake in a form of ritualised rape in order to bear children for the ruling elite. The book has been widely studied in literature classes since its publication and to many it is perceived a relic of its time, making direct comments on the struggles of Second Wave Feminism and 1980s society. However, there is something about the story that remains all too relevant today.
“something about the story that remains all too relevant today”
When Hulu debuted their ten-part adaptation of the book in April 2017, it was hotly anticipated. Aside from the fact it is known, loved and an important socio-political analysis, it is virtually impossible not to recognise the Gilead-esque nature of Trumpian politics, making it even more poignant. Just four months prior to the release of the show, a photo of Trump signing an anti-abortion related order, surrounded by five white men in suits went viral. For me, it was impossible to watch the show without that image in mind.
The creators of the adaptation have recognised the timeliness of the programme and have deliberately set the action of the show in the present. Therefore, what makes it so important and at times so uncomfortable to watch is that the action feels all too real and all too possible. Attwood wrote the novel with the rule that everything included in it had to have happened somewhere at some time and the creators of the show have remained true to that rule. Whilst it has some harrowing scenes depicting rape, violence, suicide and reference to female genital mutilation, these are not sensationalised or used gratuitously. It is not strictly a work of fantasy designed to be dramatically grotesque but rather, a work of fiction that reflects parts of the everyday experience of some people across the world.
“work of fiction that reflects parts of the everyday experience of some people across the world”
It remains even more relevant by cleverly incorporating elements of 2017 into its narrative dialogue, with references to Tinder, Uber, Craigslist etc. It also has contemporary artists such as ‘Cigarettes After Sex’ on its soundtrack. Furthermore, each song used at the end of each episode has resonance with the message of the episode, cleverly tying together the action – a nice touch.
The cinematography is beautiful and it is brilliantly cast with big names such as Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel and Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley providing compelling performances. For me, Orange Is the New Black’s Madeline Brewer steals the show with her heart-breaking portrayal of Janine/Ofwarren who spirals into madness under the brutality of Gilead. The emotional journey that she portrays is incredible viewing.
Perhaps the most powerful scene of the series is a flashback to a ‘Women’s March’ after legislature was passed that made it illegal for women to work or have control of their own finances. It stirs up vivid images of the Women’s Marches that occurred after the election of Trump. I think the most important message to take from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is that we cannot take our freedoms for granted and we cannot become indifferent in the face of injustice.
“we cannot become indifferent in the face of injustice”
In a world where Theresa May has made a deal with an anti-abortion, homo-phobic, climate change denying DUP, where women’s bodies were used as bargaining tools; in a world where just this week Trump has banned transgender people from serving in the army; in a world where gay people are facing daily persecution in Chechnya; in a world where girls are killed for seeking an education and countless other horrors are happening all over the world on an everyday basis, a Gilead seems all too possible.
So, whilst at times it is uncomfortable viewing, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a must watch because as Santayana says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.