A small deviation from my usual screen reviews, as The Handmaids Tale is actually a book. I’ve been told only bad things about the film adaptation, but I felt there was a great deal that needed to be discussed. Who knows, maybe book reviews will become a semi-regular occurrence on Femphile!
As I begin to write this, I have not finished The Handmaids Tale. I am about thirty pages from the end, and begging myself to slow down so that it will last longer. I have read all of it on my two hour daily commute, in the space of three days. I feel exhausted. Although I haven’t physically traveled outside of South East England, I have been emotionally displaced the entire time. Every time I pick it up I am transported to this world, this horrible, terrible, dystopian future that I only hope will never exist. Except that it has. Except that it almost does. In short, I think I have discovered my new favourite book, and I will tell you why.
A bit of context first. The Handmaids Tale, written by Margaret Atwood, was published in the 1980s, directly after the phenomenon that was the beginning of women’s sexual liberation. Birth control, abortion rights and second wave feminism had made huge waves in tearing down ideologies about women’s sexuality that had stood for centuries. Mainly the idea that they didn’t really have any. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale as a speculative sci-fi novel, exploring the possible extremist reactions to the new found freedoms that women had been given in the 70s and 80s.
Our protagonist, Offred, and the other women are slowly dismantled as an active part of society and what remains is various stereotypes for women to exist within. I mean this very literally; women are separated into Wives, Handmaids, Aunts, Marthas and Econowives – all of whom are assigned different reasons for existing.
Offred belongs to a group called Handmaids, whose sole purpose for existing is to be a vessel for human life. Or to put it less romantically; Offred has a fertile womb and that is the only reason she is kept alive. She lives in a house with the Commander (highest ranking male group in Gilead) and his Wife. The Wives and the Handmaids have a somewhat difficult relationship, mainly hate fuelled and this is not only to do with the bizarre sex ritual the two perform with the Commander. The Handmaids are brought into households where the Wives cannot conceive, and their job is to have the child for the Wife. Children are sacred in Gilead, and religious doctrine dictate that they must be conceived by any means possible. Which, realistically, meant herding all the fertile women up like cattle and distributing them to wealthy couples across the country. It’s horrifying and makes even the more strong stomached of us feel a bit sick. Did I mention Offred’s name is because she is ‘Off’ ‘Fred’. Like, she belongs to Fred. Handmaids Tale is many things, but subtle is not one of those.
Quite predictably, The Handmaids Tale is constantly compared to other speculative fiction such as ‘1984’(George Orwell) and ‘Brave New World’(Aldous Huxley). This is unfair. Handmaids Tale is far better.
What sets Handmaid’s Tale apart from other dystopian future novels is the level of detail Atwood allows the audience to learn through Offred’s flashbacks. This, in my opinion, is the fundamental reason why it’s so relatable and why it works so well. Offred reveals, very slowly, that this shift into Gilead’s regime and an unrecognisable dystopian future, only happened a few years ago. Unlike her counterparts (Winston from ‘1984’ or Bernard from ‘Brave New World’), Offred actually remembers what it was like to be free, to be us. Offred went to university, smoked cigarettes, had sexual encounters. She had best friends. She had a child. Offred encompasses us and our fears for the future, because she has them too. The fear of not getting a job you like, of not doing the best for your child; these fears transgress into fears for our society in a way that can comprehend.
In fact, because Offred has these recent memories and can recall exactly how the US fell to Gilead, we are presented with the complete and horrific transition to the ultimate patriarchal routine. Needless to say the analogy of slowly boiling a frog alive (because it doesn’t notice the heat until it’s too late) becomes incredibly relevant here.
The obsession with reproduction, sex and reproductive rights is predictably geared entirely towards women. Reminiscent of present day MRA’s who spit that women shouldn’t have sex if they don’t want to get pregnant, the onus is completely on the women of Gilead. Atwood implies that there has been a decrease in birthing rates due to possible radiation fall out (amongst other things). The Handmaids are checked regularly to ensure they are fertile (not being fertile renders you an Unwoman ho ho ho) but the men are never subjected to the same rigorous examination. It’s possible that many of the Commanders may be infertile, but it is the women who will suffer when they cannot conceive his child. The religious doctrines that keep the women separate and oppressed is heavily influenced by the Bible and Christianity; and this provides the basis for the covered modesty women must adhere to. It is interesting that Atwood distinguishes between the freedoms that Offred is given in this new world. She is covered head to toe, monitored at all times and she has no choice over her future. Yet, Offred states, Gilead has made it safer for women. There are no rapes, no crimes of passion and no domestic abuse. It’s freedom from, instead of freedom to and what The Handmaids Tale teaches us is that the two are incompatible. If you want to wear a short skirt, then you’re going to get raped. Wonder where we have heard that before?
It’s true that the imagery within Handmaid’s Tale sometimes feels heavy handed, and we are aware that the novel is entirely concerned with what is essentially the nightmares of a feminist. When we put Atwood’s novel into context, however, it isn’t just us feminists and women that should be running scared. The treatment of women in Gilead has happened before, is happening now and The Handmaid’s Tale allows us to imagine it happening again. You only have to look at the Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 300 Nigerian girls, Elliott Rodger’s manifesto or the percentage of women involved in global scale politics to realize that Atwood has a point. Handmaids Tale takes all of the oppression and injustice served up to women and magnifies it. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t subtle in it’s dystopian depiction, but it is grounded in a very real oppression of women over time.
In addition to this, Atwood explores segregation as a means to oppress – similarly in the way we are conditioned to today. The inferior position of women in Gilead could be challenged if not for the Wives. Keeping some women more oppressed than others generates hatred between women themselves – keeps them blaming each other rather than grouping together to fight the establishment (of men) who put them there. Today we see a brand of ‘white feminism’ which separates itself from issues affecting anyone other than middle class white (mainly European/American) women. Not only this, but the rise of hashtags such as #idontneedfeminsim and the TERF movement seek to divide women and turn them against each other.
So it’s pretty obvious that The Handmaids Tale is still relevant today, maybe more than ever. Us women, we have to stick together. For Alma, Moira, Donna, Janine and June.
The artwork featured in this essay are from the Folio Society Edition of the book and drawn by Anna and Elena Balbusso. Taken from The Guardian.