By Yesenia Coello
Disclaimer: I’ve never read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. In fact, my overall impression of the show so far rests on the observations I’ve made while watching the pilot. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” however, possesses the unique ability to latch its viewers into its allure by raising just enough questions and answering a handful in the span of an hour. The pilot does its job by telling its audience that there is a story to be told rather than raising questions that will be answered later in the series. This ability, perhaps intentionally, draws the parallels between fiction and reality. Like any piece of good art, the discrepancies between our reality and the fictitious one are made more recognizable when established early in the story.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in a fundamentalist dystopian society in the remnants of New England. This new society, Gilead, has all the characteristics of a medieval kingdom. The Bible is the highest authority in the land and women are stripped of their rights, to the extent that they are merely objects. (They can’t read or write.) Non-fertile women (which are the majority in Gilead), are simply admired as trophy wives. Fertile women, known as handmaids, are subjected to the worst treatment within the system, forced to bear children for non-fertile women and their husbands. The narrative follows Offred (Elisabeth Moss) as she navigates through an oppressive system while trying to keep her sanity and identity intact. Being forced to deal with an eclectic cast of characters, it becomes difficult to discern friend from foe as the horrors of Gilead are exposed.
While not as exhilarating as other dystopian fiction such as “The Hunger Games,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a story that thinly resembles our own. Or at the very least is a hyperbolic manifestation of what the human condition is. It’s like taking a trip in a time machine and finding yourself in a classical realm dictated by dogma and deductive reasoning. It also raises the question: Would someone from the 21st century survive in such a backward culture? Obviously, this question impacts women more than men, so how would women, who are used to enjoying the juices of freedom, react in this hostile environment?
The reactions are mixed. Those who defy the rules are killed or mutilated. Those who don’t are ignored (which is better than being noticed), and can live another day. To cope with the psychological pain of losing their identities, some blindly resign their fates and carry on nonplussed. (As seen with one of Offred’s closest friends). The few in between are clinging to the dim possibility that they can escape and resume their lives outside of Gilead. Offred, passively defies the system by reassuring herself that she will escape and be reunited with her family. A challenging form of resistance, the payoff from the agony could be well into the future – or nonexistent at all.
Interestingly, Gilead’s influence is solely concentrated in the ruins of the former United States. The rest of the world, from can be insinuated, is stable (or the very least functional). Neighbors Canada and Mexico are known to exist but are not pivotal to the plot so far. It would be safe to assume that the series and novel are a commentary on American society. Ironically, Margaret Atwood is Canadian. However, she is a known critic of American politics. Could her work be a critique of American society? On a surface level, I would say yes. However, the period when the book was published also needs consideration. Published in 1985, the novel came out in a delicate time in not just American history but also world history. And while American cynicism over a potential nuclear war have been renewed (thanks to films like “Wargames”), the global stage was active and began to show signs that society was ready to evolve again. Just as it did after Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and World War I. The balance of power throughout the modern world was shifting and very well ran the risk of falling into chaos if a smooth transition wasn’t enforced. For the most part, these changes were absent from American and Canadian society, whose histories have been relatively calm compared to the Old World and Latin America. Americans are proud of their freedom and toot that it’s the glue that holds society together, however, American society also has a reputation for its hypocrisy and mistreatment of minority groups. These same groups are forced to endure brutal treatment in Gilead, in a society dominated largely by white men. In my opinion, a story like “The Handmaid’s Tale” was meant to serve as mirror for our culture. And as previously stated, a drastic exaggeration (almost parody like) depiction of relations between social groups and classes.
In 2017, Margaret Atwood’s tale has been reincarnated into a warmly-received television series that has recently garnered media attention. What does this say about our current decade? In a world where the definition of equal rights is blurred and triggering, even this question is difficult to answer. Have equal rights activists done enough or are they holding back due to fear of backlash and the repercussions of the traditional norm? That’s a question that can be debated and simply can’t be resolved by bold fiction. Many other television shows try to tackle this question in a confrontational manner, an action that has both its pros and cons. Not only does this leave certain parties unhappy but it also does little for the imagination. The use of clever allegories and metaphors is slowly being brushed aside for tales that assert their knowledge over their audiences. Fiction should be an escape from reality, not a reminder. To tell a story, in my opinion, is to reimagine reality into something fictitious, divorcing it from established associations and preconceived beliefs.
Then again, I’ve only seen the pilot. But I look forward to seeing the rest of this show and hoping that it will meet my expectations.
The first season of “The Bridesmaid’s Tale” is currently being streamed on Hulu.