The Handmaid’s Tale, made with an eerie dystopian undertone, is set in a state called Gilead, which is what remains of the USA. After a military coup where the president was assassinated, the country turns into a totalitarian state, where all the power is imposed by men who belong to the army. As they slowly take control over the entire country, they introduce extreme laws, laws that strip women of their freedom, power, independence and identity. June, the protagonist, who is played by Elisabeth Moss, is caught trying to escape along with her husband and daughter. She is handed over to Gilead, where she becomes a handmaid.
Handmaids serve as vessels who are supposed to produce children. June, or as the patriarchal state of Gilead names her like they would name a commodity, Offred, is transferred to the house of Commander Fred Waterford, where she can bear children for him and his “barren” wife.
The Handmaid’s Tale can be called a lot of things: powerful, extreme, disturbing, dark; but the word that lingers in the mind and almost slips off the edge of the tongue is real. It introduces us to a supposedly new world, based on an ancient system. A world where women can be only showpieces, vessels, or waste; a world where men hold power and position and responsibility; a world where men can bend rules, but women can’t take the smallest of liberties. The Handmaid’s Tale is about the patriarchy functioning at an extreme, creating a system whose essence is about benefiting men and suppressing women.
A lot of elements in the show feel familiar. This complex, eerie, completely alien world, with a bizarre system never seen anywhere in the world, hits home in so many ways that you will find yourselves wondering whether the makers intended it. Take, for instance, the treatment of the Commanders’ wives, especially of Serena Waterford. Serena, along with her husband, was responsible for the creation of Gilead. She wrote down its laws and advocated publicly for the need of such a system to come into place. She, who was once truly loved by her husband, becomes a slave to the very system she created, and moreover, to her own husband. While the Commanders go off to work and run the nation, the women are expected to take care of the house. Though the wives are higher in position than the Marthas (servants), they are all handed domestic duties. Because that is how God made women, with their only duty being to serve men.
For Gilead to come into place, the laws take away everything women have in an effort to erase their identity as an individual. First, they are fired from their jobs, their accounts are frozen and all their money is transferred to the men in their families; then the state takes away their right to own land. This way, The Handmaid’s Tale gives a nod to the past, to remind us that women had few rights earlier; that it was a reality that actually existed.
Gilead mirrors the present through its subtleties. It creates a system where women, even if they are supposedly in higher power and more privileged, are trapped. Whether it is the Marthas, Handmaids or wives, they all have only the liberties that the state feels women can handle: knitting, gardening, cooking, giving birth. Female pleasure, femininities, birth control, homosexuality – all of these have a stigma attached to them even today, so it is not a coincidence that the creators showed them to be unlawful in Gilead.
What seems to be another eerie echo of the present and the reality of many countries and systems around the world is how the cruellest of actions are justified in the name of religion. Those in power preach a fanatical obsession with values of the Church, to the point where they use such values to their selfish advantage of increasing their power, thus oppressing women. In the name of god, the state creates rituals and laws that are ethically wrong. This is a reminder of the ideology of many people around the world, who let their belief in a higher power hinder their understanding of empathy and emotions.
On a positive note, another aspect of the show that is all too relatable is the relationship of women with each other. The way they lift each other up in a system that discredits them and reduces them to objects is a very realistic representation of the power women empowerment has. In the show, Rita (a Martha) helps June in the smallest of ways, sometimes even by offering her a little smile, a small gesture to tell her that they are in this fight together. Even today, when I stand up a little for myself in the face of misogyny and sexism and am backed up by a fellow woman, I am reminded of the power women have when they unite.
The Handmaid’s Tale serves as both a reminder and a warning. A reminder of how the rights and freedom for women were won over years of relentless fighting and protests, and a warning of how easily these can be stripped away by those who are hungry for power.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.