Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” Warns: Pay Attention to What’s Happening

Guest writer Avital Norman Nathman on the story's dystopian future and what it means for us today
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 05/17/2017 at 9:00 AM EDT

Photo via Twitter

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel — which many of us read in high school — has been made into the miniseries of my dreams (and nightmares) and is currently airing on Hulu. The streaming series has vividly brought the fictional world of Gilead to life, and has come at a time when the parallels are far too striking.

In Atwood’s Gilead, dangerously low birth rates and infertility are causing panic that civilization is dying out. Religious law has triumphed, and those in power feel that the answer is to create a very strict, stratified system where all women are suppressed and controlled. There are the Wives, those that are married to the powerful Commanders, yet are infertile. The Handmaids are fertile women who have been groomed by the Aunts (single, older, non-viable women) as physical vessels of procreation; as the only remaining women who are capable of reproducing, their only purpose is to breed. And, there are the Marthas, the household servants. Women who do not fit into any of those categories are deemed “unwomen” and sent off to “the colonies”(areas that were either plantations or areas that required help cleaning up toxic messes).

Only the Commanders has any autonomy; even the Wives, while certainly not Handmaids or Marthas or Aunts, are prescribed certain roles, and while they certainly have more freedom than other women, they are still “kept” in the traditional sense.

The story follows the handmaid Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”); in the “before,” Offred’s name was June, now she has no other identity beyond belonging to the Commander, Fred Waterford, therefore her name is literally “Of Fred.” As she navigates this new reality, viewers are treated to flashbacks that show glimpses of pre-Gilead life — which looks very much like modern-day 2017 American life —that are interspersed with scenes from the puritanical and highly patriarchal society of Gilead, where Offred’s only job is to get raped a few times a month by her Commander during “the Ceremony” – a ritual in which the Commander’s wife sits on the bed and holds Offred by her wrists while the Commander has sex with the Handmaid.

The show follows the book’s story, with a few noticeable changes. In Atwood’s Gilead, society was racist as well as sexist (and anti-Semitic and homophobic). People of color were sent to the colonies, since despite the fact that there were still fertile women of color, they were not deemed worthy enough to help build society. The leaders of the book’s Gilead were so racist that despite their desperation to repopulate, they would not “debase” themselves by using black and brown women. In Hulu’s version, women of color are seen, both as Handmaids and as Marthas.

Viewers and readers alike will wonder how such a dystopian future could have happened. While Atwood alludes to much of it in the book, Hulu’s series details the descent into this new society in an incredibly vivid manner. We see glimpses of what the “before” was. Infertility was up dramatically, and when June and her husband head to the hospital to give birth, there are throngs of praying people, hoping that the babies that are birthed survive. That’s not such an outlandish thing, and yet it was one more piece of the larger puzzle that eventually created this fictional society in which fertile women are mere tools rather than people.

Later on, June loses her job at a publishing house, along with the rest of the women there. Her boss is noticeably rattled, but wrings his hands as if there’s nothing he can do (armed militia-men are present to ensure that the order is followed through with). Where were their allies then? (This SNL clip imagines how today’s men might have reacted to these new rules.) Where were they when women were deemed unfit to have bank accounts and their money was transferred to their husbands or closest male relative? All of these little changes built up until they boiled over to a world that created new class structures for women, and used violence and fear to subjugate them.

There have been many think pieces about the book and series saying we need to be careful or we’ll end up with a Gilead of our own. However, Atwood was very clear that everything she wrote about in the book was based in reality, culled from one society or another.

During a voiceover, Offred reflects on society’s change: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” For many of us today – with the political climate constantly changing and feeling more restrictive on a weekly basis – it feels like we’re in that gradually heating bathtub right now, the water slowly reaching a boiling point. We don’t have to wait to see parallels. Activist, mother, and grandmother Desiree Fairooz, was arrested and is facing a year in jail because she laughed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Yes. A woman in 2017 is looking at a potential year long prison sentence (and up to a $2,000 fine) for LAUGHING at someone currently in a position of power (someone who has been accused of racism multiple times over, for what it’s worth). This feels like it was ripped straight out of the Gilead handbook.

In fact, Gawker Media’s io9 recently published a piece on 10 real laws that feel like they’ve come right out of The Handmaid’s Tale, including facing up to a year in jail for living (and having sex) with a partner you’re not married to. How’s the water feeling now?

As the weeks of “The Handmaid’s Tale” stretch on toward the conclusion of the season, writers will continue to draw parallels to our current situation. But instead of continuing to wonder if we’re marching toward Gilead in the near future, why don’t we work on cooling down the water? One way to do that is to increase society’s trust in women. Trust women when they tell you that laws are being made that impact them specifically and unfairly. Trust women when they tell you they are treated differently. Trust women to know what to do with their own bodies. Trust women.

We need to continue to support and promote women in government. What message does it send when all 13 Senators who are crafting a new healthcare bill are men? Particularly when women’s healthcare is at stake? Women need to continue speaking up and speaking out. And men need to be alongside them supporting and championing them. We’re living in a reality where that SNL clip isn’t just satire. So please, watch “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Read the book. And don’t think about how a Gilead is possibly our future, but be alert to changes that begin to restrict human rights, and take action to dismantle the aspects of Gilead we are already experiencing.

Avital Norman Nathman is the editor of The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, and a freelance writer who reports on everything from parenting to pop culture and pot. Her work has been featured in the New York Times,, The Daily Dot, The Establishment and more.

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