The Handmaid’s Tale
There has been no shortage of essays calling The Handmaid’s Tale disturbingly relevant to current events, but it’s important to remember that this has always been the case. Margaret Atwood once called her novel a response to the idea that this sort of oppression “can’t happen here,” a dystopian vision designed to feel chillingly on the cusp of plausibility. The overthrow of American democracy is relatively recent when we meet our protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss), which means that every woman in the freshly minted totalitarian theocracy of Gilead grew up in an America like the one we know, and watched her freedoms get wrenched away by a regime that makes the Puritans look progressive.
Offred is us, in other words. The first time we see her, she’s dressed not in her Handmaid’s garb, with all its antiquated, pseudo-colonial piety, but as a contemporary in ripped jeans and a hoodie, running for the border with her husband and daughter in hopes of escaping the machine-gun-wielding men who want to turn her into nothing more than a possession, nothing more than a walking uterus forced to breed in a world where her ability to bear children makes her a very valuable commodity. A very valuable thing. She does not escape.
Later, in flashback, we see Offred at a college, groaning about a paper she has to write about sexual assault, or meeting a friend who apologizes for being late. (“Fucking Uber,” she complains.) The normality of it disturbs, and each flashback — playing at the beach, partying with friends, taking her daughter to the aquarium — feels like a violent shock, a slap across the face. In the midst of the horrors of Gilead — the mutilations, the executions, the ritual rapes — the most upsetting scenes to watch are sometimes the normal ones, because you know how they end.
The hardest part about loss is not necessarily the world you find yourself in on the other side, the changed one, the one where you are bereft of the thing or things you loved. It is remembering the old one. “Was there ever a before?” asks Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), another Handmaid. It would be easier, probably, if there weren’t.
“I’m sure this seems very strange,” the sadistic Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) tells Offred and the other women at the Handmaid indoctrination center. “But ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”
That’s the truly disturbing part about The Handmaid’s Tale, the one that everyone means when they call it “terrifying.” The idea that this, or something like it, could become just as ordinary as anything else, given the right set of circumstances. It’s easy, even seductive, to believe that the arc of history bends forever toward justice and progress, that each civil-rights victory is a rung on a ladder we are forever climbing upward. But as America dips its toe into authoritarianism, what looms in the back of so many people’s minds is a formless fear: that perhaps the freedoms we believed were immutable are far more malleable than we realized; that perhaps we are already on our way to a new and frightening future whose shape we cannot yet see.
For Offred — whose name literally means she is a possession “of Fred” — everything about her life is carefully controlled, from her clothes to her daily routine to her speech. All the Handmaids talk with an exaggerated, almost arch formality, like they’re reenacting a historical drama or reading a religious litany. “We’ve been sent good weather,” Offred remarks on one of their walks. “Which I receive with joy,” Ofglen replies. “Blessed be.”
The inside of Offred’s head sounds very different. When the Commander’s driver, Nick, sees her leave the house to go shopping — a.k.a. the only reason she leaves the house — he asks her if she’s going shopping. “No, Nick, I’m gonna knock back a few at the Oyster House bar, you wanna come along?” she answers in her head. As she shops with the other Handmaids at the supermarket — their Handmaid habits anachronistic against the fluorescent lights and the muzak — Ofglen encourages her to buy oranges at the market. “I don’t need oranges,” thinks Offred. “I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.” The familiarity of the sarcasm is disturbing in its own way. Snark, it seems, will not save any of us from totalitarianism.
Offred has learned not to scream, though, or to say anything at all. The truly insidious part of abuse — whether it happens in something as systematic as an oppressive society or as personal as an abusive relationship — is that after a while, they don’t really have to censor you or control you so much anymore. Once they have made you afraid enough for long enough — once you have seen the consequences, the literal or metaphorical cattle prods they are willing to stick into your skin — you do it to yourself. You swallow the abuse, you swallow the slow erosion of yourself, you make yourself smaller and smaller to fit yourself safely inside whatever space they have allocated for you. You aren’t really safe then either, but it’s the closest you’re going to get. It’s the best way you know how to survive.
Offred has gotten very good at surviving, at shrinking herself to fit into the brutally small little box that the men of Gilead have made for her. Not everyone adapts so well: A woman named Janine (Madeline Brewer), who literally has her eye cut out as punishment for talking back at the indoctrination center, has a breakdown that inspires a warning from Offred’s friend Moira (Samira Wiley): “You want to see your baby girl again, you need to keep your fucking shit together.” What does it mean to keep your shit together as a woman in a world that hates you, that wants and loathes you in equal measure, that slowly grinds you down to fit the shape it desires?
One day, the Handmaids are brought to a “salvaging,” a ritual public execution where they are told to encircle a man accused of rape and literally take him apart. “What you do is up to you,” says Aunt Lydia, as if that were empowering somehow, as if anything like that could possibly be true in the psychotic emotional prison where they live. Offred lands the first blow, a kick that sends blood spurting from his mouth, and continues until he’s dead. Is it catharsis, a way of lashing out at the only thing she’s allowed to hurt? When it is all over, Offred stands stunned, as though she does not quite know what she has done or why. “Are you all right?” Ofglen asks, as Offred stares in space with the same dead-eyed gaze she has when the Commander fucks her. As if anything like that could be possible.
People get confused about the word misogyny a lot, because they don’t see the “hatred” in the faces of the men who slowly strip away the autonomy of women with a thousand tiny legislative cuts, who see womanhood as a Procrustean bed that women have to be stretched or cut down to fit. They love to talk with great fervor and persistence about how women are to be cherished, to be saved, to be protected by having their choices taken away. Don’t look for the anger; look for the fear. Because nobody spends that much time and that much energy trying to control something that they don’t fear.
There’s a Margaret Atwood quote that’s hard to forget once you hear it: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” How monstrously fragile it seems in comparison. What is a woman’s safety weighed against a man’s ego? Every woman who’s been stalked, harassed, abused, or assaulted can tell you the answer to that. Failing to indulge the ego of an insecure man is one of the most dangerous things you can do.
Gilead is this impulse taken to its extreme, a world where women exist only for men, where they are forced on pain of death to orbit them like pathetic little stars. The dirty little secret of misogyny is that it is terror, that every molecule of both macho bullshit and paternalism is rooted in fear, in a weaponized fragility that lines their egos in razor wire. Cross the line and you bleed, and they will ask you why you made them do this, why you did this to yourself.
We watch the Handmaids sit in a circle, listening to a woman talk about her gang rape, and learning the litany that women have always learned to use against each other, the one that has never protected them, the one that has always and only protected men, and we watch them orbit. Whose fault was it? Her fault. Her fault.