'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Just The Book We Need To See On-Screen Right Now
Since it first hit store shelves in 1985, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has served as a warning to women and other marginalized communities in the west, a reminder to be ever-vigilant and protect our rights. Amid the ongoing fight to maintain women's health care and protect non-white citizens from violence, Hulu's upcoming series adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale is just what we need to see on-screen right now.
As with any screen adaptation of a beloved novel, there are a lot of things we hope to see in The Handmaid's Tale series. Although book-based television shows can be hit or miss, I'm cautiously optimistic that Atwood's novel can be successfully translated into a television show, provided it adheres strongly to the message of the source material.
The Handmaid's Tale tells the story of a woman living in the hyperpatriarchal dystopia of Gilead: the former United States. Her family attempted to flee for Canada, but were captured. Given that she is her husband's second wife, their marriage has been invalidated by the state. She does not know where her husband and young daughter are, or if they are even still alive.
Her marital status limits her options in Gilead, and so she signs on to become a Handmaid: a government-sanctioned broodmare, whose sole purpose is to bear children for the rich and powerful Commanders and their Wives. She has no identity outside of the Commander to whom she has been assigned. We know her as Offred: literally "of Fred." If she cannot produce viable offspring, she will be marked as an Unwoman, and sent to work at a radioactive clean-up camp in the Colonies.
In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood paints a brilliant portrait of a sexist, racist, and classist society, in which white male supremacy has been allowed to run amok. With the GOP's 2016 presidential candidate running on a platform of white supremacy, jingoism, misogyny, and Islamophobia — and peppered with ableism, ageism, and classism — The Handmaid's Tale is, perhaps, more important now than ever.
1. The Handmaid's Tale Is Important for LGBTQIA Individuals
Gileadean society has very rigid prescriptions for gender performance. Only heterosexual relationships are recognized by the state, and the government's uniforms offer no room for free expression of gender. Gay men, lesbians, and — we must assume — trans individuals are rounded up and hanged as "Gender Traitors."
Atwood's novel features one openly lesbian character: Moira, Offred's best friend from before the Gilead coup. Moira balks at the re-education in the Red Center, and Offred helps her to escape, but later worries that her friend has been shipped off to the Colonies or executed. When the Commander takes Offred to an underground brothel, she is shocked to see Moira working there.
In spite of the fact that the U.S. has finally made same-sex marriage legal across all 50 states, and President Obama and the Departments of Education and Justice have come out in favor of ending anti-trans bathroom policies, we still live in a country where LGBTQIA individuals face heightened levels of discrimination and violence.
Earlier this year, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) — then a 2016 presidential hopeful — attended a "religious liberty convention" hosted by Kevin Swanson: a far-right pastor who has frequently advocated for gays and lesbians to be executed.
After the mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub — a hub for the city's gay and trans people of color — a Baptist preacher in Sacramento said he was "upset [the shooter] didn't finish the job" by killing more LGBTQIA individuals, whom he called "sodomites" and "pedophiles."
These are people running for office, or advising those who are, and they're literally banking on their bigotry. Donations, votes, and other shows of support pour in from constituents who believe that blatant discrimination against the LGBTQIA community should be the law of the land. If executed thoughtfully, The Handmaid's Tale can show just how dangerous these sentiments are to the queer community.
2. The Handmaid's Tale Is Important for People of Color
Gilead discriminates against anyone who could possibly be othered, but one passage stands out in particular. As the regime takes control of the country, black Americans are forcefully relocated to the Midwest:
"Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule," says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. "Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit." How are they transporting that many people at once? Trains, buses? We are not shown any pictures of this. National Homeland One is in North Dakota. Lord knows what they're supposed to do, once they get there. Farm, is the theory.
The obvious allusions to slavery aside, this passage has plenty of disturbing undertones. In fact, Atwood gives us reason to believe that the government isn't moving people of color at all. Offred sees footage of religious minorities — more on them in a bit — being sent to the Colonies, but the only evidence of this resettlement of black Americans comes from a statement made by a state-run news broadcaster. Although using unpaid labor to fuel its industry isn't out of line with Gilead's purported values, it's entirely possible that the government is eradicating the country's black population.
This is why purists spoke out against Hulu's choice to cast Orange Is the New Black actress Samira Wiley as Moira. A black Moira, they claim, will prevent the series from portraying Gilead's inherent white supremacy.
In many ways, however, having a black actress play one of Atwood's leading ladies — the one who is arguably the most disenfranchised — offers the opportunity for audiences to fully recognize Gilead's racism. Rather than the throwaway "Children of Ham" clip that adhering to the novel's narrative would provide, casting Wiley as Moira gives us a queer black woman — a rarity in TV — to sympathize with.
The Handmaid's Tale has always been a cautionary tale of what can happen when the rights of marginalized groups are infringed upon. At a time when we're constantly having to remind people that black lives matter, when white nationalism is on the rise, and when people of color make up 80 percent of the LGBTQIA individuals killed annually, The Handmaid's Tale is poised to provide a much-needed look at how the U.S. continues to privilege whites over people of color.
3. The Handmaid's Tale Is Important for Religious Minorities
Church and state are one in Gilead, and the government uses a literal interpretation of the Bible to create its castes and laws. Women cannot work, read, write, teach, or own property. Pornography, premarital sex, and divorce are prohibited.
It might seem surprising that such a sexually repressed society would allow men to have children with women who are not their Wives. Handmaids are based on the story of Abram and Sarai — later known as Abraham and Sarah — found in Genesis 16. In the story, Sarai tells Abram to take her handmaid, Hagar, to bed: "Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her." That Sarai's actions offend God in the original story doesn't stop Gilead from using it to legitimize the Handmaid concept.
Freedom of religion does not exist in The Handmaid's Tale. Nuns who refuse to convert and bear children are branded as Unwomen and sent to the Colonies. Quakers are shipped off as well. Jews and Catholics who dare to practice their faith in Gilead are executed for crimes against the state.
Once again, Atwood's dystopia can provide real commentary on bigotry in the U.S. today. The Republican presidential nominee frequently shows an anti-Semitic flair, and has called for a ban on Muslim travel and immigration, which half of all voters support. Cruz's call for increased police presence in Muslim neighborhoods sports a 49 percent approval rating. A September 2015 poll revealed that only 49 percent of Republicans believed it should be legal to practice Islam in the U.S.
The number of attacks on Muslims and supposed Muslims in the U.S. continues to rise, thanks in part to the Islamophobic rhetoric touted by these political figures, day in and day out. As summarized in a HuffPo blog post, the message is clear: "it’s not only ok to be racist [ sic ]; it’s a civic responsibility." Prejudiced citizens take this to heart. They assault — and even kill — their Muslim and Sikh neighbors, over something as trivial as taking a parking space or pushing a stroller.
By focusing on how Gilead treats its Muslim population — unmentioned in Atwood's novel — The Handmaid's Tale series can increase public awareness to help halt and dial back the increasing level of Islamophobic discrimination in the U.S.
4. The Handmaid's Tale Is Important for Middle- and Working-Class Families
In Gilead, Econowives are the wives of men who lack power and wealth. They are expected to cook and clean, as Marthas do, because their husbands lack the prestige to have a Martha or two of their own. An Econowife must also bear sole responsibility for having her husband's children, because he does not rank highly enough to receive a Handmaid. Gilead's propaganda promises that "[s]ome day ... no one will have to be an Econowife."
As is the case with people of color, members of the lower classes don't receive more than passing mentions in The Handmaid's Tale. It's clear that Gilead benefits from oppressing the middle- and working-classes, but that profiteering isn't addressed directly; you have to read between the lines to find it.
Although they may profess love and caring for the middle- and working classes, many conservative politicians aren't all that concerned with so-called "takers." The 2016 Republican nominee called poor people "morons" in a 1999 interview with The New York Times' Maureen Dowd:
My entire life, I've watched politicians bragging about how poor they are, how they came from nothing, how poor their parents and grandparents were. And I said to myself, if they can stay so poor for so many generations, maybe this isn't the kind of person we want to be electing to higher office ... How smart can they be? They're morons.
In spite of this, the candidate recently said, "[T]he people that like me best are poor people and middle-income people." For once, he wasn't wrong.
In August 2015, a segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver exposed predatory televangelists who task poor viewers with sending them large donations to prove their faith in God. It went viral. Although TV preachers haven't had a great track record since Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart found themselves embroiled in sex scandals, Oliver's bit was eye-opening for those who may have forgotten that televangelism was still — legally — preying on the sick and needy.
This shrugging, that's-just-how-it-is attitude is all too common in many conservative circles. The "prosperity gospel" promoted by televangelists, motivational speakers, and megachurch pastors boils down to this: if you're poor, sick, homeless, or otherwise at-risk, you just aren't faithful enough to God.
Sounds like something straight out of Gilead, doesn't it?
5. The Handmaid's Tale Is Important for Women
Every woman in Gilead is defined first by her ability to bear children, and second by her relationship to a man. There are six legal categories that women may fall into: Aunts, Econowives, Handmaids, Marthas, Unwomen, and Wives.
Unwomen are women of childbearing age who do not, or cannot, bear children without disabilities. They have no place in Gilead, and cannot even become an Aunt or a Martha. They are either sent to the Colonies or executed.
Although rape is a crime in Gilead, the Aunts' treatment of Janine — later known as Ofwarren — reveals how deeply entrenched rape culture is in Atwood's dystopian U.S. When Janine confesses that "she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion," her fellow Handmaids-in-training take part in shaming her:
But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.
Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.
Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.
She did. She did. She did.
Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?
Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.
Women in The Handmaid's Tale bear sole responsibility for their sexuality and fertility. There are no hormonal treatments in Gilead, no transvaginal ultrasounds to determine how ripe one's ovaries are. By law, men are always able to procreate, so a low sperm count will never contribute to a couple's inability to have children. Such a condition simply does not exist, according to the country's laws.
Those who do not want to have children have few choices. All forms of birth control, including barrier methods, are illegal. Abortion doctors have been purged. The only sterilized women in Gilead are prostitutes, who live cloistered in brothels, outside of mainstream society. And, let's face it: the threat of being sent to the Colonies or killed has a way of coercing a person into childbearing.
That coercion isn't absent in the U.S. today. Conservative politicians routinely use women's rights to control their bodies as leverage: Vote for me, and we won't have abortions anymore. I'll make them illegal. I'll make them ask you for permission. I'll make... I'll make... I'll make...
Whether you consider yourself pro-choice or pro-life, we've largely reached the consensus that there are some situations in which abortion should be legal: when a woman is the victim of rape or incest, or when her life is endangered by the pregnancy. But there are holdouts who believe that these exceptions just aren't acceptable, because women lie about rape in order to procure abortions, because their bodies block conceptions in cases of "legitimate rape," or because their lives do not take priority over the potential life of a fetus.
It doesn't matter, to these lawmakers and their supporters, that making abortions difficult or illegal to obtain does nothing to reduce the number of terminations women will induce. These folks don't care that comprehensive sexual education and access to affordable contraceptives reduce the abortion rate. They'll continue to fight for abstinence-only, doctor-free sex-ed. Many legislators still believe that birth control should be hard to obtain, that women's access should be blocked by the whims of their employers, doctors, and pharmacists.
Although the U.S. hasn't repealed Roe v. Wade at this time, The Handmaid's Tale series can show us how close we are to losing the autonomy we've spent decades fighting for. It can also reveal just how appalling our rape culture is, because our court of public opinion — and even our official court system — shames rape victims in roughly the same way that Janine's fellow Handmaids scolded her. It goes far beyond the shameful coddling of Stanford rapist Brock Turner, extending to commuted sentences for men who rape teenage mothers, an entire town harassing a 14-year-old rape victim, and a one-day sentence for a man who raped two women.
Hulu's timing is perfect. We all need The Handmaid's Tale series. More than 30 years after Margaret Atwood's novel first appeared, its story is still chillingly relevant.
Edit: This article incorrectly stated that Hulu's adaptation would be a miniseries. It will, in fact, be a full-length television show. We regret the error, and have updated this article to include the correct information.