The Handmaid's Tale walks a fine line between dystopian fiction and a story that is too close to comfort. When the first three episodes premiered April 26, viewers were introduced to stark cultural contrasts in the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel. For starters, the 30-year-old story is still relevant today, but the sinister elements of this world have only served to highlight parallels of the real world. With these moments in mind, how scary is The Handmaid's Tale?
Like most dystopian fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale highlights the fear of losing agency to a larger, more authoritative power. So, while the show is exceedingly dark, and at times gory, it's not scary in the horror movie jump scare sense. But, it is a terrifying look at a scary version of the future. As the handmaid to the Gildean Commander and his wife, Offred lacks the agency to fight for herself or for others like her, leaving her without a voice or allies. Coupled with the intimidating elements of women losing their autonomy and the pressures of societal notions of fertility and womanhood, Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale results in a terrifying tale of possible “what ifs" scenarios. These "what ifs" have become more predictable in today's political climate, and The Handmaid's Tale has moved from dystopia to a scary, and possible, reality.
The horror surrounding the events of The Handmaid's Tale offers a future where women are reduced back down to just bodies — bodies that serve as pleasure for men and for service to country.
Much of the narrative focuses on male figures in government usurping the power of the female body for their own benefit. In Gilead, handmaids are raped by high-ranking officials and forced to become pregnant in order to provide them with children. In this world, a woman's body is equivalent to livestock, used primarily for biological purposes. Offred's lower socioeconomic status and her identity as a woman forces her into a role of subjugation based on her society's "values."
Gilead represents an unequal society, but one could argue it has become so based upon the microaggressions that women face daily. It isn't the portrayal of Gilead that terrifies viewers, but its basis on factual events. Offred doesn't just lose her citizenship status, but her name which reduces her to being "of" Commander Fred Waterford (indicating ownership). In a traditional society like Gilead, the power behind a name indicates a source of personal power. In the handmaids' case, their new names shape them into one primary function, making it difficult for them to escape their reality. Women of Gilead have become defined by their domestic roles, removing them from any sphere of political or social power.
The Biblical rules that govern Offred and the other handmaids aren't too far removed from similar religious rules of today that are often used govern issues like birth control and abortion access. The rules of Gilead are based firmly within Biblical context and focus primarily on providing the men of this society with unlimited power over women's bodies.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, the cast of The Handmaid's Tale discussed filming the series before and after Donald Trump was elected president — and how fear became the prevalent topic of conversation. While dystopian tales are exciting in theory, the possibility of its realness make it difficult for the viewer, and the cast, to find escapism.
But don't despair too much: If viewers need to find solace as they continue to watch The Handmaid's Tale, it is the notion that, unlike Gilead, America still has the opportunity to change its fate. There are examples of this resistance everyday from the women wearing robes similar to The Handmaid's Tale in the Texas Senate to feminists showing the world "A Day Without a Woman" is really like.
Our mission is clear: Fight back against our current fears, so we don't spend our dystopian future wondering what exactly went wrong.