Even before the election of 45, we were eagerly anticipating the Hulu miniseries adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future dystopian United States after a Christian fundamentalist group overthrows the government. The miniseries stars Elisabeth Moss as June, a “Handmaid” who is renamed Offred when she is assigned to and forced to live with a more powerful but barren couple purely for reproductive purposes.
But the miniseries now has a new urgency, as well as the potential to make powerful, more-timely-than-ever statements about reproductive rights, theocratic rule, environmental devastation, and misogyny. But will the series live up to our resistance hopes? And why aren’t the stars talking more about the political content of the series? Evette Dionne, Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, Soraya Membreno, and Andi Zeisler gathered for a roundtable on Gilead, dystopia, and rebellion.
Spoilers for episodes 1 to 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale below.
Evette Dionne: When I read the book, I envisioned Gilead as a dystopian society similar to The Hunger Games. However, seeing it onscreen is jarring because it so resembles my day-to-day life. The homes look the same. Though the process for grocery shopping is different, the stores are the same. It really contextualizes how close we are to Gilead. It’s not a parallel or escapist universe. It’s ours.
Soraya Membreno: Yes! That was really driven home for me when Offred and Ofglen were looking at the ruins of the church and Offred mentioned that her daughter was baptized there. Her daughter is only eight years old. It was also a peek into how the state is taking active steps to erase history in real time.
ED: Absolutely, Soraya. All of this is happening in real time. At the beginning when Offred, her husband, and their daughter are fleeing for the Canadian border, it drew an immediate parallel for me to refugees and their quest for a safe haven.
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze: I loved the end of the second episode, “Birth Day.” Offred has just played a game of Scrabble with her Commander—a major betrayal of the rules of Gilead that Offred doesn’t yet know the repercussions of— and she’s feeling excited and daring, walking to meet her friend Ofglen as “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds (the theme song of The Breakfast Club) plays boldly in the background. It’s a reminder that the world we’re seeing in Gilead is a future United States, not an alternate, context-less dimension.
SM: I loved the moment where she just stares at the Scrabble letters and seems to take real joy in arranging them into a word. Women aren’t allowed to read in Gilead so watching her savor the letters felt like a return to power or autonomy that Offred had maybe forgotten about up until this point. I’m going to completely disagree with Dahlia, though. The sudden blasting of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” completely threw me. WHAT WAS THAT?! I thought my Pandora station had gone rogue. Did not like.
Andi Zeisler: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is such an iconic song, and so associated with The Breakfast Club that, like Soraya, I felt abruptly pulled out of the episode. I’m not sure it worked.
DGH: Maybe I’m just a sucker for The Breakfast Club, but I felt like the song choice reinforced the beginning of a small but meaningful rebellion in Offred.
AZ: It’s hard to say that I “love” anything about the series because it’s so terrifying. But the cinematography and the sound design is so striking. The close-ups on faces, the color-coding of Gilead’s women—the Handmaids in red, the Wives in blue/green tones—and especially Offred’s voiceovers, makes Gilead understandable and indelible right away. It has the familiarity of other dystopian movies: The flashback scene with the family attempting to flee to the border recalls Children of Men, War of the Worlds, and others, and the quick shifts from present to past are really effective in asserting that all of these massive changes happened very suddenly.
ED: The second episode really drove home that point for me, Andi. In the flashback when Offred arrived at the hospital to give birth to Hannah, the protesters outside praying reminded me so much of those who protest outside of abortion clinics. It’s the same level of fanaticism, especially when paired with Janine giving birth “at the same time” as her Wife. Offred’s daughter is still young, so moving from Offred being one of the only women in the hospital giving birth to that moment with Janine shows how rapidly Gilead declined into authoritarian madness.
I love the moments June/Offred steals for herself, even when she’s having “rebellious” thoughts while talking to her Commander; they are so glorious. I also hate that she now has to reserve those moments for herself. She has to recite her actual name in private. She has to remember her daughter in moments. It stabs, but also feels like a relief. A lot of her inner thoughts made me giggle, although I didn’t want to.
I am ashamed to admit it, but I also loved the treatment of the rapist who is killed by the Handmaids in the Salvaging. Violence begets violence and all that jazz, but the fact that Gilead doesn’t connect the raping of Handmaids with the raping of them by those who aren’t Commanders is ridiculous.
DGH: It’s unnerving how quickly the language and practices of Gilead seep into your brain. You quickly understand that phrases that are at first odd and scary like “Under his eye” and “May the Lord open” are “hello” and “goodbye.” Other rules of Gilead also become understood in the same way—without any explanation we see the horrifying processes through which babies are conceived and delivered in Gilead.
ED: I’m with you, Dahlia. It’s alarming how quickly their language is understood. For instance, when all of the Handmaids told Janine her rape was her fault. It was devastating, and also what’s actually happening in our culture every single day.
AZ: That scene was so painful to watch. I remember reading a piece by Margaret Atwood where she wrote that in developing the novel, she pulled only from situations and practices that had actually occurred in history, and this scene was one of those where I thought: When hasn’t this happened? When haven’t women been encouraged to indict other women, and get that momentary sense of relief of pointing out another woman’s “sins” so that the spotlight wouldn’t be focused on their own?
ED: Andi, it troubles me so much how The Handmaid’s Tale has been marketed. They’re so cautious about calling it a feminist text or a book/show rooted in how sexism harms women. It bothers me, especially when considering the scene with Janine being blamed for her rape. As you said, when hasn’t that happened? When have we culturally believed rape victims without hesitance?
SM: Like Andi said, the line between love and hate is tricky with this show since it’s all so anxiety inducing, I “hate” the experience of watching it because it’s terrifying but that is also the entire point. What was illustrated in the show in a way that I didn’t quite catch in the book is the extent to which the Wives try to own the experiences that the Handmaids have to carry out—in particular, the simultaneous-but-separate birthing rituals happening amongst the Wives and Handmaids when Janine gives birth. The depth of self-deception and willful ignorance is hard to sit through. I just wanted to shake them all!
AZ: There’s nothing about the show that I hate. I hate that the story feels so plausible, and I hate that shitty people are writing shitty and willfully obtuse takes on the “hysteria” around the series. I hate that it feels like this totemic thing where if we collectively acknowledge how prescient the book was, we can somehow inoculate ourselves against it coming true.
That said, I know this is something that we’re meant to hate, but the fact that the Commander and his driver are portrayed as sympathetic characters who are positioned as possible saviors to Offred seems, in the contemporary context, so #notallmen. Even the flashback scene in episode three where June and Moira’s boss keeps repeating that he has no choice but to fire all the women who work for him—it’s a nod to the way that patriarchies are not necessarily a matter of men consciously harming or disenfranchising women. But it also perpetuates the idea that the women with some measure of power in Gilead, the Wives and Aunts, are the active villains.
ED: It’s even in the raping of Handmaids by Commanders. The fact that the Wives have to be in the room with the Handmaid’s head in their laps requires some disturbing cognitive dissonance. They’ve been socialized to protect their position as “Wives” at all costs, even if it comes at the expense of another woman. That scared me most of all.
DGH: Both the conception and birth scenes were so scary. Seeing how the two women’s bodies (the Handmaid and Wife) are configured to represent one continuous woman’s body during rape and childbirth makes me cringe.
SM: After the third episode I’m struggling a little with the gender dynamic that is being presented. I get that we’re supposed to see that the Wives are lashing out because they’re barren and living in a culture that has put childbirth on a pedestal—without the Handmaids, the Wives are not really necessary and so they’re reacting to their precarious position in society. But at the same time, why are they not angry at the men or at the state? In the third episode, when Offred tells Serena Joy that she’s gotten her period, I thought Serena Joy was storming off to yell at Aunt Lydia for using a Taser on the potentially pregnant Handmaid. But instead she flips out at Offred. I feel like, at least for the Serena Joy/Offred dynamic, the show lapses back into the territory of female jealousy, which I worry a little about.
On a more random note, I have a question: Can anyone fill me in on the spitting out of the cookie bit during that episode? Was it a bad cookie?
AZ: I got the sense that the cookie was a symbol of Serena Joy’s benevolence toward Offred—something Offred has to acknowledge graciously in public, but in private she resists it. But any cookie that you have to remove from a cardboard tower is probably a shitty cookie.
ED: The cookie bit stuck with me too. Like the Scrabble game, it feels like an act of resistance, albeit a small one.
DGH: Totally. I felt like Offred wanted the cookie, but not at the cost of groveling in front of the Wives, so she spit it out as a private fuck you to the system.
What We’re Excited to See
SM: I’m curious to see where/how they take liberties and stray from the book. Also if they make any direct parallels to the current administration.
DGH: I bet they won’t. After all the mental acrobats the cast had to do to describe the show as not-feminist but humanist (though Elisabeth Moss did recant and say “OBVIOUSLY, all caps, it is a feminist work. It is a feminist show.” THANK YOU, ELISABETH.) I doubt there will be explicit references to 45, which is disappointing.
ED: I’m also interested to see if there’s ever a mention of race. I found it odd that Moira’s race is never mentioned, as if multiracial babies would be welcomed without hesitance. It will be interesting to see if all Commanders are welcoming toward Black Handmaids.
DGH: That’s definitely a change from the source material.
SM: I was kind of shocked to see the protest scene. At this point it’s imagery we’re familiar with: the police in riot gear, guns drawn, the protesters. When June realizes the police aren’t going to hesitate to shoot and starts to seemingly pull Moira away from the front of the protest…. I don’t know, I thought some acknowledgment of the racial dynamic would come into play, but it never did.
AZ: I also wondered about the fact that June herself has a biracial daughter, and whether there’s any significance to that. The Gilead of the novel was an overt white supremacy, so the fact that the Gilead of the series is not seems like it would demand much more of an acknowledgment of the role of race. I would love to see that explored in future episodes, but I’m not expecting it to be. That seems like a huge cop-out on the part of the creators.
DGH: Agreed. I’m looking forward to getting more of the relationship between Serena Joy and Offred. No spoilers, but it’s about to get much more fraught. I’m also really curious about how the miniseries will end and how much will be revealed about Offred and her daughter. The novel doesn’t have an entirely cut-and-dried ending, and the series was just renewed for a second season, so it’s going to be an exciting ride.
Episode four of The Handmaid’s Tale airs today.