I don’t normally write reviews of TV shows. But since The Handmaid’s Tale is based on a book, and the book and show are both profoundly insightful and disturbing commentaries on patriarchy and misogyny, I’ve decided to write a review.
Really, it’s more of a commentary that evolved from my effort to write a review. Because after watching The Handmaid’s Tale, I was so moved by its message that I had to do something.
I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time a few months ago in preparation for watching the TV show. I’d been meaning to read it for years, but somehow never got around to it. Now, I understand why this novel has received such praise — and I hope that the TV show helps it to reach new audiences.
This review/commentary contains spoilers, so if you care about spoilers and haven’t read or seen The Handmaid’s Tale yet, consider yourself warned.
Part of what’s so striking about the book that’s virtually impossible to replicate on television is the way it conveys the inner experience of the main character, Offred, as she finds herself trapped in terribly isolating and oppressive circumstances. Aside from the flashbacks, the plot actually moved very slowly in the book — and yet there is this tremendous building of tension as we come to understand more and more of Offred’s personal story and the nature of the oppressive society at large. We never do get a full picture of the details due to the isolation of handmaids, which is of course one of many methods of control used against them. But Offred’s personal experience does a remarkable job of telling the story of the role of misogyny and patriarchy in this fictional society — and really, serves as a metaphor for women’s experiences of these evils in every society.
The TV adaptation changes a lot of the details of the story, especially as the season progresses. But it stays true to the original spirit of the novel, exploring how a profoundly patriarchal and misogynist society goes about controlling women in various ways. The biggest change seems to be the more extensive exploration of a counter-narrative where women (and men) are working together to resist the oppressive regime in various ways.
This remarkable story of women struggling in an oppressive environment would be a compelling narrative even if it didn’t have any ties to circumstances in the real world. The character development, the plot, the setting, the atmosphere, are all very well-crafted and tell a very intense and compelling story. The acting, directing, cinematography, costuming, and so on of the TV show breathe new life into this amazing story. This is a story told with remarkable artistry that people of a wide range of political perspectives will surely appreciate on its artistic merits. But the more I think about the real-world implications of this story, the more I find it profoundly disturbing on a level that goes beyond fiction.
Margaret Atwood’s original novel, and the TV show inspired by it, probably convey the horrors of patriarchy and misogyny better than any analysis I can write. Even so, I feel compelled to respond to their work in some way — to affirm what’s been said, to encourage further discussion, and to emphasize the painfully obvious point that this is more than just casual entertainment. This is a serious story that reveals very deep and serious problems in our real-life society. We must take this story as an opportunity to acknowledge the operation of patriarchy and misogyny in the world and do what we can to recognize, understand, and oppose it.
In that light, I’ve decided to focus my response to The Handmaid’s Tale by pointing out three real-world implications of this story that, when fully understood, are simply horrifying.
(1) It Could Happen Here
Some people (especially men) who read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale may think that it’s just another scary story — a bit of exciting entertainment no different than any psychological thriller or horror story. It makes for good entertainment, but surely it’s nothing more than that, right? There’s no boogeyman under your bed; there’s no ax murderer lurking in the woods; there’s no Republic of Gilead just around the corner.
Anyone who thinks that way is wrong.
The whole point of The Handmaid’s Tale is to use speculative fiction to draw attention to real-world patriarchy and misogyny. Every major detail in the books and movies is inspired by real events — real acts of systemic violence and oppression against women that real human beings have committed in some place at some time in real life. These inspirations include the Holocaust, colonial America, the theocracy in Iran (which was still very new when Atwood wrote the novel), and even modern-day America.
Some elements of The Handmaid’s Tale will seem far-fetched to some readers and viewers in the United States because they’re not currently happening right here, right now, as blatantly and severely as they happen in the show and novel. But just because it’s not currently happening doesn’t mean that it never could.
It can happen here — and it really might happen here within our lifetimes.
The details may not be exactly like the Republic of Gilead, but they may be close. Endocrine disruptors or other pollutants could reduce fertility dramatically just like the crisis described in The Handmaid’s Tale — and how our society responds to that crisis will be determined by what political and cultural forces are in power at that time.
Regardless of whether or not that ever happens, though, there are already religious movements in the U.S. that believe that women have no place in politics and deserve far fewer rights than they have currently. It wouldn’t take much for these people and their beliefs to gain more power in our society. The 2016 elections were a shift in that direction — and things could get much worse if this regressive trend continues unchecked.
(2) It already is happening somewhere.
Most if not all of the systemic violence and oppression described in The Handmaid’s Tale is currently happening somewhere in the world today. Even in cases where Atwood drew her inspiration from the distant past, there are unfortunately present-day realities that are similarly brutal — or much worse.
Women are being trafficked. Women’s children are being taken away for religious or political reasons. Women’s genitals are being mutilated. Women are being kept at home without the right to have their own bank accounts, jobs, driver’s license, votes, personal relationships, and other basic rights and freedoms. In many cases, women are being killed, either through overt institutional violence or more dispersed and seemingly isolated acts of violence against women.
Patriarchy and misogyny is killing and oppressing women around the world right now — and in some places, it’s even worse than what we see in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Some of these things are happening in the United States. And any harm that isn’t currently happening in the U.S. could easily come here or return here. Allowing such horrific treatment of women to exist anywhere in the world creates the credible threat that it will happen here too.
Even if it doesn’t, though, we ought to care about the abuses and oppressions that women are enduring in other countries. Just because there’s an invisible line on the map between us and them doesn’t make their suffering any less real or important.
There are women alive today who are experiencing systemic violence and oppression that’s even worse than what is portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale — and that should bother us, regardless of where it’s happening.
(3) We’re complicit in it.
There’s a poignant moment in the TV show where Offred appeals to the female Mexican ambassador for help. At first, Offred doesn’t speak up about the plight of handmaids out of fear of the repercussions. But later in the episode, when she finds herself alone with this female Mexican ambassador, she makes an extensive, passionate plea for help.
How does the ambassador respond? She seems sympathetic, but she says that there’s nothing she can do. Her hands are tied. Mexico is experiencing a catastrophic drop in new births that’s at least as bad as what the other countries are suffering, if not worse. They desperately need new children — and handmaids to provide those children. The ambassador seems saddened by news of Offred’s suffering, but says that there’s nothing she can do about it.
That’s us. That’s an excellent metaphor for how the government of the United States often responds to violations of women’s rights in other nations. Our government is full of people just like that ambassador who sympathizes with the plight of oppressed women, but does nothing to challenge it. And if we do nothing to change that, we are complicit too.
This assertion of complicity isn’t an easy assertion for me to make. I live in the United States, so I consider it my personal responsibility as a citizen of the United States to do what I can ensure that our government is a helpful rather than harmful force in our lives and the world at large. Every time the local, state, or federal government does something malevolent, I feel some degree of shared responsibility for that action. This is why I often try to resist the harmful actions of our government in various ways, or advance policies that are actually helpful rather than harmful. Because I know that if I do nothing — and I had the power to do something — then I am complicit in what follows.
I am complicit, to a degree. We are all complicit, to a degree. And because we are complicit, we must be all the more diligent in our efforts to take action to remedy to the situation.
I’m sure that many people, especially fellow Americans, will try to minimize the harm done by our government. Surely, the United States does good things too, right? Think of all of the good that certain U.S. government programs and U.S. nonprofit programs do for women at home and abroad! How many women are helped by these programs? What would the world be like without them?
There’s some truth to that — and I’m not trying to minimize that truth. There is a tremendous amount of good work being done for women’s rights in the U.S., and I invite and encourage everyone to join in that work. But that doesn’t absolve our country of its responsibility for both the cases of inaction and the cases where we are willfully supporting patriarchal, misogynistic regimes and institutions.
Take Saudi Arabia, for example. Our government is very friendly with the government of Saudi Arabia — so much so that we’re happily selling them hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons and somehow failing to object when they’re appointed to human rights and women’s rights commissions. Yet Saudi Arabia is notorious for its violations of women’s rights and human rights generally, both domestically and in their acts of aggression toward their neighbors in the region.
Our government’s choice to turn a blind eye to the plight of women in Saudi Arabia (and other nations where we have considerable power and influence) is no different than the moment in The Handmaid’s Tale when the Mexican ambassador chooses to turn a blind eye to Offred’s plight. Our government knows that these abuses are happening, yet supports the Saudi regime anyway, apparently because we need allies in the region and someone to sell all of those weapons to. It’s not an identical situation, but it’s an equally morally repugnant situation. We know how poorly women are treated in their society, yet we sell them a tremendous amount of weapons and otherwise do business with them as major allies.
When we who live in the U.S. watch that scene with the Mexican ambassador, and feel moved by it, we should remember that our own government is basically doing the same thing — not literally buying women, perhaps, but selling their oppressors the arms necessary to remain in power and keep on oppressing them.
There’s also the fact that the U.S. often supports various “regime change” efforts lead by “moderate rebels” who are even worse in their treatment of women, openly trafficking in women as sex slaves or contributing to various other war crimes that include the abuse and killing of women.
That could be the subject of a whole nother post. Suffice it to say that directly or indirectly, the United States government has willfully contributed to the systemic oppression of women in many nations. And as people who live in the United States and allegedly have some minor vestigial control over what our government does, we are complicit in that oppression.
This, to me, is the true power of a novel and a TV show like The Handmaid’s Tale. It uses the power of storytelling to shine the light of day on the real-world atrocities that our society is supporting, both directly and indirectly. It seems like an outrageous dystopian tale at first, but the more we examine it, the more we realize that it’s based on a true story — and we are complicit in that story.
Sometimes, reading or watching dystopian narratives can lead to depression and inaction. I know that I often feel that way at the end of a good dystopian tale. The narrative rings so true that the dystopian vision it presents seems almost inevitable — and thus, any action we could possibly take seems entirely futile.
But in many cases, including this one, dystopian narratives are meant to have the opposite effect. They are meant to inspire us to take action to avoid the dystopian vision before it becomes a reality.
Since patriarchy and misogyny already exist in the world, and have for thousands of years, there’s no avoiding this dystopian vision entirely. But there are actions that we can take to challenge systemic oppression and create more liberatory societies. Thankfully, there are already many organizations and movements that exist to support us in taking such actions.
I’m open to suggestions about what the best programs are on the international level (or any level for that matter). A few years ago, I read a book called Half the Sky that talked about the oppression of women around the world, several major consequences of it, and several different efforts to respond to those consequences and make life better for present and future generations. This is still a source that I sometimes turn to when considering what I can do about the harsh realities women face in some areas of the world. For a full guide to these resources, visit the Half the Sky Movement website.
Nationally, Planned Parenthood is doing important frontlines work to provide health care services and information to people who might otherwise not receive them. We in the United States live in a society where a basic framework of rights exists for women on paper, but the practical exercise of those rights is often curtailed by a combination of legislation, limited access to resources, and other social, economic, and political barriers. Planned Parenthood works to eliminate these barriers by providing vital health and reproductive services to anyone who needs them. This is especially important in areas where local and state governments are placing theocratic restrictions on access to contraception and abortion.
Here in Southern Illinois, one of the most important actions you can take right now is supporting the Women’s Center. For the past 45 years, the Women’s Center has been dealing with the consequences of patriarchy and misogyny, including rape culture, in our region. They focus on helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and they also do education and prevention work as part of a long-term effort to end domestic violence and sexual assault entirely in our region. They are currently at risk of reducing services or even closing due to the state government’s budget crisis and subsequent failure to fund agencies like the Women’s Center. The Women’s Center does some amazing work for our region, and it would be a shame to see them shut down after 45 years of service just because our state government couldn’t get its act together. So whether you live in Southern Illinois or just want to help people in need in our region, show your support today. If you live outside of Southern Illinois, you can also support a center in your area.
In the long run, we’re going to have to do more than just deal with the symptoms. We’re going to have either reform or dismantle every institution and system of power that contains patriarchal or misogynistic elements. This is a tremendous global undertaking, the details of which are far beyond the scope of this post.
But we have to start somewhere. Do what you can to support the liberation of women (and people of all genders) in your community. Support individuals and groups that are doing the same in their community. Support communication and cooperation between and among these individuals and groups.
If we keep at it, we can eventually create the opposite of the dystopian vision of The Handmaid’s Tale — a society where women (and people of all genders) are finally free of the violence and oppression of misogyny and patriarchy.