Why Everyone Needs to Watch (and Read) The Handmaid’s Tale

(Apologies if the post is messed-up and unstructured, for I have so much thoughts and feels for the show that I just needed to write them down).

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Before school reopens for me, before the summer break comes to a bittersweet end for me, I (binge)-watched Hulu’s The Handmaid Tale. I read the book a month ago before watching Hulu’s adaptation of it, courtesy of my friends who somehow knew my interest lies in dystopian fiction and cautionary tales.

I loved the book – I loved the horror, the cruelty and the unsettling nature of the entire fictional tale that is also a reality at the same time. A scary, harsh reality that consists of torture, rape, policing of women’s bodies and female genital mutilation (FGM). This is what makes the book so disturbingly riveting. But first, a background.

The US Congress has been overthrown by a Christian theocracy, a sort of Puritan Evangelical conservative movement, and the entire country has been renamed to be The Republic of Gilead. Fertile women are rounded up and dumped in propaganda schools – to be converted into Handmaids. Handmaids, a title to mask the horrible fate of forced surrogates, are brainwashed and indoctrinated by Aunts (who are undoubtedly evangelicals) as they watch porn and are taught to repulse at the disgusting nature of loose, consensual sex, abortions & birth control pills, since they are the bane of today’s troubling low birth rates. Women aren’t producing children, because of these evil, moral-less phenomenon, it must be stopped! Consensual sex is practically non-existent (well, except for Nick and Offred – later on in the book & the series. It’s a cathartic act that symbolizes resistance for June).

The story is narrated by a single Handmaid, named Offred. Her name is a wordplay in itself – it means Of-Fred, with Fred signifying the Commander that she has been “assigned” to participate in forced impregnation, masked in yet another seemingly sacred term called the “Ceremony”, as if what they are doing is so very valuable, a ritual if they would like to call it and not at all psychologically distressing. Her name – her very identity already shows subjugation. The Wives of the Commander are implicit in this very act, in a disturbing threesome way as they hold the Handmaids’ wrists down and their bodies symbolically become a singular vessel. This is state-sanctioned, mechanical rape at its core.

When I heard Hulu released its 10-part season in April of this year, I was actually quite curious to watch it, because having been frustrated at that cliffhanger of an ending from the book, I wanted to see how this tv adaptation is going to be different or similar from the book. Having watched the entire season 1 of the show AND read the book, I actually prefer the tv show than the book itself.

I love the tv show because it is so chillingly visual, which enhances the brutality and the twisted nature of the tale. I was absolutely horrified when I read the book, but when I watched the show, my horror magnified. The colors in the show, mostly dark and black within the confines of the house, reflect the bleak aura and the hopeless mood of the scenes displayed. It is strongly juxtaposed by the bleached, almost too-bright colors of the outside world which is so jarring and outwardly deceiving as it conveys a tranquil and peaceful suburb, almost as if unaware of the hidden inhumanity happening within the confines of the homes.

The slow, unhurried conversations & long eye-contact between the characters are reminiscent of real life conversations, which hence exude an unsettling and distressing atmosphere once again, almost as if this is reality. The ominous background scores, coupled with the contrasting red cloaks of the Handmaids walking about on the streets as well as the slow, dreary development of the events in the show make it look like it came right out from the horror genre (and rightly so, since the entire concept of it is horrifying to say the least).

Because it is a tv show and not a movie, it needs to sustain viewers’ interest. The tv show added multiple perspectives – ones which aren’t present in the book – and which I thought are a nice and necessary addition to the book. It added various backstories to Nick (whom I’ve come to like ALOT, I hope they don’t kill him off in season 2), to Serena Joy, to Luke and even to Ofglen. I loved what the screenwriters did to Ofglen’s and Nick’s story. It’s a fantastic addition, as compared to the book.

But I’m not here to talk about what the tv show did right, or what it didn’t address. Sure the show has its downsides and critiques as well, like how it totally brushes off the race equation. There are already articles reviewing season 1 of the show, and those articles are so brilliant and insightful, I don’t ever think I can rival them. Examples would include this one by The Guardian and by The New Yorker.

Both articles are absolutely fantastic and there are many more which I’ve read that are equally fantastic and insightful as well. What I’m here to talk about is how timely and apt this series came, in the current political climate. When Margaret Atwood wrote this back in the Reagan era (in 1985), it became a chilling extreme tale that is cautionary and feministic in nature to warn readers of what could happen if women’s rights are stripped and if women’s bodies are policed by others. However, Atwood’s classic, dystopian novel was again brought to light especially in this period, in the Trump administration as the feminism becomes transposed in our era. The tv adaptation couldn’t come at the right moment.

When I saw the Women’s March on the show, I can’t help but think of the Women’s March protests a day after Trump’s inauguration. When I saw how Ofglen is mutilated down under, I can’t help but think about FGM that is (still) rife in the developing countries, and how they justified it on religious and cultural grounds. When I saw how the Handmaids slut shame Janine as they chants “Her fault” when she confessed to being sexually assaulted, I can’t help but think of how some victims of rape/sexual assault are being shamed for not dressing appropriately, for being out so late into the night and for “asking for it”.

When I saw how it is Serena Joy who orchestrated this uprising and complete overturn of the Congress into this evangelical, Christian movement, I can’t help but think how some women are indeed accomplices of the patriarchy and the oppression. When I saw how Ofglen is being tortured for being a “gender traitor” (code name for lesbian, gays, trans and bisexuals) and how her lover is hanged for precisely the same reason, I can’t help but think of the harsh and cruel treatment meted out to the LGBT individuals in some countries.

Most frighteningly of all, when I saw how the government of Gilead is being run entirely by men; by how policies regarding women’s bodies are being regulated by men, it is a chilling similarity to the picture of Trump and his administration (which had no woman in sight) signing executive orders which affects the reproductive rights of women. It is a book rooted in patriarchy and patriarchal notions, as its core lesson is on how women’s rights are stripped away from them and how their bodies are no longer their own, as it comes under the control of men.

This reduces the power of women, drastically. Their bodies are simply made to be vessels of reproduction. And what is more frightening is how the story is set in the future. You see, both the book and the show maneuvers (impeccably in my opinion) between the present (Republic of Gilead) and the past (USA). So you can really see the differences between how women were like and how women are now. But those differences do not happen overnight, they happen subtly and they take their time, as seen in both the show & the book. The signs were there; and the characters in the book simply brush it aside, thinking that all these would eventually pass. When their credit cards are declined and eventually cancelled, Moira and June (Offred’s real name is June as established in the tv show) are undoubtedly puzzled and disheartened, but they reassure themselves as they reason with their self-doubts that all these will pass and things will eventually get back to normal. Sounds familiar, does it remind you of today?

Even Aunt Lydia alludes (both in the books and the show) that all these things which are happening to them might seem unusual and weird in the beginning, but it’ll soon become normal & ordinary; a new normal. And indeed it has, indeed it has. I guess this is a lesson in itself. It might be hyperbolic or an exaggeration, but one cannot deny that the book is a warning – of these slow changes as they become symbolic and significant as time passes, paving the way for a dangerous and bleak future ahead, especially for women (yes this includes Serena Joy) and for men like Nick who are inevitably trapped in the system. We are living in the era of pre-Gilead, I think.

It’s a book and a show rooted in power & oppression as well, set against the backdrop of all things female. Do yourself a favor and watch this show, because it is perhaps the best show to have come out from television in this year so far. (I know I am being very biased when I say this, because “best” is indeed a strong word, but there are a few writers who have the same stance as me when I say this.) A brilliant, unsettling, dark, distressing, twisted and ominous tale, it’ll leave you thinking for days. You can literally write review essays addressing the themes of the book & the show.

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