SATURDAY FILM SCHOOL | 'The Handmaid's Tale' is Sadly Familiar


Although extreme, The Handmaid's Tale is a socio-political allegory exploring the grave realities of totalitarian government, slavery, gender inequality, and the horrors of systematic oppression.

A man who proclaimed on TV that women could be sexually harassed by men with power and money without punishment was protected by other men who claimed this was just "locker room talk." This same man ran against Hillary Clinton, an established albeit, imperfect politician for the 2016 presidential election and won. Donald Trump has his supporters, sure, but more Americans have googled the terms of impeachment than ever before. Donald Trump is the perfect segue for Hulu's series, The Handmaid's Tale, an oddly familiar narrative about women who don't have agency over their bodies or lives, and incompetent men in power.

Donald TrumpReuters/Dominick Reuter

On The Surface

The Handmaid's Tale, based on Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name, is a militarized dystopia named Gilead (loosely based in the United States) experiencing a sharp fertility decline due to environmental toxicity, sequestering fertile women as handmaids where they are selected to procreate for wealthy families. The series is loosely based on real historical (and current) incidents where women's rights have been jeopardized by the state. Under the totalitarian government of Gilead, women are expected to perform their roles as either handmaids, wives, marthas, or aunts; all of which are reduced to specific functions that, if undermined, can result in torture, imprisonment, and death sentences. Women are unable to work, own property, and are denied access to higher education. Offred (Elisabeth Moss)—a woman who once lived as June, a mother and independent American—is the main protagonist, providing expository and internal commentary through voice-overs that help describe the creation of Gilead, the community of the handmaids, and her boiling revulsion for her authority figures. As the series progresses, Offred begins to slowly communicate with other handmaids, realizing the power of their community: like any society, when the middle ground revolts, the entire system can potentially collapse.

Deeper Meanings

Gilead is a warning for the fragility of democracy and equality among men and women. Although extreme, The Handmaid's Tale is a socio-political allegory exploring the grave realities of totalitarian government, slavery, gender inequality, and the horrors of systematic oppression. We are shown how Offred, and all women, were ushered into Gilead's new rule, slowly losing access to their careers, money, property, and most shocking of all, their bodies. Bleak and unrelenting, the series is a meditation on powerless women finding hope in community and strength in their voices. Make no mistake, watching The Handmaid's Tale is hard and uncomfortable, almost infuriating because it's unfortunately not too far off from reality: women's past and current fight for equality and control over our own bodies and sexual agency is a worldwide phenomenon, still ongoing and never fully in focus, always on the outskirts of other political and social imbalances.

And despite the ugliness of Gilead, the show is quite beautiful; the result of careful camerawork, cinematography and a complimentary soundtrack that speaks to Offred's internal uprising. Women are often visually marginalized to the corner of frames, suggesting their lack of power and agency in the given society—in moments of reclamation, the camera uses close-ups to depict the emotional complexity of the handmaids; their harsh realities; and the lack of agency they have over their bodies in male-dominated spaces. Atwood shows the severity of state segregation by using colors to subjugate women to functions dependent on their fertility. Handmaids are forced to cover their faces (using a type of bonnet you may see in Star Trek), and fully clothe their bodies in red cloaks to signify their fertility and life force; wives are forced to wear blue (a sign of obedience and desexualization); marthas, a grey-washed green (servitude, muted, silence); aunts wear brown—a color Atwood associates with Nazi Germany; and men wear black, a color that represents completion, absolution, and control. Offred's blue eyes often pop against the muted grey background, a nod to her desire to keep fighting despite her lifeless circumstances.

Classroom Takeaways

Outside of the aesthetic symbolism, The Handmaid's Tale is careful to allude to real-world nuances like women competing with other women for male approval (even state approval); women being reduced to bodily functions; public humiliation and harassment of gay/queer men and women; a government reliant on subjugated communities and slave labor to ensure economic dominance for those in positions of wealth; and geopolitics. It's a smart series that values its source material and the fragility of our current political climate. A show that both ponders "what if hypotheticals" and historical atrocities that have already occurred, The Handmaid's Tale is really a story about history repeating itself, while we all watch with our butter popcorn.

'The Handmaid's Tale'Hulu

Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.

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