*** SPOILER ALERT *** DO NOT READ THIS POST IF YOU ARE WAITING TO SEE THE FIRST EPISODE ON CATCHUP TV!
I was in my early twenties when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale and I was utterly horrified by the concept of Gilead, the dystopian world in which Atwood set her groundbreaking novel.
Fast forward twenty years, and I still find it disturbing, macabre and terrifyingly possible in today’s society.
Due to a nuclear catastrophe, there are a limited number of women who remain fertile, known as Handmaids. They are sent to somewhere called The Red Centre to learn how to submit themselves to a family where the wife cannot have children. It is explained to them that their role in society is to bear surrogate children on behalf of these wealthy but barren women. Dressed in an outfit not dissimilar to that of a nun but scarlet red, they are to perform something known as The Ceremony on a regular basis. Essentially, the Handmaid is held down by the arms of the wife on the bed and raped by the husband.
The horror on Offred’s face tells us she despises what is happening to her, but she is wise enough not to struggle. What good would that do? More interesting is the reaction of the wife after the deed is done and the husband has left the room. She throws the Handmaid out of the room too, and we are party to a moment where the wife becomes emotional. Is she hurt because it is difficult to watch her husband being intimate with another woman? Is she hurt because of her infertility which has driven them to this situation? Does she feel her own lack of femininity, her inadequacy at being unable to bear children? But she is a woman too and in Gilead, her status is no higher than Offred’s, although she is married to a wealthy man. She too has no choice over what happens to her if and when a child is born. The human race must continue, at whatever the cost.
It was great to see Atwood herself taking a cameo role in the production, delivering a slap across Offred’s face during a training session at The Red Centre. The image is hazy and blurred, but the silhouette is unmistakeable.
At the end of the episode, we learn that Offred’s friend from before the disaster, Moira, is dead. Offred channels her anger and grief towards a man who has been convicted of raping a Handmaid. Supposedly, there is nothing to protect the Handmaids at their conscripted homes with families but out on the streets they are not to be touched.
Offred is first to deliver a blow to the convict and, between them, the Handmaids beat the man to death. It seems this act of uncontrolled violence succeeds in ensuring that the Handmaids remain calm during their given assignments. Channeling their aggression in this way seems their only release from what is happening to them.
Perhaps one of the most frightening things about this Gilead place is that the Handmaids are all given new names, to remind them that their lives from before have no significance here. We learn that Offred’s real name is June and her child has been taken from her. There is a sense that she is biding her time until an opportunity arises for her to get her back. Roll on episode two; I hope I have the stamina to continue to watch the whole series.
The reality is that now, over thirty years later, there are women in the real world today who have no say over their bodies, who are vessels for child-bearing and have no control over their own destinies. Female Genital Mutilation and the abortion of female foetuses are horrific truths that continue to this day, in a city or a town near you, even here in the UK.
And some folk think that feminism is outdated and unnecessary…