At Women’s Marches around the world last January, it seemed like everyone was trying to make the best dystopian-themed joke before the world collapsed. Social media was flooded with protest signs displaying myriad pop cultural references: “Voldemort has taken over the Ministry,” “Okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation/information,” “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.”
Seeing mainstream feminism fight fascism with pithy one-liners, as though comparing Trump to an evil wizard will stop him from banning Muslims, can at times be cringe worthy. But as the Women’s March slogans showed, drawing comparisons between this new administration and prophesizing fiction can at once be a comfort and a brutal reminder that none of these current struggles are particularly new.
So when Hulu’s 10-part adaptation of Atwood’s 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” premiered last Wednesday, multiple TV critics took space in their reviews to remind everyone that, actually, those seemingly topical plot points weren’t a product of 2017.
“You might guess that the producers had added certain on-the-nose details…[such as] refugees fleeing from Canada; Gilead’s leaders leveraging fear of Islamic terrorists; feminist street protests before the regime’s crackdown,” wrote The New York Times’ James Poniewozik. “That’s all in the novel.”
Certainly, Atwood’s authoritarian state of Gilead is a very extreme version of our own political climate, but seeing it from the eyes of our protagonist, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), makes it no less terrifying. Offred is a handmaid, one of the few remaining fertile women, who are assigned by this new regime to be little more than “wombs with legs.” Along with the upper-class Wives and the working-class servants, known as Marthas, handmaids are subjugated into traditional gender roles in order for Gilead’s patriarchal, fundamentalist-Christian Big Brother to have absolute control of their bodies.
In this world, handmaids like Offred spend most of their days sitting in tiny bedrooms within huge mansions belonging to the high-ranking male Commanders they’re assigned to. (Offred isn’t her real name, but rather a designation of her belonging to Commander Fred Waterford, played by Joseph Fiennes.) Sometimes Offred takes walks through town, the former Cambridge, Mass., always accompanied by another handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), so they may act as each other’s spies if one of them steps out of line. On “ceremony” days, once a month, Offred copulates with the Commander while lying in the lap of his Wife (Yvonne Strahovski) so as to completely erase the handmaid’s personhood and reduce her to a potential baby vessel.
She’s not allowed to read—not books, not letters, not even packaging labels in the commissary where she sometimes runs errands to keep busy. The windowpanes in her room are shatterproof. There’s no chandelier to hang a rope from.
Within the first three episodes, which were all released on Hulu at once, we get this exposition through a remarkable balance of showing and telling. Showrunner Bruce Miller takes Offred’s matter-of-fact, persistent, first-person narrative from the novel and turns it into a biting inner monologue.
“A priest, a doctor, a gay man,” she muses, walking past three hanged men on display at the city wall. “I think I heard that joke once. This wasn’t the punchline.”
We also get flashbacks into Offred’s life before the regime, as she and her best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) can only watch as the government slowly and gradually strips them of their agency. When Offred is locked out of her bank account, her money is automatically transferred into her husband Luke’s (O.T. Fagbenle) savings. But Moira, who has a female partner, is left broke. Even then, we see Moira struggling to convince Luke that this won’t just blow over, that progress is regressing and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Forget the eerie, timely similarities; this is just a great set up for a horror story.
The first three episodes of the show are directed by Reed Morano, currently the youngest member and one of only 14 women in the American Society of Cinematographers. Best known for her cinematography in films such as “Frozen River” and the “Sandcastles” sequence of Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade,” Morano paints a startling contrast between the well-lit, pristine interiors of the Gilead mansions and the terrible oppression going on inside them. In an essay for BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Petersen analyzes Morano’s filmmaking techniques as an illustration of the “female glance,” in opposition to the domineering “male gaze” theory of film identified by feminists in the 1970s.
“Unlike the steady, obsessive gaze, the glance is sprawling, nimble: not easily distracted so much as constantly vigilant,” she writes.
For “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Petersen points to the show’s costume design for the handmaids—red, billowing dresses and oversized bonnets that act as blinders—as demonstrative of that glance. There are plenty of close-ups of Offred’s face that give the impression that we, too, are inside that bonnet, only able to see what is directly in front of us and unable to make eye contact with anyone. We’re unable to and not allowed to.
This is what the show does so well: depicting subjugated women while allowing them to tell their own stories. Even still, it’s remarkable that so few people involved in the creation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” want to use the word “feminist” to describe it. At a recent post-screening panel, the cast and crew staunchly avoided the term, instead repeatedly calling it “humanist.” Even Atwood herself has avoided calling it a feminist story, although she specifically cites her own issues with second-wave feminism as the cause of this.
All of this puts “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the weird position as being a timely—and timeless—narrative that wants nothing more than to just be fiction. To be clear, the religious authoritarianism of Gilead bares little resemblance to the non-spiritual populism of Trump. But there’s no denying that fascism, fanaticism, and the control over women’s bodies have typically gone hand-in-hand, whether it be 1692, 1985, or 2017. To deny “The Handmaid’s Tale”’s depiction of that relationship wouldn’t just be denying its relationship to contemporary politics; it’d be erasing its roots in a long, bloodied history.