Margaret Atwood has long been one of my favorite contemporary authors, and The Handmaid’s Tale was the first of her books that I ever read. As a seventeen-year-old budding feminist, Atwood’s cautionary tale had a lasting impact on me, with certain scenes still etched in my memory. This week saw the release of the first three episodes of the Hulu adaptation starring Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist nightmare where, as a response to widespread inferility, the government has taken control of women’s bodies. Fertile women are forcibly trained by religious leaders and assigned as handmaids to high-status couples who have been unable to conceive. It’s sex slavery hiding behind religious justification. I hope that anyone would be horrified by imagining this reality, but it’s particularly frightening as a woman to imagine what your life would be if your worth was determined entirely by your husband or ability to procreate.
Elisabeth Moss plays Offred (“of Fred”), a handmaid whose daughter was taken and husband shot as they tried to escape the country. The series opens with their flight through the woods, pursued by armed men. Being hunted like an animal anticipates Offred’s new life, in which she is essentially breeding stock. Anyone familiar with Mad Men knows that Elisabeth Moss has the ability to project silent agony and repressed rage. This role gives her ample opportunities for both. I wasn’t initially sure about her decision to deliver the voiceover in a hoarse whisper, but it fits the tone of repression that permeates the story.
As a series, The Handmaid’s Tale is strongly cinematic. Light and shadows are both used in extremes, from lens flares to dark figures silhouetted against a window. A culture of extremity is also reflected in the handmaids’ uniform of a long red dress and white bonnet. When out in public, oversized wings are added to the bonnet to obscure their faces. Pop music is inserted sparingly at climatic moments. Although I found the music conspicuous in the first episode, the fact that it’s incongruous with the world being shown makes it effectively jarring. After all, speculative or dystopian fiction aims to show us how aspects of an imagined society bear a disquieting resemblance to our reality.
Although watching The Handmaid’s Tale is a fairly joyless experience, I believe that it’s a valuable one. Margaret Atwood externalizes the Madonna-whore complex by creating a society in which women are explicitly categorized as virtuous wives or sexual handmaids. (There are also domestic servant “Marthas” and execution or exile.) This may seem like an impossible idea, but the aspects of this story exist around the world in different forms. Even in relatively liberated societies, women feel the opposing pressures to be sexy but not slutty, a good girl but not a prude. In a tumultuous time, I appreciate that creators are reminding us about what has been, what still is, and what we must be vigilant to prevent.