Offred to Off with the Patriarchy
Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale during the Reagan era, but Hulu's new adaptation reveals its relevance in the current Trumpian era.
Imagine a world where the government, run by a select group of rich, powerful, white men, dictates what happens to a woman's body and exploits the fear of its citizens to repress dissent. Given the current political climate, full of fake news and sexual misconduct, there is less and less left to the imagination. The fictional themes of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale draw unnerving parallels to the very real political climate in the United States.
In Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States is taken over by a select group of influential, conservative, white religious fundamentalists called Commanders and is renamed Gilead. Gilead comes with an eerily pious set of greetings like “blessed be the fruit” and “may the Lord open,” along with other strange rules. Afflicted by a toxic environmental calamity, the women of Gilead are struck with infertility, which is also somehow caused by women being that “sterile is a forbidden word.”
The women of Gilead are wildly oppressed by the government and segregated by their ability to give birth. “Gender traitors” are hung for being gay. “Marthas” cook and clean the house. Aunts dress in brown and teach handmaids how to be handmaids. Wives are infertile, dress in blue, and take care of the home. Handmaids dress in red, wear large, white bonnets called wings to cover their faces, and are assigned to commanders to give birth on behalf of their barren wives. They lose their names, which are then replaced by “Of,” followed by the first name of their assigned commander. Handmaids essentially are walking wombs. Women are subjugated to state-mandated sexual slavery, justified as a solution to the country’s mass problem of infertility. Consensual sex becomes an illusion. Abortions become a distant privilege of the past. With a pro-life, pussy-grabbing president in power, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the Commanders of Gilead and the Commander-in-Chief of the United States. The audience is reminded that the fictional themes of The Handmaid’s Tale don’t differ much from reality.
With ominous political timeliness, Hulu released its remake of The Handmaid’s Tale around this time last year. Following the success and critical acclaim of its first season, Hulu then released a new jarring teaser for the second season of its, now Emmy and Golden Globe-winning, The Handmaid’s Tale on March 8, 2018, the same day as International Women’s Day. Many have argued The Handmaid’s Tale, both the novel and show, is a feminist story. Although the novel and show stars a female, The Handmaid’s Tale is more than a feminist tale. Rather, it’s a story about survival against the patriarchy and how oppression is based off a skewed hierarchy, where women are at the bottom of the pyramid. The feminist on spotlight on this particular International Women’s Day is Offred, the show’s protagonist, who is named June pre-Gilead. Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, is the handmaid of Commander Fred, played by Joseph Fiennes. Despite not giving away much of the plot, the short teaser is very telling of Offred’s transmogrification into June, similarly to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Our heroine June wouldn’t be complete with Offred, who stays oddly complacent in a society that neglects her. The transformation begins when Offred meets her shopping partner, Ofglen. Ofglen is a part of a secret society with the goal of taking down the government. It is Ofglen who introduces Offred into her journey to become June, the heroine the audience is waiting for to take down the government, find her family, and escape Gilead.
In the teaser, she creepily chants, “Wear the red dress. Wear the wings. Shut your mouth. Be a good girl. Roll over and spread your legs. Yes, ma’am. May the Lord open. What the actual f—.” A haunting visual montage accompanies the chant. The audience sees a burning red cloak, Commander Fred’s bedroom where the monthly procreation takes place, and June covered in blood. The juxtaposition of this evocative imagery and the monotonous sounding murmur is representative of June’s struggle for control over her life. She wears the wings and rolls over and spreads her legs while the fire of revolution burns her red cloak. She follows the rules while questioning them. Her overt goal is to leave Gilead to find her daughter, Hannah, and her husband and father of her child, Luke, yet she tells the audience that she “intends to survive.” She wants to escape Gilead yet wants to stay and fight.
Offred’s relationship with Nick, played by Max Minghella, highlights her poignant reality and three-dimensionality. Although presented in the show as a shadowy character, Nick is the household’s trusted driver and is softened by a backstory presented in the eighth episode. The first season ends with the audience finding out Offred is pregnant with Nick’s child, presumably after Commander Fred’s wife, Serena (played by Yvonne Strahovski) suggests Nick impregnates her handmaid. However, prior to this isolated incident, Offred and Nick have had consensual sex, unknown to the Commander and the Commander’s wife. The conflict arises when June finds out Luke, whom she thought was dead, is alive and well in Canada. She then grapples with a sense of disloyalty to her husband, yet continues to sleep with Nike. She justifies this by telling the audience she doesn’t want to be alone. Despite not being able to be in public without a partner and despite being surrounded by people all the time, Offred experiences a damning amount of loneliness. When Nick breaks things off with Offred, her dismay over the situation is truly heartbreaking. Nick states their relationship is dangerous and could endanger her life, specifically end up on the wall, where misfits and societal rejects are hung. She retorts, “At least someone will remember me in this place. At least someone will care when I’m gone.” In a tender moment of despair, she rushes up the stairs to her room where Serena gives her a music box with a dancing ballerina on the inside. This music box becomes symbolic of Offred in her role as a handmaid yet motivates her to keep surviving. She tells the audience, “A perfect gift. A girl trapped in a box. She only dances when someone else opens the lid. When someone else winds her up. If this is the story I’m telling I must be telling it to someone. There’s always someone. Even when there’s no one. I will not be that girl in the box.” It is through Nick Offred is able to become June, demonstrated through her empowering inner dialogue. It is in these tender moments Offred becomes a multifaceted person who faces loneliness and pain. Offred and June are two halves of one fallible person.
A recurring motif in the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale is Scrabble. June often finds her goal-oriented thoughts as scrambled as her Scrabble tiles. Offred is invited for the first time into Commander Fred’s office for what she assumes a blowjob but is really a game of Scrabble. This is strictly prohibited because commanders and handmaids aren’t supposed to be in much contact outside of their monthly state-sanctioned rape called the Ceremony. This is also because women in Gilead aren’t supposed to be able to read. What appears to be a game of Scrabble is a struggle for power. Offred appears to be elated in finding some level of catharsis in a conservative, tyrannical society while also finding a weak spot in the Commander for her to manipulate. Her character’s life relies on him, so the audience is engaged in watching Offred make nuanced judgments on how to walk this line of being able to manipulate the Commander for her survival and not overstep her confined boundaries created by this society. After a number of Scrabble games, she finds herself with the Commander at Jezebel’s, a forbidden brothel meant to give commanders catharsis from the society created by their own means and succumb to debauchery. Though seemingly having power over her commander, she falls victim to rape once again outside of the Ceremony at Jezebel’s. She sheds her power as she sheds tears. The scene evokes a visceral feeling in the audience.
When June loses hope, so does the audience. Conversely, once there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel, the audience is cheering, “you go, girl!” As a seemingly submissive Offred experiences the highs and lows of hope and despair, the audience is encouraging June, their heroine, to persevere.