The 2017 TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would take the media landscape by storm. After all, your first instinct probably wouldn’t be for the story for a 1985 novel about a dystopian future where the few fertile women are raped to produce offspring for the elite to resonate so strongly 22 years later.
What made The Handmaid’s Tale more than just a prestige project was the way it connected with its audience. Even before the show premiered, groups of female protestors demonstrated against abortion restricting bills in Texas by wearing the costumes of Handmaids from the show, a move which seems both very modern, given the popularity of cosplay, and harkens back to how revolutionaries dressed as Native Americans during the infamous Boston Tea Party of 1773. What started as an act by less than a dozen women has grown to more than 700. The Handmaid’s Tale has come by this resonance to a significant extent by so clearly reflecting the times in which it was produced, while remaining sufficiently its own enough to be timeless. Here’s 10 examples how (and if you haven’t seen the show yet, there will be spoilers)…
10. Hostages Made Complicit in Atrocities
In the pilot episode, we’re shown that the Handmaidens are forced to form circles around enemies of the state as a part of a pseudo-religious ritual before performing communal executions with rocks. Considering that their status as rare fertile women means that the Handmaidens are effectively prisoners of the same state, the intention is obviously to chip away at any sense of moral authority the Handmaidens may feel they have in resisting, to test their loyalty, and to give them a cathartic release that might otherwise be directed at the governing power that is designed to make them sex slaves and living wombs. It also might make them less willing to cooperate with enemies of the state, as it would put the fear in the back of their minds that someday they might have to cast a stone to kill the person who they hoped was going to help them escape.
Even while the show was in production, this evil technique was used by disparate terrorist groups. In May 2016, ARA News reported that while ISIS controlled the city of Mosul that they would take groups of people that they claimed were apostates and ask for volunteers to execute them. When no civilians were willing to take part, they were chosen at random from a crowd. Supposedly the intention there was more to claim the civilians were acting on their own free will, to claim that ISIS had the religious civilian support of the population, but the effect was inevitably the same. This is hardly unique to ISIS, either. In Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Christian Joseph Kony (whose name you may remember from a viral video in 2012) used similar tactics by having abducted children and other hostages torture each other. It’s really one of the most disturbing notions in the show.
9. Forced Surrogacy
Late in the series, there’s a scene showing the creation of the Gilead Organization, which leads to the creation of the Handmaid system. Commander Fred Waterford explains that the Handmaids will be impregnated by members of the regime while their wives are holding the captive, so that the fertile woman acts more as a surrogate, giving the act more of a sense of ritual, and thus legitimacy.
In May 2017, Outlook India reported that similar actions happened with young women in Indian cities such as Delhi. Not only were locations that posed as homes for wayward youth offered them up to the highest bidders, but they made sure proper natal care was given, including injections to make sure their teen hostages gave birth to the healthiest babies possible. “Forced surrogacy” was the term the police gave for it, to give an idea how widespread it is. It goes to show that the will is definitely there to legitimize such a system whenever a Gilead comes to power.
8. Pollution Lowering Fertility Rates
It wasn’t until the sixth episode that any sort of explanation for why fertility rates plummeted so dramatically in the show’s dystopian future. Even then it’s hardly from the most trustworthy source. Gilead says that it’s attributable to a combination of rampant pollution and genetically modified food. In the former case, we can see they aren’t just spouting propaganda.
The Stockholm Environment Institute found that every year three million premature births are caused by air pollution, roughly 18 percent of them. Biomedjournal.com also reports that in both animals and humans, exposure to severe pollution doesn’t just affect fertility, it increases the chances of miscarriage (also said to be extremely high in Handmaid’s Tale.) Considering the United States of America’s stated support for expanding the coal industry and the numerous repeals to Environmental Protection Agency controls, seems like a safe bet we’ll see some degree of this aspect of the show play out in the near future.
7. Deadly Forced Labor
Defying Gilead in the show isn’t just punishable by being stoned and potentially having your dead body hung from a wall near the usual walkways for the Handmaids’ shopping trips. At all times even the Handmaids that are needed for the future of Gilead are under threat of being sent to the “Colonies,” which are places so polluted that protagonist Offred is told that, for laborers, their “skin comes off in sheets.” Many forced laborers can relate to working in such poisonous conditions.
In 1986, around the time that The Handmaid’s Tale was published, it was reported by Associated Press that in the 1970s there was a mine near the community of Pyatigorsk that used prisoners to mine for uranium without even nominal radiation protection. Those that suffered various forms of radiation poisoning weren’t so much treated as subjected to medical experimentation.
In a much less severe case, but with a far more of a religious element, in 2017 the Seattle Times reported that drug addicts in Oklahoma that were supposedly in recovery were actually being taken by the organization Christian Alcoholics and Addicts in Recovery and being forced to work unpaid in chicken plants. Chicken plants are extremely unclean and hazardous places. Many suffered bacterial infections or were even burned by acid.
6. Eye Trauma Punishment
In a portion of the story which is not present in the novel, the Handmaid Ofwarren is punished for the crime of rebelling against the class of women that are assigned to keep the Handmaids in line by having her right eye removed. The biblical warrant for doing so is the famous biblical verse Matthew 18:9, “If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out…” It might come across as excessive in portraying the villainy of a culture that already was built on systematic crimes against humanity.
In fact it actually illustrates an often ignored part of systems which use physical abuse as discipline. It’s not just back in societies like ancient Babylon where women could be punished by having their eyes removed for disobedience. Eye trauma is a fairly common occurance anywhere that children will be beaten for disobedience, such as Ugandan student Subra Namugga, who lost an eye to a corporal punishment of being struck in the face with a stick at primary school. A study published by the Journal of National Medical Association found that 24.5% of injuries serious enough to require medical treatment were inflicted by adults during corporal punishment. In Iran, people being sentenced to have their eyes removed through sharp implements or acid is well-documented, and clearly the society in this show is meant to illustrate what would happen if the equivalent of Sharia Law became dominant in America’s not-too-distant future.
5. Attacks on Abortion Rights
During the indoctrination sequences that showed how the Handmaids were supposedly converted from free citizens to surrogate wombs, one of the main topics of brainwashing sessions was to portray the fact women had the choice to terminate their pregnancies. It’s naturally portrayed as going against His Will, but also a particularly ironic waste considering the way infertility threatens the future of humanity.
Whatever your personal perspective on the abortion controversy, it’s hard to keep the current situation out of your mind watching these scenes. Even before the 2016 election that swept into the highest office a person who said that women who got abortions should be punished, numerous states were passing laws that took the decision-making for the procedure out of the hands of the women seeking the procedure themselves. In May 2016 Oklahoma’s state congress passed a law making abortion punishable by three years imprisonment (the governor vetoed it because she knew the Supreme Court would overturn it). After that failed, in February 2017 Oklahoma’s House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the father’s permission.
On a national scale, the House of Representatives for the United States passed a ban on abortion after the 20th week. For the thousands of women who will seek out an abortion every year (and in many places will need to travel across multiple states to get to a clinic with a schedule opening) it might seem like only a matter of time before the Supreme Court has enough abortion opponents in it that laws begin passing which will take the right from them entirely.
4. Lower Class People Pitted Against Each Other
As early as the pilot episode, we hear Offred’s vitriolic thoughts about her fellow Handmaid Ofglen as they go on a shopping trip. Later in the episode Offred is genuinely surprised to learn that Ofglen is no more pious than she is. Ofglen states that it’s very intentional on the part of Gilead that the Handmaid’s are made to distrust each other as much as they distrust their oppressors.
That’s been the story of how lower class people have been treated for much of American history. Even as the income gap between wealthy and the poor grows so that literally half the population has less wealth combined than the top few thousand, working class people are told that the real cause of their ills is other poor people. Whether the accusation is because those other poor people receive welfare, commit crime, or because they’re lazy, it’s an understandable catharsis: many lower class people will never meet anyone in the upper castes, but they’re likely to rub their elbows with other poor people, making the lower class people a more tangible target for their ire. Gilead would be mad not to exploit that.
3. Women Subjugating Each Other
As memorable as Commander Fred Waterford is as a human face of Gilead in this show, few characters had the impact on audiences that Aunt Lydia did, as played by Emmy winner Ann Dowd. It isn’t just that she has a hard demeanor that has an air of authoritativeness even while she becomes overtly cruel and abusive. It’s that she serves what’s explicitly a patriarchal society in a way that makes her hands the dirtiest.
This is consistent with the fact that parts of the Holy Bible tell women to submit to their husbands, leading to Christian women being statistically less likely to seek help in an abusive relationship. Despite this, women are actually more religious than men both in terms of population and reverence. If it became real, an organization like the Aunts would have little trouble filling its ranks.
2. Indulgent Hypocrisy Among Top Class
In the eighth episode, Offred accompanies Commander Waterford to a brothel. There she sees a completely different face of Gilead. She and the audience are shown clearly that, what had previously seemed only a repressive and oppressive regime, was also completely hypocritical at the top, with the people in power seemingly deliberately indulging the vices they claim to despise.
In Carolyn Jessop’s 2007 autobiography Escape, she explains that what finally made up her mind to leave her community with the Church of Latter Day Saints was learning about the hypocrisy that the richest and most powerful engaged in, such as having alcohol at their private parties even though that was supposed to be banned by their doctrine. This despite the fact it was common knowledge that leader Warren Jeffs was demonstrably a child predator by virtue of the underage wives he took.
Among communities that live under Sharia Law the sight of religious overseers that will sneak off to smoke even though cigarettes are banned is quite common. Iman’s being told that armed insurgents should be given religious sanction to “marry” whoever they want temporarily is also widely known. More than anything else, religious fundamentalism guarantees lots of blatant hypocrisy.
1. Forced Dress Codes
As mentioned earlier, one of the best known aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale is the bright red costumes that the Handmaids are forced to wear, which are supposed to invoke Puritanical clothing and act as an analogue to women in Middle Eastern countries being forced to wear burqas. The last times burqas and related dress codes were in the news was in September 2017 when President Trump reversed a campaign promise to increase US military presence in Afghanistan by about 5,000 troops. More than anything, the hook for the news was that General John Kelly supposedly persuaded the president in part by showing him photos from Afghanistan that featured women in the 1970s publically wearing miniskirts, evidence that the nation used to be relatively liberated before the Taliban and other nominally religious oppressors gained control.
The fact that Kabul, once purportedly the “Paris of the Middle East,” is now a place where religiously motivated attacks are so commonplace that in October 2017 alone dozens of people were killed by two terrorist bombings should send a clear message to the rest of the world. Whatever progress your nation has made, religion, any religion, can take control and strip away freedoms. Nowhere is free of the ranks of people that want to put us Under His Eye.
Dustin Koski also produces the horror anthology podcast The Vanishing Point.