“The Handmaid’s Tale”: Powerful, Unsettling, and Relevant

By Anamika Dutta, Culture Editor

Dystopian fiction is not a new genre. From George Orwell’s “1984” to Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” dystopian novels are able to peak our interest because of their social and political commentary on elements of contemporary society. Issues have always existed in our society. We usually know this without the help of dystopian fiction. However, given our society’s problematic laws, social norms, and practices, having our society’s failures blatantly pointed out to us somehow makes them more “real” and therefore more powerful.

Some dystopian novels resonate with us more deeply than others. One that has resonated especially well with many people is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale. Unlike other dystopian novels, “The Handmaid’s Tale” was so impactful for those who read it that it was adapted into a television show. One’s immediate question might be: Why have we latched onto this particular dystopian novel?

Set in the Republic of Gilead, a city in what used to be New England, a totalitarian and theonomic dictatorship has overthrown the United States government in the aftermath of a civil war. Society is run by power-hungry men who aim to militarize and control. Women are horribly subjugated. They cannot read, work, handle money or property, have relationships, or have ties to culture from the pre-civil war. Gilead’s gender hierarchy categorizes women as Wives, who oversee the homes, Marthas, who cook and clean, or Handmaids, whose purpose in society is to bear children due to worldwide infertility. Their “lives” consist of supervised shopping trips and doting on their Commanders⸺male members of the ruling elite⸺who they must cater to in more ways than one. Handmaids have been stripped of their identity and given the last name of their Commander. With only two options, which are to submit themselves to the law or be killed, the Handmaids do not have a choice but to demean and traumatize themselves through the Ceremony. The Ceremony is ritualized rape between the Commander and his Handmaid, during which the Commander’s wife is present. This demeaning experience is meant to be entirely emotionless, as if it just another usual day. Unfortunately, in Gilead, it is just another day. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is so evocative because it explores this terrifying question: What would society look like if women truly had no rights?

Atwood’s creation of Gilead is so scary because it does not resemble a dystopian society from the outside. It is beautiful, well-kept, and ironically idyllic. Its message seems to hold more power for readers and viewers in 2017 than it did in 1985 when the book was published. Perhaps this can be attributed to the rhetoric of the 2016 election cycle, which threatened women’s rights in America. Obviously, women are not being forced to bear children as if their fertility is their only redeeming quality. However, the focus of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on the loss of women’s reproductive rights seems more relevant due to the misogynistic platform of our current president. Despite beliefs that misogyny and objectification are problems of the past, rhetoric such as “grab her by the p*ssy” was a wake-up call for many Americans, as we realize the fight for gender equality is far from over.

#RepealThe19th was a trending hashtag towards the end of the election season. Planned Parenthood is in danger of being defunded. There is a newly-implemented transgender ban in the U.S. military. “The Handmaid’s Tale” portrays a reality in which LGBTQ Handmaids (“gender traitors”) are publicly executed, women are convinced that their oppression is justified, rape is the victim’s fault, and religion is used to seize doctrinal control. This alternate reality is particularly horrifying now, as we see parallels to our current reality. These are far less extreme parallels, but parallels nonetheless.

Atwood highlights why “The Handmaid’s Tale” focuses on women’s oppression: “Without women capable of giving birth, human populations would die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls, and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars.” Her powerful story has captivated readers nationwide. Its television adaptation was nominated for 13 Emmys this week and won five of them, which is a tribute to the story’s compelling message. More people are waking up and recognizing the horrors of a world like Gilead. Although we believe that this kind of society is entirely abnormal and repulsive, Aunt Lydia’s reassurance to the Handmaids is a warning to us all: “This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time, it will.” In a world where consensual sex is an illusion and women are owned and controlled by men, “The Handmaid’s Tale” reminds us that the line between the past, present, and future is all too thin.

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