I’ve wanted to read the book (written by Margaret Atwood) this movie is based on ever since I’ve found it recommended on a feminist blog. I still plan on doing that despite seeing the movie; books offer so much of the details that get lost in the adaptation for the silver screen that it would be a shame if I didn’t.
The book with the same title is a dystopia. The society in the former USA had collapsed after a nuclear attack or some other nuclear catastrophe (not really made all that clear) and a bunch of fundamentalist evangelicals has taken over. There are no human rights or freedom of speech, which is particularly true for women, people of colour and other religious groups other than the fundamentalist one. I believe that all non-white people were shipped to the colonies (somewhere in the Midwest) to work on farms and to clean up the nuclear waste – basically concentration and labour camps with some slavery and racism mixed in. All political dissidents are shipped there too, if they aren’t publically executed before, that is.
That is only one of the problems people face under the iron law in the Republic of Gilead. Before they took over a catastrophic drop in fertility had occurred as a result of the pollution; 99% of the people are now infertile, with rising numbers of birth defects in the remaining percent. That would not do; God had given them dominion over the country, so they had to give him new worshippers. Cue in the ever rising list of offences against God and country that rip apart families, take away their children and give them into adoption to the ‘right’ people. As if that were not enough, they institute a brutal practice of having handmaids.
What are handmaids actually? These are women, selected to bear children for the top-tier families; an appalling practice they found in the Bible in the story about sisters Rachel and Leah. They were fighting over the number of children they could give to their husband Jacob, and were not above abusing their own servants to win the fight. That Jacob went with this and slept with the servants then let his wives take the children away justifies my suspicion of the morals in this book and the ethics it purportedly preaches. This is just horrible! I see this Old Testament story as a tale of slavery and lacking morals, but I know there are all kinds of interpretations floating on the internet.
In essence handmaids are sex slaves, but they are also expected to give birth to their abuser’s children and pretend it’s the greatest of honours. Bah! It just makes my skin crawl. Especially since they are not allowed to even acknowledge these children as theirs – they are the property of the man and his legal wife. That the delivery of such a child is a big social event is just poor taste and I was disgusted that the wife was congratulated as if she’s the one who gave birth. Well, in their minds it is so and I bet they are just happy to get rid of the woman who could compete for their husband’s attention.
Our heroine is a handmaid, hence the title. Her real name is Kate (in the book June), but the government gives her the name Offred (of-Fred) once she’s designated to the Commander, one of the top people in the new government. She had tried to flee the country but was caught, her husband killed and her daughter taken away. Once they determine she’s fertile, she is taken to an indoctrination centre where new handmaids are taught how to behave, what to think etc.
I hated this part of the movie and the way women gave in, never fighting back the clearly ludicrous ideas and practices there. Ok, they were afraid, but I hoped for some backbone from our protagonist. She does try to rebel in some small way, but she doesn’t do all that much on her own if not inspired by Moira, a fellow handmaid-in-training. She’s a rebel this one, and not afraid of taking some risks.
What I found particularly disturbing is a scene where a young girl, who once had an abortion after being raped, is verbally abused by the indoctrinators and her fellow prisoners. The things they said were so eerily similar to the bullshit some right-wing republicans said a while ago that it literally took my breath away. How could they claim that the victim of rape is at fault or that God wanted to teach her a lesson? What lesson? Why would a benevolent being do that to anyone? Well, this sort of thinking never made much sense to me and never will, but a broken soul can be made to think this way and embrace her new position just to escape the verbal abuse alone. It’s still shocking to realise the movie was produced in 1990 and the book written in 1985 – the author was obviously ahead of her time or just really aware of what was going on.
All people in the Republic of Gilead (white, of course) are expected to live according to the Bible and are divided into colour-coded classes; blue for the top-tier, green for domestic workers, black for the soldiers, brown for Aunts indoctrinating future handmaids and red for the handmaids themselves. The sexes are further divided, but I won’t go into detail here, just believe me that women get the short end of the stick. Even Aunts, who have a kind of important role, are considered barely human as well. As all women, they are not allowed to read so they have no idea if the quotes and ideas preached by men are from the Bible (they aren’t).
Even the top-tier wives don’t have it easy in this environment. Serena Joy, Commander’s wife, is far from happy with the institution of handmaids, but since she’s believed to be infertile (it’s implied that the fault lies with the husband) she must clench her teeth and bear with it. She’s miserable even though this is the society she has been fighting for during her televangelist career. It’s ironic that she only now realises that the very things she preached have now turned on her – her only worth as a wife is in giving her husband babies, she can’t talk about her past career since it is sinful for a woman to be seen in public, she can’t read since it is forbidden, and she can’t stand having another woman in her home. Especially, since she knows her husband lusts after the handmaids, but I bet she doesn’t know he’s visiting secret brothels as well (which supposedly don’t exist in this pure society anymore). In a desperate attempt to gain some footing she convinces Offred to use their driver Nick to get pregnant. It backfires spectacularly.
I won’t reveal more since I want you to watch the movie. It’s a disturbing look into what fundamentalism and right-wing thinking will do to a society and its people, especially women. I have no love lost for people who would take away other’s rights and freedom. You can live according to the Bible if you like just don’t expect me to do the same.
Trailer (with spoilers):