The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the 1986 novel of the same name by the famed Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. The premise is that the government of the United States has been abolished, along with the constitution, and replaced with a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship known as the Republic of Gilead. Our narrator is Offred, a Handmaid, whose sole purpose in Gilead is to act as a surrogate for high-up officials and their “barren” wives. In addition to showing us Offred’s daily life as a we also see flashbacks to the world before, and the transition between the world we now know and the one of the show. By switching back and forth between flashbacks and the present narrative, The Handmaid’s Tale both sets us up into a terrifying dystopia, and shows us that it’s not so far removed from our own world. Throughout the episode, we see direct references to things of our time: the morning after pill, Tinder, Scrabble, Uber, the Handmaid’s Tale is constantly reminding us that we are not so far off from any of this. Indeed, Atwood herself has repeatedly claimed over the years that part of the point of The Handmaid’s Tale, is to show just exactly how it could really happen. ”You could say it’s a response to ‘it can’t happen here.’…But what could happen here?… if you were going to do it, what would you do? What emotions would you appeal to? What groups would you utilize? How exactly would you go about it? Well, something like the way the religious right is doing things. And the ultimate result of that process would be the union of church and state.”
The frequent flashbacks to the “before” time to show us how the world came to shape. In the episode “Late”, we see a time after the government has been taken out by a supposed terrorist attack and the constitution abolished, but before the Republic of Gilead has fully taken shape. Offred is simply trying to live her life. She goes out jogging, she goes to work, and so on. Offred continues to try to live her life as more changes take shape, as women are forbidden from owning money and fired from their jobs. Eventually, all the changes have come together to create the present that Offred lives in. As Offred thinks in “Late”, “That’s how we let it happen…Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it” And while Offred’s facial expressions as she learns of her new reality reveals the horror and terror of it all, in the current timeline she just seems bored by it all, with the facets of her daily life appearing more monotonous than oppressive. Aunt Lydia herself says it best: “I know this must feel very strange, but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”
The show is also brilliant for its insights on the state of our current world. For example, one of the most brutal parts of the show is the treatment of rape. On the one hand, Aunt Lydia makes a point of forcing Janine to talk about being raped and saying that it was “her own fault”, and forcing all the women around her to point at her and say it that is was her own fault, over and over (also there’s a brief cameo from Margaret Atwood herself, who appears briefly in the background and compels Offred to join the rest of the women in blaming Janine). Not to mention the fact that Aunt Lydia is preparing the women to engage in what is tantamount to state-sanctioned rape. And yet, Aunt Lydia is the same woman who later encourages the handmaids to beat a convicted rapist. Janine, heavily pregnant at this point, stands aside but watches with pleasure as the rapist is beaten to death. We see in Gilead whose bodies are valued, and whose are not considered worthy.
This attitude, of condemning rape when convenient, while shaming victims of rape when it is not, may be, horribly enough, one of the most realistic parts of the show. True, he actions that take place are fiction, but the attitude is a very real one we see today. Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump claimed that Mexicans were “rapists” and made a show of parading around women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and harassment. He even called for April to be sexual assault awareness month. And yet, he himself bragged on tape about harassing and assaulting women and has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. Not to mention, in the new health care bill that he has been so proud of, being a victim of sexual assault is actually considered a pre-exsisting condition.
With each instance of humiliation, violence, and oppression of women, we can find some type of real-world example or historical precedent. And that is the point. The novel and the show aren’t painting a dystopia that “could be” if we’re not too careful, they are painting what we are already on the road too.
Abortion rights and access to contraception is being rolled back under Republican control. One in every four women the US is a rape victim. Right-wing Christian fundamentalism, as seen in the extreme in The Handmaid’s Tale, is not only rampant in the US, but has taken over state legislatures and members of Congress.
I spoke on the phone with my mom about it, who described reading the novel when it came out during the Reagan years, when the threat of Christian fundamentalism overrunning the US seemed immediate and pressing. Now, she says, the situation is actually worse.
No, the Reagan administration wasn’t executing gay people, but they were allowing hundreds of thousands of them to die of AIDS. No, the Trump administration doesn’t have secret “eyes” like in The Handmaid’s Tale running around making everyone suspicious of each other, but they have publicized a pre-existing hotline to report on undocumented immigrants, who are often so afraid of deportation that they don’t call for help from domestic violence. The Republicans, both in the 1980s and today, aren’t forcing fertile women to act as handmaids, but they are attempting to roll back abortion rights and prevent women from accessing contraception or even proper sex ed, and are attempting to classify everything from sexual assault to pregnancy as a “pre-existing condition” that could prevent many women from accessing health care or getting to make their own informed decisions about their bodies.
This is the effectiveness of The Handmaid’s Tale, and why it is so particularly relevant now. We aren’t seeing a possible warning of what may happen in the future, we are seeing the logical extension of what is already around today. Each humiliation, each violation, and each injustice faced by Offred is based on what we are already seeing. To use Offred’s metaphor, we’re already in the bathtub. Now we have to keep ourselves from boiling.