Science fiction asks the question, “what if…” and then poses imaginative answers. Good science fiction takes that question, and uses it as a warning, against totalitarianism, or environmental dangers, or perhaps against technology run amok. Great science fiction makes that feel personal, tangible, like you could reach out and brush it with your fingertips. It makes us believe we will someday travel the stars, or that we should fear the AI singularity. Sometimes, it’s prophetic.
One of my worst fears, probably deeper than my fear of extreme heights on precarious surfaces, is losing my independence. But that’s probably a universal fear for everyone at some level. When I first read the “Handmaid’s Tale” I was shaken. It was disturbing how easily it gathered and depicted every fear you may have once considered but quickly shuffled to some dark part of your consciousness never to be examined again, particularly as a woman. And more so, how easily it might become normal. Your job, your home, your family, your independence, your free will, even your name…just gone. No rights to your own money or even your own body. Everything you knew about how to define your very self. Disrupted. Destroyed. Redefined by someone else. What a nightmare.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in an America where environmental damage and wars are causing mass casualties and a severe drop in fertility. After a major terrorist attack destroyed Capitol Hill, the constitution was suspended and martial law was instated but never lifted. Since then, people have been trying to live their lives normally, even as civil liberties were slowly stripped away in the name of security, and our story starts when the final hammer comes down. Women are stripped of their rights to jobs, money, and property. People start fleeing for the Canadian border, but for Offred’s family, they didn’t leave soon enough.
In the new world order of Gilead, life is ordered by carefully selected scripture. The women live their lives in proscribed roles. The highest order being, “wife.” There are “Marthas,” who are household servants, and the “Handmaids,” fertile women given to the commanders in hopes of perpetuating the species. Slavery and rape, sounds like an uplifting show!
The first episode of the Hulu show brought back that sense of nightmare dread of the book, and multiplied it one hundredfold until I was curled up in the corner of my couch hugging a pillow. The actors grab your attention and never let it go, even if the dialogue is minimal. Whole volumes are spoken in facial expressions, flaring nostrils, a darting of eyes, because for these characters speaking is extremely dangerous. In their new now, when the girls meet in a store, an almost friendly attempt at conversation breaks out. But one little misplaced sentence sends them all scurrying for safety.
Elizabeth Moss turned in a stunning and subtle performance, but there wasn’t a weak link in any of the actors. Her character’s best friend in flashbacks was Samira Wiley’s fiery Moira, who had the good sense to already know how easy it was for her rights to be stolen. She gets righteously upset when her friend’s husband, Luke, reassures her he’ll take care of her, “that’s the whole problem right there! She doesn’t *belong* to you!” She still readily accepts his company on the walk to the train station, she’s a realist. I particularly loved Alexis Bledel’s steely Ofglen. The budding friendship between Ofglen and Offred was funny and lovely. And even though they knew trusting was dangerous, they risked it to connect. Tiny moments, like when Offred says, “I know Ofglen will be proud of me,” in her VO you just want to reach into the screen and hug her. If you never liked Bledel’s acting in Gilmore Girls, give her a chance to show you her acting chops here. She’ll crush your heart.
Flashback sequences show a world that looks stunningly like our own. Our college days and friends, building a family, fearing for your little part in the world. Changes coming, fear, protests…violence. Can you see it? It’s just there, just past your fingertips. The grocery store looks like our grocery stores. The streets are recognizable as modern America. How could this happen? Could this happen?
In one particularly striking flashback scene (this is a mild *spoiler,* if you’re worried about that sort of thing, skip to the next paragraph), our main character and her friend Moira jog into a coffee shop on what looks like an average Saturday morning ritual. But their favorite barista is gone, and her replacement is a baby-faced fellow with dead eyes. Their inquiries after their friendly neighborhood coffee slinger result in rude comebacks and sneers, which is pretty terrible customer service. But when their debit card is declined he goes full asshat, calling them “fucking sluts” and refusing to try the card again. This is a phenomenon we see more of today, when horrible people are in positions of power, people feel free to let their very worst impulses show. It’s a familiar yet disturbing sequence, like a YouTube comments section come to life.
“Fiction is an empathy machine, when done right. It’s allowing people to look out through other eyes,” Neil Gaiman said recently to Wired about the very timely show based on his book, American Gods. He was speaking about the immigrant experience, but I think this applies to the Handmaid’s Tale as well. Perhaps this can help critics of modern feminism better understand the world that we’d all surely rather avoid.
The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of a white American woman who was living a decidedly middle class lifestyle on the east coast. She’s in a biracial family, her husband is black. Her best friend is a black, gay woman. She probably feels very much like she’s on the right side of history, and she is, but she’s also naive. Her failure to see the signs of what was happening around her initially is a mirror for some white feminism today. Women of color and different gender identity have always faced violence and bigotry that we will never fully understand, even if we understand that these things are horrible. We don’t live under that constant stressor. When one Handmaid gives birth, the wife she is surrogate for mimics her contractions and pain, and then accepts the fruits of the labor with all the congratulations that go with it. That’s a solid metaphor for the worst of “white feminism.” But the point isn’t to feel guilty or angry at that idea, the point is to get with it, to share the burden, acknowledge shortcomings, and give credit where credit is due. This show says, “Welcome to the resistance. What took you so long?”
“I am awake now. I was asleep before.” TOO REAL, SHOW!!! TOO REAL!