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Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale: A dystopian reading of women's realities

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One of Margaret Atwood's seminal works, The Handmaid's Tale, has been adapted into a TV series by the American network Hulu. This is the second adaptation of the novel as it was once made into a movie in 1990 starring the late Natasha Richardson. Margaret Atwood is a famed Canadian author whose oeuvre of work includes feminist narratives and speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Edible Woman, was first published in 1969 and is an interesting work that depicts eating disorders and the impact of patriarchal modes of thought upon women.

The Handmaid's Tale was first published in 1985 and it tells the tale of Offred, a handmaid, in a dystopian version of American, which have succumbed to Christian Fundamentalism. Offred is called so as she is supposed to be the possession of Fred. Her real name is June. The narrative entails June's resistance at being treated as only a reproductive vehicle for Commander Fred and his wife Serena Joy. It is a testament to women's strength even at the brink of such depraved extremism and torture.

The novel revolves around an America where fertility has been lessened due to venereal diseases and environmental issues. After a civil war the extremist nation of Gilead occupies what used to be the United States. It has been repeatedly hinted that the infertility was mostly a male problem and that the majority of women could still reproduce. Yet, extremism had cloaked this information and made "free thinking" women as the reason for the cause of infertility.

The newly established patriarchy had stopped women from working. They have a new hegemonic system where there are Wives, Marthas, Aunts and Handmaids. Wives are the spouses of the ruling class men, though they cannot bear children. They usually wear blue colors.

The information pertaining to them is vague as they may not necessarily be infertile; however, female infertility is stressed upon in Gilead. Marthas are usually older, infertile women or any women skeptical of having fertility issues and as treated as domestic labour. They wear green uniforms. Aunts are the enforcers of women and wear brown. They mentally and physically torture women so that they will accept their new misogynistic roles. They are usually older women and the author Atwood herself made a cameo as an Aunt in the TV series.

Handmaidens are the fertile women; they wear red to signify their position as child bearers. They are treated as possessions of men of the Elite and must perform a very humiliating ritual monthly to ensure that there are more children.

The children of Handmaids legally belong to the Wives and Commanders and the Handmaids do not have rights over them. In the original novel, it was hinted that June's husband was secretly working to erect the nation of Gilead thus had betrayed June and their daughter. In the new TV series, Luke, June's husband, was desperately attempting to flee Gilead with June and his daughter when they were discovered.

The TV series has fleshed out many of the ambiguous aspects of the novel. It deals with many more Commanders and has given more visual presence to the world of Gilead June is defiant and angry, she is skilled and intelligent. Unlike, the passive aggressive Serena Joy, we can hear June's thoughts and know that she pretends meekness and even acting as a hapless women only to get ahead and survive.

Serena Joy used to be a counter-feminist in the days of the United States stressing on the women's role in the household. Now, that her ideal has been realized, she is frustrated and anger and suspects her husband is having an affair with June. She is correct.

Commander Fred is a sterile man in every sense of the world. He is a weak opportunist, who seems to want any other woman than his wife because her seeming passiveness bores him. In the novel, he fashions the idea that giving June old fashion magazines, playing scrabble with her and being more physically intimate would win her affections.

In the series and movie, he attempts the same sorts of tricks only June cannot be won through trivial acts of frivolity. In the series, Fred is also crueler to detractors of the regime and seems to enjoy their punishments and torture. This level of sadism repulses June and makes him start to loathe him.

Fred's antithesis seems to be Nick, who in the novel worked as a resistance agent of the group called Mayday, but seemingly may also be an Eye. Eyes are the secret agents of Gilead to make sure that Commanders don't deviate from their duties. Having romantic relationships with Handmaids is a form of deviance as well. Nick is a lesser male citizen and is used primarily as a chauffeur. Ironically, usually it is these male citizens that are not infertile. Serena Joy at one point even suggests to June to have relations with Nick as she knows her own husband is barren.

June does have a relationship with Nick but for different purposes. She wants someone on her side and someone who understands the depravity and perversion of the roles Gilead has for women. Furthermore, June in the TV series is relentless to not give Gilead what they want of her. When a doctor suggests that she have relations with him so that she can conceive she refuses as well. She knows the fate of "infertile" Handmaids is that they are sent to radioactive colonies, where they work as labor and die eventually of radiation sickness. She is willing to risk that fate that merely be a reproductive vehicle to a misogynistic nation.

One may ask why is The Handmaid's Tale, relevant today? Have we not curtailed patriarchal traditions through the modern efforts of Feminism? That may only partially true. Sexism in the work place, dowry issues in South Asia, female infanticide and feticide across the world and sexual assault are still mainstream problems in the world today.

The world of Gilead is also very queerphobic and this is demonstrated by the lesbian characters, Moira and Emily. Emily is subjected to various forms of torture when she is found having a relationship with a Martha. Moira is sent to the underground brothel of Jezebels.

Even in such a strict seemingly Christian extremist nation, there are still brothels and men visit them. It should also be noted that Moira in the TV series is played by Black Actress, Samira Wiley, of  the famed Orange is the New Black series. This means Moira's subjugation is a double fold, which pertains back to race relations in the West alongside her lesbian identity. The Handmaid's Tale returns to Hulu on April 25th, 2018.


 The writer is working with The Asian Age.

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