Sophie Wilkinson | Contributing Editor | Tuesday, 23 May 2017

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The Handmaid's Tale: Your Need-To-Know

The Debrief: Margaret Attwood's classic book, The Handmaid's Tale, is being transformed into a new series on Channel 4, and we have everything you need to know

The Handmaid’s Tale is a new show coming to Channel 4, starring Mad Men and Top of the Lake star Elisabeth Moss as well as Alexis Bledel (from Gilmore Girls!)  and Joseph Fiennes (from Shakespeare in Love).

The TV series is an adaptation from a best-selling feminist book, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 book of the same name, and just in case you didn’t study the text at school, college or uni, here’s everything you need to know about it.

Beware, this includes spoilers for the book!  

What’s The Handmaid’s Tale About?

The Handmaid’s Tale is told from the perspective of Offred, a young woman whose sole job it is to breed with her boss/captor, The Commander. She lives in Gilead, a totalitarian state that sits where America is. Her name is Offred because she is ‘of’ Fred - that’s the first name of her commander. Every handmaid has a commander. Lucky handmaids, eh?

Who are the Handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale?

Not so lucky handmaids. Because they’re the women who are able to breed and are so given to couples who are unable to breed. Every month, at the right (or wrong, if you’re the poor handmaid) point in her cycle, she must have functional sex with the commander while the commander’s wife holds her hands. Like all women in Gilead, a handmaid isn’t allowed to read or write, but, unlike other women, they are always watched by a secret police whenever they leave the house, and even when in the house, they’re not allowed to have their bedroom door shut at any time. 

Is The Handmaid’s Tale based in the past?

No. Though it all seems pretty backwards, the book was set in a near-futuristic dystopia, where the writer imagined what would happen if a religious conservative far-right rose to power and made everyone go backwards.

What’s so scary about The Handmaid’s Tale being set near to the 1990s is the idea is that all of this retrograde, gross stuff could happen in spite of people being aware of what the world was like previously - people in charge took a look at progress and decided it wasn’t for them! 

Has The Handmaid’s Tale ever come true?

If you mean has there ever been an undoing of progress when it comes to women's rights, then sure. One prime example is from 1996-2001, when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and turned it into an Islamic state. Women, who’d been given the vote in 1919 - just one year after women in the UK! - had previously gone to universities, worn miniskirts and had jobs. But now, they were banned from working, attending school or universities, leaving the house without a male chaperone, showing their skin in public or visiting a male health professional (considering women weren’t allowed to work, this meant women were stripped of access to proper healthcare). Punishments were harsh, including having thumbs cut off for wearing nail polish, or being flogged for showing skin.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale feminist?

100% yes. But our protagonist, Offred, perhaps isn’t a heroic feminist, more a woman simply dealing with what she’s been forced into doing because she doesn’t have a lot of faith she can escape it. There is nothing kickass about her beyond her survival. She’s friends with a member of the resistance, Oflgen, but never joins her in the fight. It’s a common theory that Offred took for granted the fights for equality that women around her made, and didn’t necessarily continue the fight in good time. Rather than a cautionary tale, The Handmaid’s Tale is an exploration of the logical conclusion of what happens when people rest on their laurels and think the job’s done when it comes to the fight for equality. The message? The fight isn’t over. 

Why is The Handmaid’s Tale relevant now?

The series was commissioned long before Donald Trump was reaching the presidency, and there was already a film adaptation featuring Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson in 1990. But let’s go back to when the book was written. In the mid-80s, Margaret Thatcher was the UK’s prime minister and Ronald Reagan had just been elected US president. Both were socially conservative and sold to voters the idea of going back to the good old days of traditional values following a time of relative cultural freedoms. 

Looking around now and you can see there are attempts from the populist right wing - hello Mr Trump, can you hear us under your ear-hair? We mean you - to return to the good old days. As soon as Trump was elected, he decided to sign executive orders making it instantly impossible for millions of women around the world to be able to get safe abortions and he’s previously promised to ‘punish’ women for having abortions. 

Is The Handmaid’s Tale really a predictor of Trump?

Margaret Atwood seems to think so! In a 2017 essay for the New York Times, she explains that her aim with The Handmaid’s Tale was to describe the dystopia to show how awful it is and warn people off from trying to create it: 'If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.'

She goes on to write: ‘In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries.' 

‘In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere - many, I would guess - are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later if they can.’ 

So maybe there are more Offreds in the offing…?

Is The Handmaid’s Tale just about feminism?

Firstly, so what if it is? Secondly, no - it’s about environmental problems, too. The whole reason that many women are infertile, leading to the powers that be convincing themselves that forced reproduction with handmaids is the answer, is because of a chemical spill. Margaret Atwood’s book is as much about the impacts that bad environments can have on socio-political issues. There’s a scientific theory that the whole Syrian conflict going on right now was, in part, sparked by global warming and the unrest caused by years of drought causing farmers flooding into capital cities and the conflicts that that internal immigration instigated.

Why did it take so long for the UK to get to see The Handmaid’s Tale?

The series was created by Hulu, which is a US-only streaming provider. Seemingly unwilling to give their product to Netflix or Amazon Prime (it’d be like ITV lending The X Factor to the BBC), it took a while for them to get it out there; lucky for anyone who can’t be bothered subscribing to 20 million different streaming services to watch one series per service, The Handmaid’s Tale will be on Channel 4! 

Will there be a second series of The Handmaid’s Tale?

Apparently so! Even though the TV series ends when the book ends, Margaret Atwood has tweeted that she’ll be involved with the extended series. It’s hard to tell where the story will go after 30 years, but here’s hoping it teaches us all something new and important about bearing witness to horrible events. Hopefully, before they get horrible! 

Image courtesy of Hulu

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Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson 

Tags: books, Feminism, TV