by Sophie Steinberg
The show opens with a couple speeding away from the authorities, with their daughter in tow. The car crashes along the side of the road, leaving the family with no choice but to run into the surrounding forrest. Questions immediately fill the viewer’s head– where are they going? Why?
Based on the 1985 book, by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, on Hulu, has just finished up its second season of exploring a totalitarian government in the former United States, in which successful childbirth and pregnancy are becoming rare. To solve this crisis, the government rounds up all the remaining fertile women and assigns them to the homes of powerful men, where they will be ritually raped until they become pregnant, they’re known as “handmaids.” The show follows one woman, Offred, as she navigates the new state of her world and her life as a Handmaiden, with a supporting cast of strong female leads. At first glance, it’s the representation women need on TV: a strong group fighting to be considered equal and human in hopes of a better world, but the story itself has other goals. The show aims to analyze the patriarchy through the lens of an extreme political government where women cannot even read, and a group of white men hold nearly all the power– sound familiar?
Originally, the shows eerily recognizable atmosphere made me scared to watch it. I was aware of its collective Emmy buzz, and the demonstrations it had inspired, such as the recent protest at the Kavanaugh hearings in which women dressed up as handmaids, but something steered me away from diving into their fictional world. Was it too real? I had no desire to be further depressed by a dystopian story, when my news cycle was growing scarier and scarier. I didn’t want another reminder of the control men like Kavanaugh had over my body when hearings for a Supreme Court nominee who has been accused of sexual assault were in full swing.
The show has been deemed “alternatively frustrating and thrilling” by a critic at The AV Club, as the story captivates its viewers while simultaneously leaving them in a stupor of fear, a sensation I wanted to avoid. The New York Times says the show’s dystopian society “controls women by elevating them, fetishizing motherhood, praising femininity, but defining it in terms of service to men and children.” My previous basic understanding of the Handmaid’s position as sex slaves to powerful men, scared the hell out of me. How could I watch women being degraded for pleasure, while many survivors coming forward were experiencing it daily?
But last month, during the 70th annual Emmy awards, I watched every category become dominated by the cast and the crew of The Handmaid’s Tale. As I saw the nomination videos for “Best Supporting Actress in a Drama,” Alexis Bledel’s reel took me by surprise. Her character, Ofglen, was wearing “normal clothes” in the clip, not a handmaid’s iconic red cloak and white bonnet. Why? What else did the show explore? I became dumbfounded, and quickly developed small spurs of FOMO. The magnitude of the show’s impact, even at a revered Hollywood event, began to sink in as I became mad at myself for avoiding it.
That night, around 11:30pm, I logged into Hulu and began to watch. I was surprised to find myself relating to the show as its story of female perseverance became a personal inspiration. The structure of Atwood’s world felt as real as it did fake as I came to love each character and the way they were portrayed. Instead of hiding from the show’s alternate reality, I ran towards it, at full speed.
I believe the show portrays the potential future of our current political climate. Atwood once referred to her work as “speculative fiction” meaning that one day, there could be policy that forces women to give their bodies and children to their oppressors. Given the public rise and promotion of men who have been accused, and are most likely guilty, of sexual assault, I would not be surprised if the rape of designated women became the norm. The show is a tale of warning, of what things could be like in 30 years if we don’t change the way our society views sex and women. As the show makes a conscious effort to create deep portraits and characterizations of its female protagonists, I realize that those traits should be naturally woven into any story or television, regardless of the message.
Offred’s incredible journey is one of survival and grit, as she struggles to have basic equal rights at the hands of predatory men, something women fighting to be heard understand. There’s a reason the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport blew up on Twitter, and there’s a reason for the Walkout that took place on September 24th, which expressed support for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, one of Kavanaugh’s accusers: women and men need a place to share their stories of assault, and The Handmaid’s Tale takes it upon itself to shove them right in your face. In a world where people like Judge Kavanaugh can be appointed as one of the most powerful positions in the country, The Handmaid’s Tale is a must-watch, not necessarily for its quality or its awards, but for yourself. Wake up.