It Can Happen Here #4: The Handmaid’s Tale

There is a poignant scene in the last episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where a young girl asks, after escaping to Canada, “Is this where we can wear whatever we want?” As a naturist, this scene had a particularly powerful impact on me. What people are or are not allowed to wear cuts at the heart of this story, serving as a metaphor for freedom and oppression. After all, The Handmaid’s Tale could easily have been ripped from a newspaper, when you compare it to the way in which women are treated in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan. No matter where we look throughout Earth’s history, the same relationship between clothing and oppression can be seen. Contrary to what conservatives contend, clothing does not protect a person’s dignity, but more often divides people into levels of power and subservience. Wherever women are limited in their choice of attire, their freedoms are curbed, and where women are free to wear less, or go entirely naked even, they enjoy higher levels of education, better pay, and full rights to their reproductive organs.

The difference between the real world and Margaret Atwood’s novel, however, is that The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a future dystopian America named Gilead, wherein clothing takes on symbolic significance, as wives are required to wear blue, marthas (basically house slaves) wear brown, and the titular handmaids (sex slaves) are forced into red. All of these outfits are, for lack of a better word, conservative in what they conceal. Handmaids also cannot leave the home without wearing their “wings,” a kind of headdress that hides the face, similar in function to the burqa. The only time in the show, or book, where women are free to go about in skimpy clothing is at a secret men’s club, Jezebel’s, which is reserved for attractive young girls who are either lesbian or unable to reproduce. Just like in the real world, nakedness, or expressions of sexuality, is strictly reserved for male entertainment.

At some point as I was reading the novel, I noted the irony that was the bookmark I was using, which depicts Thelana, my fully nude female heroine hanging from high up in her intrepid pose, overlooking the streets of Hedonia. Nothing, I realized, could be more antithetical to The Handmaid’s Tale, because Atwood’s novel isn’t just about clothing (far from it), but about empowerment, who has it and who doesn’t. This power comes in many different forms, but it begins and ends with who is allowed to read. Yes, you read that correctly—only the men are allowed to read, which puts Gilead a few shades worse than the harshest of Islamic regimes. It was fun imagining a Thelana-type character, running around cutting a bloody swath through all those commander-husbands, but nothing of the sort can happen in The Handmaid’s Tale, because like any good dystopian tragedy, the protagonist, “June” Offred, is utterly powerless to do so. Like The Scarlet Letter’s Hester Prynne, an entire society has been built up to control Offred, and powerlessness is what The Handmaid’s Tale is all about.

When it comes to the erosion of women’s rights, and the vitriol directed at this most-historically oppressed majority by a vocal incel minority, a story like this matters more than ever. My brother, a big Trump supporter, loves the show, but is oblivious to the parallels between Gilead, and Alabama, where a law recently passed that would imprison a woman for life for having an abortion, with other states eager to follow suit. The Alabama law, not coincidentally, was motivated by religious zealotry, in the same way the characters of Gilead are driven by passages from the Old Testament. Despite these stories going over some people’s heads, dystopias matter because of the lessons they have to teach us, because, and I cannot stress this enough: there is nothing scarier than a fascistic, totalitarian state. Monsters you can fight. Bad guys you can fight. But in a totalitarian state, the very ideas of fighting, and freedom, as Orwell so rightly warned us in 1984, are robbed from us.

That being said, in rare fashion I found Hulu’s take on the material more impactful than Atwood’s novel, although this may be due to having watched the show first. The problem, I think, is that the author works so hard to demonstrate Offred’s powerlessness, we end up with a heroine who has very little agency, who rarely makes choices, but accepts the choices made for her. I understand the rationale for this style of storytelling, but even in 1984, Orwell opens his novel with Winston writing in his notebook, “I hate Big Brother,” which makes it all the more heart-wrenching when he (spoiler alert!) ultimately surrenders his will to the state, and sincerely admits to loving Big Brother. This isn’t to say I would have preferred a Rambo version of Offred. Far from it. Even in the show, her rebellious nature is only hinted at, growing steadily over the course of three seasons, which culminates in a cathartic final episode. 

Atwood gave the show her blessing, making a cameo in the first episode, so one has to wonder whether, if she were to have written two more sequels (a spinoff, The Testaments, is currently on shelves) she might have had Offred going down the same rebellious road. One thing I have to point out, is the author’s very clever word-play, in naming her character “Offred,” which, in the story, is derived from Fred, the name of her rapist-commander. All handmaids are named after their commanders, but I don’t think Atwood picked “Offred” at random. Since all handmaid’s are legally required to wear red clothing, the heroine’s name here is symbolic, as it can either be read as “Of Fred” or “Off Red,” suggesting, to me at least, a future where the “red” comes “off.”

Brilliant, Margaret. Just brilliant.       

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