Hulu’s recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t have hit our screens at a better time. Just as American politicians are “debating” all kinds of controversial healthcare policies (especially women’s reproductive health), we’re treated to a retelling of Atwood’s feminist dystopian classic. Atwood paints a world in which America is overtaken by a radical right-wing fundamentalist Christian sect, forcing women into subservient roles determined by their fertility. It’s the autobiographical story of June, aka Offred, one woman trying to survive life under the new regime. One of the best things about the Hulu adaptation is its determination to bring complexity to a variety of themes in the story. It’d be easy to write off The Handmaid’s Tale as a religious horror story, but it’s so much more than that.
Spoilers for the first three episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Atwood’s novel, plus trigger warnings for mentions of sexual slavery and forced pregnancy below.
Let me set the scene. In the not so distant future, the United States is overtaken by an extreme fundamentalist Christian coup, establishing a puritanical hell called The Republic of Gilead. Gilead rose to power largely in response to a fertility crisis. Women are forced into subservience based on their ability to model biblical caricatures of womanhood. Women cannot hold a job or a bank account. They’re not allowed to participate in public life or even walk alone in public. Women cannot read or write, or admit that they can. Women are only allowed to function as wives, mothers, or servants; otherwise, they’re forced to live as “Unwomen”, cleaning up radioactive waste in the colonies or prostituting themselves at secret clubs for elite men.
Gilead’s gender dynamics are founded on Complementarianism, an ideology popular with many conservative or traditional Christian groups. The basic idea is that men and women are separate but equal. Each possesses a unique set of traits that, when they work together, make for a flourishing society. The biggest problem with this ideology is that it forces most people into restrictive societal roles, and harshly punishes those who dare to defy or even question them. Men are supposedly natural leaders and heads of all elements of public life, because they are strong and logical. Women help men by running the day-to-day operations of a household, albeit with their husbands’ consent. Although the system restricts both genders (no room for anything beyond a rigid gender binary), men are much more free to pursue a wide variety of goals, and wield almost all the power. Women are defined by how well they function in wifely and maternal roles. In Gilead, the best thing a woman can be is a fertile wife, pure and demure. Women become virtually no different from objects, pets, and children.
Gilead uses Christian imagery to enforce women’s roles. Wives, the highest class of women, wear blue (like the Virgin Mary). Prostitutes are called Jezebels, named for the Old Testament heathen queen who took on connotations of promiscuity in Christianity. Infertile, compliant women are forced into servitude as Marthas, named for an industrious and busy friend of Jesus Christ, who became a Christian archetype of the dutiful woman running a household. Wives who have trouble getting pregnant enlist the help of a Handmaid, a fertile woman forced into sexual slavery to be a surrogate for the Wife and her husband. Handmaids are justified by Gilead through the Old Testament story of Rachel and Bilhah. Jacob, an important patriarch, has two wives, Rachel and Leah, who are sisters. Rachel is jealous of Leah’s children with Jacob, so she tells Jacob to have sex with her own handmaid, Bilhah. Bilhah eventually gives birth to two sons, whom Rachel claims as her own. Gilead ignores the rest of the story, in which Leah, jealous of Rachel, does the same with her servant Zilpah. Eventually Rachel does get pregnant by Jacob, as does Leah again. Our protagonist June, called Offred (literally, “Of Fred”, the head of the household she must serve), is a Handmaid.
Christianity is clearly a powerful weapon in the hands of Gilead; if you can convince everyone else that the Divine is on your side, it might be the most effective way to maintain your status quo. However, religion isn’t the enemy in The Handmaid’s Tale: it’s people who abuse their power to oppress others. The Hulu series expands the original novel in both subtle and dynamic ways. In the novel, most people are white (people of color are shipped off to reservations in the Midwest), but the show cast Samira Wiley as June’s friend Moira and O-T Fagbendle as June’s husband from her former life, making June’s lost daughter biracial. Ofglen, June’s companion, is a lesbian and the show gives her her own (tragic) storyline. These changes make the original story’s feminism much more intersectional.
However, it’s not perfect. All the characters of color have subservient roles in the story; while it’s possible there are Wives who are people of color, we don’t see them, though we see them as Handmaids and Marthas. In the novel, Moira never escapes Gilead and ends up a Jezebel. In the show, Ofglen is taken away by the authorities, her partner, a sterile Martha, is sentenced to death, and after witnessing her partner’s execution Ofglen is “circumcised” and sent back to her Handmaid fertility duties. Both characters thoroughly land in the “bury your gays” trope, and all the while the people in power justify their horrific actions against queer women, calling them “gender traitors” because they don’t fit the rigid requirements for females foisted upon women by Gilead’s version of Complementarity.
Interestingly, in the show we don’t hear the oppressors make use of racial language, although this certainly was (and in some places, still is) a historical reality for some Christian communities, across denominational lines. In the novel, people of color are called Children of Ham. In Genesis, Ham, one of Noah’s sons (yes, the one with the Ark in the flood), has a son named Canaan. Canaan and all his descendants are cursed because his father Ham mocks a naked and drunken Noah. Because Ham shames his father, Ham’s son is cursed to be the servant to the rest of his family. This story has been used to justify the subjugation of the Canaanites by the Israelites. In some sects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, dark skin is associated with the curse, and thus used to justify slavery, particularly the African slave trade. What counts as a throwaway line in the novel actually paints a picture about Gilead’s attitude towards race, an attitude that is largely missing from the Hulu show. Moira’s courage is June’s primary motivating force behind her steadfast spirit, so while she’s as much a slave as June is, Moira clearly possesses the strongest spirit to survive. Still, we should have seen more people of color in positions of authority if the showrunners actually wanted to avoid connotations of racism.
While we don’t see any characters practicing any non-Gilead-approved religion, we see a priest and a rabbi hanged for their opposition, next to a corpse with a pink triangle. In the novel, fertile nuns who refuse to violate their vows of celibacy are executed. In the show, June and Ofglen lament the destruction of the historic St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York as well as the crumbling facade of their old neighborhood gothic church. Neither woman is portrayed as particularly religious, but both seem to mourn the loss of beauty and authentic spirituality tied to those places.
Despite Gilead’s societal norms, June is clearly versed in enough scripture to know when it’s being abused. In one scene, June is questioned by the not-so-secret police, tasered into compliance and chided with the words “Remember your scripture, child, blessed are the meek”. It’s a reference to Matthew 5:5, conveniently leaving out “…for they will inherit the earth”. It’s a section of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus climbs up a mountain so he can speak to crowds of thousands. He sits down, the posture of a teacher, and begins explaining the meaning of the law of God. Jesus begins with a poem-like passage called the Beatitudes, outlining attitudes that will be rewarded by God. Most biblical scholars believe Matthew was writing to a predominantly Jewish community, attempting to show them how the teachings of Jesus were all they needed after they had been expelled from the greater community and no longer could worship at the Temple. Many argue that the Beatitudes are a direct, intentional parallel to the Ten Commandments. In both stories, the great teacher and prophet climbs a mountain to bring the law of God to the people. It’s an incredibly important passage in the New Testament and makes up part of the core of Jesus’s teachings.
June, who remembers her scripture better than her oppressors, defiantly spits back the final line of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). June is punished for her words, and when she fails to get pregnant (Gilead doesn’t believe in male sterility, of course), she’s confined by the Wife of the household to her room. Yet despite her slavery, June’s spirit is never broken for long. June isn’t a particularly religious character, but there’s enough (subtle) religious elements to justify a more nuanced overall view of religion. In many ways, The Handmaid’s Tale is a religious horror story, but the boogeyman isn’t religion, it’s people. The Hulu series covers most of the events of the novel within the first four episodes (out of a planned ten). It’s clear the producers plan on expanding the story even further. I hope they continue to show us the as-yet-untold backstories of more of the characters, and continue to explore the show’s feminist themes in a nuanced way.
The danger with a story like The Handmaid’s Tale is not that it’s a controversial (and challenged) book, but that viewers (and readers) would try to fit it neatly into their own ideas about the world. What I find most powerful about the story isn’t how it might serve as a warning for what we might become; I don’t really think the United States is turning into Gilead anytime soon. But rather, it forces me to consider who is among the voiceless and oppressed today, and in what ways have I been complicit in their oppression? What ways can I, as an American, reach out to those who actually do suffer greatly under oppressive regimes, some worse than Gilead? Gay men are currently the victims of torture in Chechnya, and women face all kinds of oppression in Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, the novel is Atwood’s response to witnessing the rise of Islamic extremism in Iran. And in the U.S. every day, women and men are trafficked into the sex trade in our own communities without Gilead’s help. Religion works well when it empowers the oppressed and demands that the powerful use their authority to help the oppressed and marginalized. As a form of rhetoric, it’s exceptionally powerful. People are the problem; we’ll use any excuse to discriminate, and religion is only one of many. We have to be especially careful to guard against its misuse.