The Handmaid’s Tale Evokes a Longing for Peace and Justice
I love Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, so I was thrilled to hear that Hulu was adapting it as a 10-episode series. The story has plenty of fodder for an engaging drama: a relatable and likable protagonist, a fully imagined world peopled with a diverse cast of characters, exaggerated yet believable hostilities, and a deep commitment to effecting justice. In this story are dangers viewers will understand and hopes they can root for.
The book’s trappings are dystopian, chillingly so, and with a distinctly feminist flair. A rabidly patriarchal, theocratic authoritarian regime has taken control of the United States (now called the Republic of Gilead). Women have lost all freedom and are relegated to a handful of domestic roles marked by strict dress codes. For example, the titular handmaids wear striking red gowns made more shocking by the stark contrast of their white oversized bonnets.
Because of their fertility in an era marked by barrenness, handmaids are enslaved to serve as surrogate birth mothers for wealthy families. Rape is not only sanctioned in Gilead; it is institutionalized, with a ceremony involving the so-called commander, his wife, and the handmaid.
Despite the oppressive world depicted in the novel’s pages, readers can easily connect with its protagonist, a handmaid named Offred (literally “of Fred,” the name of her commander). Her plight epitomizes the human condition as she wrestles with injustice, strives for survival, seeks peace and community in a world fraught with evil, and asserts her unique personality even as societal strictures and structures stifle her freedom. Add Atwood’s lush poetic prose to this well-drawn portrait of Offred, and The Handmaid’s Tale is often poignant and heartbreaking in its beauty. I was anxious to see what creative visual depiction it would inspire.To many, the world of The Handmaid’s Tale looks eerily similar to our contemporary moment.
As I waited for the initial three episodes to air on April 26 (with one episode a week after that), promising promos stoked my excitement for the series. Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss would play Offred, Reed Morano would direct, and publicity photos hit the web. Atwood’s story really was taking visual shape, and I was intrigued to see it play out.
But the publicity took a bizarre turn in March when Hulu hired actresses to roam ominously around the South by Southwest film festival in full handmaid attire. In a case of life imitating art, another group — unsanctioned by Hulu — turned up to protest an abortion-related vote in the Texas legislature. As the premiere date drew nearer, it dawned on me that expectations were running quite high. Although the show was in production well before November, Donald Trump’s election had imbued the atmosphere surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale with an urgency that surprised me.
Noting that the series “border[s] on being too relevant,” Dominic Patten tells his readers that “it is not to be missed.” Hank Stuever claims that Hulu’s series is not simply timely but is “essential viewing” for our fractured society. Although the book was written over thirty years ago, many — such as Jen Chaney — underscore resonances between Hulu’s depiction of Gilead and our current political moment: “‘There would be no mercies for a member of the Resistance,’ says Offred…. You hear her say this, and you know she’s talking about a resistance completely different from the grassroots movement against the Trump administration. You shudder anyway.”
In a passionate, especially personal review, Emily Temple expresses the fear she felt before watching the show that it wouldn’t be any good. Then she confesses a bigger fear: that it wouldn’t be good enough. But good enough for what? The rest of Temple’s review offers some insight, pointing to entrenched patriarchal patterns in American culture that need disruption: “We need to start with our children. Or else we’ll all be sobbing in our bedrooms, and much harder than I did, and for much longer, and not because of what we’re watching on television.”
If the series’ reviews and promotional material are to be believed, the needed disruption starts by facing who we are in the cultural mirror provided by The Handmaid’s Tale. So suggests Atwood herself in an op-ed for the New York Times: “If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”
The hyperbole that runs through Hulu’s promotional material bespeaks a passionate concern for our country’s political, cultural, and spiritual challenges. Those viewing The Handmaid’s Tale as a contemporary allegory cite various pieces of evidence: Trump’s authoritarian tendencies; the growing nationalistic and isolationist impulse he rode to victory; his overt attacks on institutions important to a thriving democracy (e.g., the press and the courts); and the resurgence of the religious right who look to Trump to promote a conservative cultural agenda, complete with pro-life and religious liberty planks that some consider retrograde and discriminatory.
For many, the world in The Handmaid’s Tale looks eerily similar to our contemporary moment. And the paranoia that fills the frames of Hulu’s series captures that feeling well. Opening with a frantic car chase and the brutal arrest of Offred and her young daughter, the show is unflinching in its depiction of the abuse of power, perversion of religious belief, and disintegration of community.
Setting aside its apparent political agenda, the series offers a vivid, memorable glimpse into the depravity of mankind — how cruel, how prideful, how self-serving, and how apathetic we can be and often are. Janine (later Ofwarren) suffers a nervous breakdown after being condemned as responsible for a sexual assault she endured; the rebellious Moira is reduced to a compliant automaton by physical and emotional coercion; and hanging bodies of those executed for resistance line the city walls, warning all against rebellion.
Still, the series — like its textual predecessor — insists on human uniqueness, creativity, and dignity. In Offred’s actions, viewers see the human spirit striving against overwhelming odds, as she occasionally breaks protocol with a friendly word or smile. Offred risks friendship with Ofglen when callousness would be the safer course. She even seems tender toward Serena Joy, her commander’s wife. This indomitable assertion of the human spirit amid rigid oppression is beautifully reflected by Offred’s behavior during Ofwarren’s childbirth. The other handmaids chant a prescribed mantra while encircling Ofwarren, but Offred cuts through the crowd and stays at Ofwarren’s side. She alone speaks words of comfort, telling her, among other things, that she’s “doing great.”
In moments like these, it’s easy to believe the series might match its boosters’ expectations. Perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale will wake us up to our inhumanity and force us to acknowledge the destructive path we seem to be set on. Perhaps in these scenes we’ll recognize the humanity of the other, our contribution to their degradation, and our need to reverse course.
Or perhaps not.
Sweet moments are not the rule for the series. And typically they’re initiated by and reserved for handmaids, the victims of the oppressive state, and never for the functionaries of the state itself. Serena Joy and Commander Waterson are somewhat fleshed out, but their attempts at human interaction are awkwardly portrayed (and even rendered grotesque in the ceremony scenes). The series may recognize both mankind’s depravity and dignity, but it has yet to show those qualities much mingled in a single character — a feat its source material pulls off masterfully in figures like Offred’s mother.
Such one-dimensionality might work in the series’ imaginary world. However, when read as political allegory, as so many reviewers insist, it becomes more problematic, perhaps even a cautionary tale in itself. What Jonathan Swift says of satire seems applicable here: The Handmaid’s Tale “is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
For all its promotional moralizing, there is no “us” in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (at least not in the episodes so far released). Instead, its world is one where enlightened progressives have been beaten down by fundamentalist zealots, idealistic passivity their fatal flaw. Offred’s reflection in episode three captures this conviction: “Now I’m awake to the world,” she says. “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen… Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” And, lest there be any doubt, traditionalists are the ones turning up the heat.
It’s tempting for viewers to fixate on this divide, for liberals to identify with the hapless handmaids and conservatives to resent their representation as heartless oppressors. My hope is that the threads of compassion woven throughout the currently available episodes will deescalate the political rhetoric swirling around the series. I hope, too, these grace notes will sound again in future episodes and even increase.
But attending to and honoring the humanity of the other, especially while acknowledging one’s own weaknesses and guilt — this goes against our inward bent, our self-regard. What we must do, we cannot do on our own. What we long for is unavailable through spectacle or the marketplace. The Handmaid’s Tale points us toward the need for hope; it tells us such an abusive world absolutely cannot stand. But as Offred’s enthusiastic participation in the execution of an accused rapist shows, the demand for justice left untempered by love turns to brutality. An honest look in the proverbial mirror shows that we — all of us, without exception — are both handmaid and commander, victim and perpetrator.
Hope for perfect redemption lies outside the contaminated heart of man. Justice comes only through the slow work of grace; only through daily surrender to Christ will peace abide. Any other promise is Pollyannaish and mere siren song, enticing us with possibility but leading us to destruction.
Evil is real, and more hideous than we can put into words; Christianity is rigorously honest about this world’s darkness. Such darkness, though, is not confined to those of particular political persuasions or select portions of the ideological spectrum. It’s ubiquitous, infiltrating each of our hearts. Christianity offers a far bleaker diagnosis of our fallenness and corruption, and is an equal opportunist in its condemnation. At the same time, however, because of God’s amazing grace, it offers a far brighter prognosis if we but acknowledge our radical sin, our bent to self, and through repentance plead for God’s mercy — to be forgiven, healed, and transformed.
This is a communal process, something God works into us as the church practices repentance and forgiveness together, as Tish Harrison Warren explains in Liturgy of the Ordinary:
We are quarreling people, but God is reforming us to be people who, through our ordinary moments, establish his kingdom of peace. Believing this is an act of faith. It takes faith to believe that our little frail faithfulness can produce fruit…. And it takes faith to believe that God is making us into people — slowly, through repentance — who are capable of saying to the world through our lives, “Peace of Christ to you.”
Imperfect human beings can never truly envision or enact the perfect mechanism for redemption; we’re too flawed ourselves, too limited in our understanding and our power, too prideful, too self-concerned. Is that not the truth of Gilead? And doesn’t that also reveal the beauty of our God? It’s the glorious “Peace of Christ” that we need. He acts on our behalf at great cost to himself to effect the only peace available — restoring us to himself and then, and only then, with one another.