Familiar nightmares: The harrowing world of the handmaid's tale

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The 2017 television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been widely acknowledged as a success. The first ever program produced by a streaming service to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series,i it features high-quality production values and an impressive ensemble of actors. The viewer’s experience of The Handmaid’s Tale is largely channelled through likeable chief protagonist Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, whose fragmented thoughts and memories gradually unveil a nightmare world where the United States’ once-liberal democracy has been overthrown by a punitive theocratic regime. Through Offred’s perspective, we access a deeply regimented sphere in which puritanical religious beliefs are enforceable through armed guards and a secret police force called the Eyes.

As The Handmaid’s Tale unravels over ten episodes, viewers are increasingly confronted with the many injustices perpetrated by the new Republic of Gilead, including women’s biological slavery. The function of the ‘Handmaid’ is to reproduce children for the regime, thus guaranteeing its future. She is a childbearing vessel valued only for her uterus. To describe this new world order as sexist would be an understatement, but it would nevertheless be simplistic to assume that it is simply a tale of men oppressing women. Here, to an extent, women participate in their own subjugation. This is highlighted in scenes in which older women identified as ‘Aunts’ aggressively indoctrinate young fertile women. We also come to learn that the highest-ranking ‘Wife’ in the republic, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), was instrumental in the development of Gilead’s constitution.

While the exploitation of women by both men and women in the series is utterly devastating, it nonetheless delivers riveting drama. Yet, beyond such drama, The Handmaid’s Tale provides a timely cautionary message concerning the dangers of pernicious real-world regimes rising from the ashes of failed democracies. It also encourages one to reflect upon advancements made in the area of human rights, and upon how easy it would be for a puritanical theocracy to repeal our many freedoms, especially women’s bodily autonomy.
Original languageEnglish
Article number89
Pages (from-to)36
Number of pages43
JournalScreen Education
Issue number89
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018


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