The Handmaid’s Tale: A Story of Oppression for All Ages

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The Handmaid’s Tale: A Story of Oppression for All Ages

Illustration: Palak Bansal

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f great literature is believed to stand the test of time, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is an instant classic. Written in 1985 in Berlin, a story about women in no control over their bodies and minds, rings prescient in today’s time — especially in a year that began with Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” remark, meandered through multiple allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood, and ended with the worldwide movement #MeToo. And now, it has a bunch of Golden Globes, including the Best Drama, to drive home the point.

Easily among the very best things on television this year, the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future where fertility rates have collapsed due to environmental degradation and sexually transmitted diseases. Out of this chaos is born the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and theocratic state that has replaced the United States of America. Straight white men rule. All coloured people have been sent off to the “Colonies”. Women are restricted to the home in a nightmare version of Biblical purity.

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Offred – played by the brilliant Elizabeth Moss is a Handmaid, a role assigned to fertile women who bear children for elite couples in a creepy ceremony which is essentially state-sanctioned rape. Her freedom, like the freedom of all women, is completely restricted. She can leave the house only on shopping trips with another Handmaid, the door to her room cannot be completely closed, and the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police force, watch every public move.

Gilead’s reality is especially frightening because it is set, not in some obscure past, but in the very near future. The backstory is told through flashbacks, which work as breaths of fresh air before we are drowned again in the grim and dreary present. In the old world, Offred was a regular woman with a family and a job, the child of a feminist single mother; her best friend Moira was fiercely independent.

The Handmaid's Tale

Easily among the very best things on television this year, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a future where fertility rates have collapsed due to environmental degradation and sexually transmitted diseases.

Image credit: Hulu

As a father of two young girls growing up in today’s India, the lessons of The Handmaid’s Tale, of how close the links are between right-wing religious extremism and the violence and subjugation of women, seem like eerie foreshadowing of a clear and present danger. The first target of Gilead’s architects is women’s rights, and the outlawing of women from holding property or jobs.

Handmaids are instructed in the new belief system and their role as servile surrogate breeders at the Red Centre by a formidable nurse called Aunt Lydia, who tases and plucks out eyes for insubordination. “This might not seem ordinary right now, but after a time it will,” she says. “This will become ordinary.”

That is the true terror that lurks behind every beautiful frame of the show. That this could be the new normal. With the fear of freedoms, rights, and long established orders disappearing overnight, everywhere from the United States to the Middle East and India, normalisation is a word we are likely to hear again and again.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant translation of Atwood’s nightmare – and the author clearly approves.

When Atwood wrote her novel, the wall was still up. On the other side was the eastern bloc and the Soviet Union. And, famously, she didn’t put anything in the book that hadn’t happened, somewhere, at some time — the novel is as much history as dystopian science fiction. From the Caesars of ancient Rome to the power brokers of modern Hollywood, wealthy and powerful men have always operated under their own special set of rules.

Even more alarming is the uncanny accuracy with which Atwood predicted the erosion of women’s freedom. Even in the 21st century, religious dogma of the type witnessed in Gilead, is used as justification for continued female oppression even today. Think of the God-fearing protesters spotted outside abortion clinics that insist that a woman’s right to choice is an affront to God. Closer home, our sanskaar and the problematic notion of the ideal bhartiya naari give khap panchayats and politicians alike plenty of fodder for their ridiculous, patriarchal judgments.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant translation of Atwood’s nightmare – and the author clearly approves. Not only was she a consulting producer, but she’s in it, as a slapping aunt at the Red Centre. It makes for brilliant television. Resonant now, yes, but it will continue to be as we move on.

One can only hope that life doesn’t imitate art.

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