The Handmaid’s Tale and the Age-old Desire to Control Women’s Bodies

Pop Culture

The Handmaid’s Tale and the Age-old Desire to Control Women’s Bodies

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In the season two premiere episode of Hulu’s Emmy-winning The Handmaid’s Tale, titled “June”, the show’s creators convey an inescapable dispatch: It’s foolish to isolate the diabolical, gender-hierarchy-based politics of Gilead from our own world.

In the first flashback of the spine-chilling episode, June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Luke Bankole are a portrait of domestic bliss. They live in an America that is not yet sullied by the draconian laws of Gilead, where women are classified by the purpose their bodies can serve for the men who control the country. June still has her job at the publishing house and a bank account. Luke’s biggest worry is having someone pick him some AA batteries, and their eight-year-old daughter Hannah, not yet separated from her parents, just wants more waffles.

But there’s one disturbing detail to this normalcy, that foreshadows their bleak future. Before heading out for the day, June asks her husband to sign off on a form before she heads to the pharmacy. The request is matter-of-fact; the words aren’t explicitly spelled out, but it’s apparent from their behaviour that the elephant in the room is birth control.

As we soon learn, a husband’s signature on a release waiver approving his wife’s decision to take birth-control pills is mandated by law. “They actually ask to see it?”, Luke asks exasperated, even as he exercises his power by signing the form. Remember the flashback is set in the 2010s, and not the 1950s. Instead of being upset about June’s “official” lack of agency in the matter of her own body, the couple indulge in a coy exchange culminating in an adorable moment where they decide that they should ditch the pills altogether and try for another baby.

The sinister undertones to this moment are hard to ignore. Hypothetically, if Luke wanted a baby and June didn’t, he could very well withhold his signature, and have his way. It’s only his decision that counts; the law wouldn’t take her wishes into consideration for a second, for it has been introduced with the sole purpose of being in control of women’s bodies. It’s difficult not to see this as an extension of the the state of America right now, where anti-abortion legislations are at an all-time rise.

I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour.

What’s even more frightening is the fact that both June and Luke appear to ignore the implications of this law – they’ve normalised a smaller, venomous iteration of Gilead to exist in their own home. It’s proof of the fact that the crimson cloaks and the damaging beliefs that make up Gilead didn’t magically come into existence overnight. Instead its traces have been around, and adhered to in the real world for a very, very long time. Except, we’ve ignored these silent warning calls.

In a recent essay on how she came to write her award-winning novel, Margaret Atwood claimed that Gilead and its twisted dictatorship wasn’t just a figment of her imagination. “I made a rule for myself,” she writes. “I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights – all had precedents, and many of these were to be found, not in other cultures and religions, but within Western society, and within the ‘Christian’ tradition itself.”

handmaids tale

Come to think of it, Gilead isn’t all that different from India in how society forces young women to be child-bearers immediately after they are married off.

Image Credits: George Kraychyk/Hulu

If the show’s masterful first season delved headfirst into dissecting the aftermath of a world-altering catastrophe that paved the way for Gilead, its searing second season dwells on how the spirit of Gilead has always been alive in the real world.

Last year on The Handmaid’s Tale (adapted from Margaret Atwood’s eponymous novel), we came face to face with the horrors of a world where women were made prisoners of their reproductive system; devoid of agency, consent, and their right to choose. The chilling fact that the bodies of Handmaids are treated as mere objects was routinely reiterated in the show. Any rebellion by the Handmaids is ruthlessly killed: Ofwarren had her eye gouged out, Ofglen had to undergo a forced clitoridectomy for being a “gender-traitor”, and Offred/June herself was beaten up for trying to escape.

At that time, we’d read this helplessness in isolation — as a product of a world that was racist, sexist, homophobic, and believed in the powers of state-sanctioned rape. With season two however, the show’s creators are asking us to rethink this very assumption by showing us that the desire to control women’s bodies and thwart their sexuality isn’t just a kink of a few power-hungry, emasculated men. It is instead, the greatest universal obsession of our time. If this season’s first episode is any indication, the decision to control women’s bodies is rarely triggered by any event; in fact it is a weapon that countries, governments, and people in power are always waiting to exploit.

And it isn’t America alone. As Atwood pointed out in the essay above, her references were drawn from the world over. Watching the series at a time that caps the year of #MeToo, and the very public battles women have been fighting at home over the last couple of months, it’s terrifying to absorb how seamlessly this visceral horror translates into the lives of the women in India. Take the gruesome rape and murder in Kathua for instance, a violation of an eight-year-old’s body that was swiftly communalised and politicised. Where rape was a tool to extract revenge. The polarising reactions to the incident guaranteed that even in her death, the victim was denied any semblance of control over her body.

But this lack of control is a familiar subject in our country, where women are routinely denied assertion over their bodies in myriad ways: through moral policing, the mental conditioning that sex is a pleasureless duty, or in the government’s hesitation in criminalising marital rape. Come to think of it, Gilead isn’t all that different from India in how society forces young women to be child-bearers immediately after they are married off; even when they or their bodies might not be ready. Like Gilead, child-bearing and rearing responsibilities forced on women are disguised as a sacred responsibility.

Totalitarian regime, the mistreatment of homosexuals, and the curbs on freedom… it is a reminder that Gilead is never far away.