By Anna Tingley
The same week that Hulu released the first two episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” anticipated second season, Iowa passed the nation’s strictest abortion ban up to date, one that will restrict women from terminating unwanted pregnancies as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Shortly after the third episode aired, Attorney General Jeff Sessions enacted a new “zero tolerance” policy for immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S, resulting in the immediate prosecution of any person illegally crossing the U.S-Mexico border. With the fourth episode came the Senate approving a severe anti-LGBTQ advocate for the New Orleans Appeals Court, and by the time the fifth episode comes out this week, we can be sure that there will only be more headlines surrounding people of color getting the cops called on them for no justified reason.
In essence, the totalitarian theocracy of “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” Gilead -- the society that first emerged from Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed novel of the same name, and whose TV adaptation has racked up five Emmys since its first episode aired last year -- feels eerily similar to the draconian political agenda of the Trump presidency.
In fact, before Atwood’s novels were even imagined on screen, Rebecca Mead, in an article for The New Yorker, wrote that “her fiction has imagined societies riddled with misogyny, oppression, and environmental havoc.”
“These visions now feel all too real,” she writes.
For those unfamiliar with the show, “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of a modern-day, dystopian society which forces the few women whose fertility have not yet been compromised by environmental contamination to bear children for the elite upper-class. In short, aristocratic men rape handmaids in the hope of gifting a child to their infertile wives. These women are even stripped of their names, instead referred to by the name of the man of the household. For example, the show’s protagonist, June, whose master’s name is Fred, is referred to as Offred: “Of Fred.”
Of course, a comparison between our current world and that of Gilead – where women aren’t allowed to read or write, where God’s prophecies reign, where law literally forces women into sexual submission – seems like too far of a stretch, the disturbing connections lie in the show’s flashbacks, where an initially slow and subtle political transformation takes place before a sudden upheaval changes the lives of its characters forever.
What makes the show feel so familiar is the progressive society that existed just shortly before the creation of Gilead. Sexual liberation is embraced as characters explore same-sex relationships, and legal leniency is displayed as young college students blithely smoke weed on the sprawling green lawns of their liberal arts colleges. Ones which can be assumed foster the same free speech valued by today’s universities.
So how did such a progressive and accepting society turn over to evil forces so fast? The show seems to imply that Gilead’s revolutionary trajectory is not so different than the one we’re experiencing right now, as lawmakers work painstakingly hard to undo every last product of Obama’s legacy. Laws that single-handedly strip rights from people of color, deny scientific fact, and disable the media from effectively informing the public of the White House’s blatant disrespect, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.
This quick societal transformation is not unprecedented, though. A look back at just the past 70 or so years is proof enough that progressive societies – some would say, even decadent societies – can quickly backlash into reactionary ones. A systemic fear of change oftentimes breeds violence, usually in an attempt for those in power to keep their control while inherently stripping marginalized communities from gaining freedom. Nazism took over Germany in response to the country’s Weimar democracy (known for its gay nightclubs, cross-dressing and innovative new art movements), and it can be argued that the past year’s MAGA craze is an extreme reaction to the rapid change our country has seen since its election of its first black President ten years ago.
The comparisons between Atwood’s fiction and real life become the clearest, though -- at least for me -- when the active members of this rapidly changing society take to the streets in impassioned protest when oppressive legislation, along with extreme militarization, is just beginning to develop. As young parents, like Offred and her endearing feminist ally of a husband, Luke, scream at a barricade of armed police with clever protest signs in tow, I can’t help but be reminded of the anger that seeped through my hometown’s streets during a Black Lives Matter protest days after Eric Garner was killed. Or the desperate calls for action during a March for Our Lives Rally after the tragic mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this past January.
The women and their feminist allies weren’t complacent in their abuse, just as the marginalized communities in our world aren’t complacent in theirs. The women of this society, represented by a fearless Offred, screamed at the top of their lungs until their mouths were literally clamped shut. Just like the characters of “The Handmaid’s Tales,” those in our country right now whose rights are most vulnerable are currently screaming their lungs dry.
But when watching these inspiring scenes of protest, the viewer also knows that their resistance isn’t successful. We know that the barricade of police begin shooting unjustly, and that the women are eventually assigned their male masters, and that the patriarchal society that was slowly taking shape ultimately succeeds in reducing these women to their female body parts, stripping them of any identity aside from the reproductive purposes of their uteruses.
At the same time, despite all the tragedy the show makes us endure, we know that Offred is still alive. And not just merely alive, but strong as hell. At the outset of the second season, we see her cut off her own ear in order to part with the tracking device injected into all handmaids. Just a few moments later, and we see here reclaiming her sexuality as she unapologetically displays her lust for her love interest, Nick. Somehow, despite all odds, she still has a strong grasp on her own humanity and there remains an unwavering hope for a better future.
While this strength becomes most obvious amidst the gore, it’s important to recognize that it’s been there all along. It was there when Offglen, Offred’s fellow handmaid and former biology professor, talked back to a mansplainer in one of her lectures. And it was seen again when Offred yelled at her young daughter’s pediatrics doctor after she insinuated that Offred was being a negligent mother for working a full-time job instead of dedicating all of her time to motherhood. The show emphasizes these small forms of resistance even further when they delve into the storyline for Offred’s mother, who brings Offred to an empowering bonfire when she’s still a young kid, where a huge group of women burn slips of paper that bear the names of those who raped them.
Years before a society like Gilead could even be imagined, and the misogyny and gendered violence that characterize it was already taking shape.
It’s for this exact reason that these small acts of resistance are so important. What seems trivial or meaningless now can have a profound impact on the development of an extremely discriminatory world. The normalization of a subtle sexist jab, for example, lowers the baseline for respect and creates a space for behavior to take place that at one point seemed unimaginable. At least for me, what makes "The Handmaid's Tale" so powerful is that in the thick of all its blood and tragedy is an unwavering hope and resilience among its most vulnerable characters, which I think holds invaluable lessons for those in our contemporary society that are facing obstacles whose parallels to Gilead run a lot closer than one might initially think.
Anna Tingley is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tough to Tame, and an advocate for all things feminist, politics, or ramen-related. Her writing can be found at Teen Vogue, Billboard Magazine, Her Agenda, The Daily Bruin, and The Richmond Pulse. But for all the dirt, check her out on Instagram @annatationz and Twitter @annatingley.