'A comparative examination of how the novel (1985) and the television adaptation (2017) of THE HANDMAID'S TALE represents fundamentalist attempts to control women.
BY ELIZA LAWRENCE
Chapter One: Language manipulation
Part i: Manipulation of language as a form of control in the novel-10
Part ii: The television adaptations manipulation of language as a form of control in the television adaptation-15
Chapter Two: Sisters dipped in blood and below the same
Part i: The novel’s use of clothing as form of control-19
Part ii: The television adaptation use of clothing as form of control-24
Chapter Three: Just Containers
Part i: The novel’s presentation of violated fertile bodies-28
Part ii: The television adaptations of violated fertile bodies- 32
Figure 1: Elizabeth Moss (who plays Offred in the television adaptation) with Margaret Atwood (author). They are also both notably producers on the Hulu Television series.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is an innovative story about an extreme dystopian society. It has become a cultural phenomenon, with 8 million English copies sold since it was first published. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize (1986) and won best novel in the Nebula award (1986). In English it has sold an estimate of eight million copies across the world and this is only on the increase as the television adaptation has reinvigorated the tale. Since the novel’s publication, there has been a film adaptation (1990), and an opera (2000) written by the distinguished composer Poul Ruders. Both had an international reach, with the opera travelling from the Danish Opera house to the London’s National theatre, and finally to the Minnesota Opera house. Arguably it’s the successful Hulu television series that has reinvigorated and heightened the public’s attention towards the dystopian Handmaid’s tale in 2017 when it first aired. The first series, consisting of ten episodes won Emmy’s 69th best Drama 2018, and this series is the one I will focus on throughout. Although notably the series is now going beyond the confines of the novel’s plot and is stretching into a third season. The popularity of which seemingly owing to the motivation behind Atwood announcing a sequel in 2018 of the 1985 novel, twenty-two years later. When I am discussing the series I have used the source Now TV in order to focus on the cinematic presentations intensely and repetitively.
In the chapters that follow I argue that forms of the work present a Christian fundamentalist world that controls women. Both on screen and in the novel there is a regime, founded by a group of authoritarian men called the ‘Sons of Jacob’ that use fundamentalist models to build a patriarchal theocracy. This is Gilead, where an America is changed from ‘liberal democracy into a literal-minded dictatorship.’ These elite men reject the society before that was characterized by infertility, environmental degradation and as they perceive it, chaotic sexual freedom. Blame is attributed to the Handmaids and they suffer as a consequence. They are forbidden to read, placed into submissive roles, and forced into subordinate silence through the totalitarian regime. Their specific importance in Gilead are as women that are still fertile. This theocratic state is observed through the eyes of the meta-fictional protagonist and Handmaid, Offred. Atwood remarks that ‘Offred records her story as best she can; then she hides it, trusting that it may be discovered later, by someone who is free to understand it and share it.’ If Offred is a dystopian version of women in Atwood’s own work, then the screen adaptation of it might appear even more potent as it has re-imagined Offred’s story and is successfully sharing it in a context of contemporary ‘socially conscious television.'
For the sake of this thesis, I will focus only on the role of the Handmaid’s, forced to be purely functional as a womb. They are controlled by male ‘Commander’s’ who attempt to inseminate the Handmaid’s through a ‘ritual Ceremony’. Atwood believed that ‘Religion has been- and is in other parts of the world, is still used today, as a hammer to whack people on the heads with’. In particular she critiques the ‘hammer’ of Christianity throughout her novel as she admits, ‘the republic of Gilead is built on a foundation of the 17th century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew.’ Gilead structures itself around similar models of Puritanism, a fundamentalist movement in the 16th and 17th centuries. Novel and screen reflect that fundamentalism is a corrosive reality within their own contexts, fueling the progression of liberal movements such as the female rights movements.
In order to discuss the Fundamentalism that is presented through the model of Gilead, I need to first make clear what this term means. It is a contested and broad term, holding many different distinctions within various religions. Often it is critiqued as being a term used by ‘Western Imperialists’ to condemn the Islamic groups and thus is a ‘non subject’ as Edward Said argues. However, Atwood paid attention to the Puritan framework that informed American tradition, so I must use studies done on particular definitions of Christian Fundamentalism. A few studies stand out as useful discourses for the present discussion of how Fundamentalism is presented in both versions of Handmaid’s Tale. The American Scholars Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby write about The Fundamentalist Project. They primarily view Fundamentalism as a ‘militant rejection of secular modernity’, militant in the way it seeks to ‘remake all aspects of society and government on religious principles’ They argue it’s about a preservation of those religious doctrines that specifically contrast with the contemporary societies, such as the respective societies of text and screen (1985 and 2017). In this call for preservation comes a call for a fortification of ‘selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past.’ Although this is broad, I will identify the definition of Marty and Appleby as directly representative of the Fundamentalism portrayed in two atavistic Gilead’s. Atwood uses the skill of storytelling to build a world that not only critiques the past but anticipates what the future may hold for women. Atwood states that the theocracy she represents places the very question, ‘if you are going to have totalitarianism in the United States what kind of Totalitarianism would it be’ and in Gilead we see that this portrayal is of a fundamentalism that has become extreme. This idea of resistance to progression, and militant adherence to scripture are particularly important as I explore the Gilead that Atwood and the television adaptation portray.
Novel and screen show Offred pre-Gilead (our modern world) and the dystopic present in Gilead (a fundamentalist ideal state entrenched in the past). Using the poet Claudia Rankine’s theory of Moral Injury, I will explore how this emphasizes the distortion and control of the Handmaid’s identity. Under the theocratic state they are forced to retreat to a mythical past where they are confined to roles of biblical characters. Moral Injury thus becomes them; as they partake in a role that doesn’t ‘line up with who they are as human beings-their moral ideas of how they are in the world has been broken, and they’ve become broken because of it.’ In both text and screen this appears, and I will justify this as happening in each chapter’s presentation of control. Fundamentalism is keen on returning to a ‘mythic past, often the age of barbarism when their nation, tribe, or religion was great’ , observed in both novel and screen, when woman are presented as Victorian or Puritanical woman would be; dressed to be pure, and muted to be controlled. Cinematographer Colin Watkinson and director Reed Morano construct a dystopia that rejects the audience’s own reality for a ghostly traditional one. Our first sighting of Gilead is dark, aestheticized by a vintage tinge; ‘feeling more like an early 20th century photograph than a 21st century television show.’ Whilst flashbacks show the viewer’s world in a familiar vibrant color, Moral Injury becomes entangled with our own experience as a viewer.
Atwood called her story a piece of ‘speculative fiction’, a work that imagines a future that is both conceivable and realistic. This story thus creates an ambiguous border between the fictional and the real. It has resonated with two generations; the story being written for one generation in 1985 and another in 2017. In each we observe that Fundamentalism as a model is used to critique power structures, that are inherently patriarchal and have the political authority to subordinate woman’s freedom. Through presenting this patriarchal, hyper religious world in Atwood’s original context, it mirrored the religious conservatism that the 1980’s United States seemingly embraced, with the election of Ronald Reagan. Fundamentalist ideas were revived within politics with groups like the ‘Moral Majority’ within the Christian Right, threatening liberal movements. In 1985 Atwood was writing in a world still dominated and defined by the patriarchy. With female activism, like the Second wave feminist movement (1960-80’s) came defiance to it from fundamentalist groups. Statements such as American conservative political activist, Austin Ruse’s resonate with the fear of fundamentalists of moving to far away from the traditional conservative values; ‘the stakes are incredibly high, radical feminists are everywhere. Everywhere.’ Then, in the adaption’s context, its poignancy has ‘of course, been assisted by the story’s prescience.’ The rise of Trump and his rhetoric of ‘Make America Great Again’ reverberates around America and is strikingly similar to the fundamentalist call for a ‘mythic past’ where we were once ‘great’. Commander Fred Waterford, who owns Offred, attempts to comfort her situation, ‘Better never means better for everyone, it always means worse, for some’. I will argue throughout this essay that it is woman that have their freedom restricted when nostalgic visions of the past are extolled and put on a pedestal. Heightened fundamentalism appears to be the paramount controlling method to illustrate the vulnerability of woman within the novel. It then becomes even more fanatically presented within the adaptation as we watch modern, liberal woman, such as ourselves, being treated like puppets.
This thesis is structured around three chapters. Each Chapter firstly examine the novel and then focus on the adaptation. In the first I explore how language is manipulated by the government in Gilead to justify the Handmaid’s newly controlled positions. Atwood states that it is a warning ‘against the dangers in applying every word in that extremely varied document literally.’ Thus I will pay attention to scriptural language. In the second I will look at the Handmaid’s clothing. In the novel they depict Gilead’s desire for a mythic model for woman. Derived from western religious iconography they become a visual metaphor of weakness and control within the television adaptation. The third chapter will argue how the fundamentalist theological rhetoric and codes of clothing have now transformed the identity of the Handmaid to become solely biological wombs. I will use Roberta Rubenstein’s claim that now they have become reduced to ‘walking womb, muted breeders for a new society.’ Going from exterior control, using cultural codes, to interior control using woman’s organs, Gilead abuses women mentally and physically.
Chapter one, i: Manipulation of language as a form of controlling the Handmaid.
This chapter will first examine the eponymous 1985 novel, and the second half will evaluate the visual screen representations that support as well as diverge from the novel’s depictions. In the novel, Gilead’s fundamentalist, ideological framework is built on a mixture of scriptural texts, largely Bible based, that have been distorted in order to put power in the hands of elite men. Atwood fears a world that can be built if these texts are interpreted in order to control; ‘You can develop any set of beliefs by using the Bible’. The language alteration in Gilead comes from the ‘Sons of Jacob’, the name given to the group of 5 five men that designed the theocratic state we will analyze for the rest of the dissertation. Theological language is employed as an indoctrination method to make the Handmaids’ conform and offer justification for their new subservient roles within Gilead .I will analyze how the invented and manipulated language comes from the male voice. Frederick Waterford, the Commander who owns Offred and is one of the 5 ‘Sons of Jacob’, and remarks ‘‘How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all’’. Knowingly the men design a state, built on language contortion that favors the humanity of women whilst woman are dehumanized. In her novel Atwood does not critique religion itself, but the manipulation of it to serve the few elites, these appearing to be men. In a similar way, in the second half of this chapter I will analyze language formulations depicted in the adaptation that the ‘Sons of Jacob’ use in order to control the Handmaid’s. Linda Hutcheon theorizes that a successful adaptation is able to balance ‘the comfort of ritual and recognition with the delight of surprise and novelty, not only carrying the aura with it, but contributing to its continual expansion.’ In the adaptation there are still figments of scripture manipulated, but it hangs lucidly whilst the cinematic techniques demonstrate the patriarchal culture that allows for religion to be used to justify a totalitarian political system. God and religious models are given a superficial value and new totalitarian usage. The dogmatic mantra ‘Under is Eye’ that sounds repetitively in each episode does not appear in the novel. I will examine this mantra, alongside a chilling scene where the ‘Sons of Jacob’ casually decide the Handmaid’s fate within the theocratic regime. In analyzing both I will use the theory of Moral Injury to argue they are controlled by distorting their former identities as liberated woman pre-Gilead into an identity which is strictly designed to vaporize personality.
Atwood’s mastery of scriptural language is implemented within the Gilead regime to give scriptural precedent for the new muted woman in their society. The ‘Re-education Centre’ is where the reader is first introduced to the methods taken by Gilead to present the Handmaid’s new roles. The aunts repetitively justify the new inferior position with scripture, using the term, ‘Blessed are the meek’. This is then repeated in fourteen other instances throughout the novel, as we are introduced to further fragments of Offred’s memory within the Centre. The reader is always reminded of this indoctrination. Before tracing it to its theological context, this sentence carries an assertive instruction for women to be silent. The connotative adjective ‘meek’ is descriptive of a person that is submissive. Matched with the adjective ‘Blessed’, we see that Gilead praises woman who submit to taciturnity under the supposedly deist supremacy of men. Going back to Appleby and Marty’s definitions of fundamentalism, specifically the characteristic of ‘selective retrieval of doctrine’ we can see that Gilead is reinserting scripture to authenticate control. The instruction is a replica of the biblical third Beatitude from Matthew 5.5-10 which reads, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ There is an established history of scriptural interpretation. The connoted agency within the verb ‘inherit’; seems to suggest a final redemption from the sacrifice of belief. Atwood’s fear though of any set of scripture being contracted together to support a group or persons belief, allow me to suggest a control-based interpretation in the climate of Gilead. In the re-education Centre it takes on this interpretation; sliced up to disconnect it from its arguable liberating meaning. Significantly there are eight Beatitudes recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, however the lexical choice of the beatitude ‘Meek’ makes obvious the cherry picking of Gilead in order to mute the woman within its system. The theological dystopia manipulates scriptural language in order to justify restrictions on woman. After they are re-educated using these scriptural precedents, rules such as the stifling of women’s ability to write, suggests the fundamentalist ability to reduce women’s former freedoms, and thus control.
Offred is an integral character in exposing the superficial exposition of manipulated scriptural language. Through the inner narrative of Offred, the reader is made aware of the ridiculous recreations of Biblical narratives. When the Aunt expresses the Beatitude to instruct the Handmaid’s to be silent, Offred remarks, ‘She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth’ Atwood seemingly introduces these side notes in order to directly illustrate the failure of Gilead to use that piece of scripture in a virtuous way. In an interview with Anna Czarnik Neimeyer on the exposure of religion in Atwood’s novel, she emphasizes the importance of power in Gilead’s use of manipulative language. She states, ‘’People get hold of something and think: this is going to deliver it. But that doesn’t mean that the original thing that they’ve distorted is necessarily the cause.’’ The Sons of Jacob have got hold of the bible and reordered it, censoring parts that can illustrate liberation. It is not the scripture itself, Atwood elucidates, but it is the way it is interpreted in a totalitarian society, where there is an obvious oppressor and oppressed. Supporting this further is Offred’s side note; ‘‘blessed be this, blessed be that. They played it from a disc, the voice was a man’s.’’ Here Atwood uses colloquial language at the start of Offred’s speech emphasizing her boredom of hearing this repetitively. The caesura simulates the continuous cutting up of scriptural text by the regime, in order to control. This repetition of ‘blessed’ further conveys the indoctrination methods of Gilead as they subvert the former scripture. Then the reader is told that the instructions come from a male voice which leads us to understand that fundamentalist methods have been conceived by men.
Supporting my argument are the theories of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza; who is persuasive in her analysis of the Bible as masculine centered. The Sons of Jacob base their Gileadean vocabulary from snippets of the bible. Fiorenza uses the term ‘Kyriachal’ to describe the power structures within the Bible which fortify male identity, subduing the female one. Gilead’s form of fundamentalism wishes to go back to an early model of roles and rules predicated on the bible. She argues that ‘most biblical scholars have been- and mostly still are-the views of elite white men who tend to predominate as the main ‘’flavor’’ of biblical studies’’ Thus as a reader we are not surprised that the nature of fundamentalism is masculine orientated. The notion of language manipulation by men has its foundations within the ‘Kyriachal’ environment of Atwood’s writing, as scholars deconstruct our own visions and assumptions of the Bible. Atwood uses Offred as the protagonist and narrator of the experience in Gilead to write the wrong of ‘Kyriachal’ male writing whilst heavily illuminating the oppressed mouthpiece through her voice being the one we, as readers become intimate with.
Atwood is not only commenting on the dangers of twisting literal readings of scripture, but the nature of fundamentalism in Gilead that favors the hierarchal arrangement of the sexes. Monica Duffy argues that fundamentalism divides women ‘into social contexts in which males exercised all political, economic and most social authority and, critically, the texts themselves were transcribed by males.’ Thus it is no wonder that Atwood, who writes from a context of second wave feminism, extends the manipulation of language by Gilead further than its scriptural basis. We see this in the language device of patrionymic combinations. The Handmaid’s names, such as that of ‘Offred’ are strictly ‘owned’ by men. Her first commander is Frederick Waterford leading her to be, ‘of Fred’. By distorting language rules of formal identification, the Handmaids become properties, stripped of individuality. Women have no value in themselves, only through attachment to their male commanders. As Luce Irigary comments, they have become ‘commodities…that divides them into categories of usefulness and exchange value; into matter body and envelope that is precious but impenetrable.’ As a reader we are not surprised when Waterford tells Offred, ‘‘everyone answers to God and you answer to me.’’ Allegiance to religious belief is ironically contorted to place the commander above others, suggesting a self-prescribed deity within the men of Gilead. The manipulation of language is done through men (Sons of Jacob) and thus we see that fundamentalism in Gilead is dominated by the choices of the high-status men.
Figure 2 and Figure 3 exhibit Merchandise sold in 2017 after the release of the series onto worldwide screens.
Now I will look at the treatment of language as a fundamentalist control tool to serve a male theocracy, by exploring the adaptation. In the eighth episode titled Jezebel’s, there is a scene set Pre-Gilead in which the decisions behind the treatment of fertile woman (Handmaid’s) within Gilead are swiftly made by three men. The scene illustrates that the formulations of the fundamentalist state by the ‘Sons of Jacobs’ are the result of manipulated scripture. The Mise-En-Scène is set up to reflect the superficiality of this, just like the reflections in Offred’s side notes that posit scripture as an ‘incendiary device’. The conversation on how to arrange the woman within Gilead’s regime begins; ‘‘we must treat these girls respectively in a Godly fashion.’’ Firstly, these women are belittled, referring to them throughout this scene as ‘girls’ in order to affirm the men’s own status as superior. The adjective ‘Godly’ is then used to describe their own actions as devoutly religious, whilst paired with ‘fashion’ that connotes they will be the ones to shape what kind of ‘Godly’ they become. As a verb it carries with it suggestions of alteration, lending itself to the viewer perceiving the regime as built on a fabricated perception from these men of what they view as Godly. Referring back to Fiorenza’s theories of the bible serving ‘Kyriocentric norms’ the ‘white, elite, men’ are dominant in this scene. As the viewer literally observe three white, middle aged men sitting casually. Arguably they come to symbolize these biblical scholars she believes to be directing religion into a male concord. This scene lacks color, its shot enveloped with a subdued dim lighting. Pathetic fallacy is created with rain showering down on the exterior on the car matching the dystopian atmosphere. These cinematic elements reinforce the viewer’s melancholic experience as they watch the fragility of woman’s rights under the power of so few men.
In the first discussion of how the Handmaid’s should be impregnated, the same man agrees that ‘There is scriptural precedent’’, and the labelling of this as a ‘‘Ceremony’’ is ‘‘nice and Godly’’. Again, we see the men hijacking scripture. The cinematic difference from the novel is that we see the men here, aware of their own deceit. The speech is quiet, with little speech which reinforces this lack of justification for their ideas. The decision is made in an lone-minute montage. It is decided in the back of a limousine, reflective of the elite status of the men. The directorial choice of it being in the back could be a technique to suggest it is somewhat of a side note. The viewer could parallel this with gangster movies where dangerous and seedy deals are made in the backs of cars. ‘Godly’ connotes piety, whilst an expensive car exposes the opposite. The scene is set up to encourage the viewer to be suspicious of these men. The montage illustrates the corruptive nature of the laws in which Gilead’s fundamentalist regime is built. The camera tilts with the moving vehicle which arguably unnerves the still viewer. The cinematographer, Colin Watkinson, asserts that ‘‘Gilead was going to be incredibly formal, tableau- like compositions with a very considered static camera.’ However the scene I examine is pre-Gilead and the shaky camera, may be Reed Morano’s way of showing how a chaotic decision in the hands of men using religious tools, can then become a solid reality after it then jumps quickly to this static camera in Gilead.
The viewer is further unnerved as the clothes, car and language all chime with an understanding of contemporary America, the adaption playing on the suggestion of an underlying danger that this is a shadow of our colorful reality. Margaret Atwood was one of the producers on the show. In reflection of her novel’s staying power, she exclaimed in 2011, ‘Of recent years, American society has moved much closer to the conditions necessary for a takeover of its own power structures by an anti-democratic and repressive government.’ These imaginings of Atwood are illustrated in this moment within the adaptation. The men are using religion to build a totalitarian government where they are at the top of the hierarchy. A chapter in the novel also named ‘Jezebels’, conveys that Gilead has used ‘God as a national resource’ and the scene within the adaptation ends with Frederick Waterford concluding what they have just decided, ‘‘will run up the flagpole’’. As a flag holds both patriotic and constitutional meaning, Gilead in the adaptation becomes a regime that is both political and religious. This scene portrays theological language being adapted to build the fundamentalist state, falsely justifying Handmaid’s as functional for a new political world.
In the television adaptation, a dogmatic saying is issued as imperative for the Handmaid’s when they meet. It becomes potent when spoken by the characters we watch. In each episode there is the mantra ‘Under is Eye.’ In the novel the metaphor of the Eye is used when Offred states that the Handmaid’s submissions are ‘’soothing to the eye, the eyes, the eyes, for that’s who this show is for’’. The adaptation expounds on this same ‘show’ but in a more militant way, with the ‘eye’ symbolizing a double meaning; serving a male desire for female surveillance. Claudia McKee states that ‘faith is an empty exercise, conducted for the sake of appearances rather than a desire for a relationship with God’. Whilst ‘Under is Eye’ holds linguistic biblical intentions, suggesting an ever-watchful deity, the deity in this adaptation becomes wrapped up in the patriarchal goal of control. The eyes are in fact Gilead’s secret police that are militantly dressed male soldiers surrounding the Handmaid’s in all aspects of their movements around Gilead. The ‘is’ in this adaptation poignantly becomes warped into ‘his’. As the saying has no precedent in the novel already, as auditory listeners we don’t assume it is ‘is’, and when we see the soldier’s we go further into thinking it is male associated pronoun. Figure 2 and 3 exemplify how the public have interpreted this dogma, attacking the patriarchy directly. The adaptation illustrates the direct link between theocracy and the male control. They have used language with religious tenants, to keep the Handmaid’s reminded that God is watching, but more importantly the government will punish those who are not subordinate ‘Under’ these rules as the male soldier’s eye’s always stand nearby.
Within the novel language is manipulated in the Centre teaches woman to be silent for God. This silence translates into a subordination to the men that command them. Larry Kreitzer holds the belief that Gilead is ‘a Christian fundamentalist state gone awry.’ In the novel it is shown as a state that has displaced equality and places men as having authority to use scripture and traditional language formations to invent the humanity of the Handmaid. Their names are replaced, and they are indoctrinated through editing and cut up scripture to mute their personalities. It induces horror at how easy this is confirmed. Then the adaptation has been argued to have risen in a period of ‘socially conscious television’, a movement that heralds series such as Black Mirror that electrifies fears underlining our own society. The particular focus on the men who control the language exemplifies a fundamentalism that is as much to do with the political patriarchal structures that make women inferior as it is to do with religion. We see that the adaptation on the visual screen highlights Atwood’s fears after writing her novel; ‘how thin is the ice on which supposedly ‘‘liberated’’ modern western women stand? What’s down there if they fall?’ My next two paragraphs will now analyze ‘what really is down there’ as these previously liberated women become contorted into servants of the regime.
Chapter two, i: Clothing as a form of control.
Margaret Atwood asserts that dystopia’s always categorize and build hierarchies through clothing. She asserts, ‘the clothing concerns usually Centre on women: societies are always uncovering and then covering parts of women’s bodies.’ The Handmaid’s clothing is an example of this obsession with covering up woman. Another science fiction novelist Northrop Frye, who Atwood was notably influenced by, writes that science fiction has a ‘strong inherent tendency towards myth.’ Atwood, using scientific tropes, presents Gilead as having a fanatical nature by way of re-imposing female stereotypes based on scriptural myth. The Handmaid’s before Gilead were sinners in the eyes of Gilead, who give them a previous mythic role of Eve. In these particular creation myths, Alan Aldridge presents ‘women’s presumed characteristics of sexual allure, curiosity, gullibility, and insatiable desires are often blamed both for the problems of humankind and for women’s inferior role.’ They were fallen woman, dangerous to the life before, thus their cleansing through the distinctive and segregating clothing becomes a necessity for the continuation of ‘humankind.’ Just as Marty and Appleby affirm that fundamentalist groups have the desire to ‘preserve their distinctive identity’ which is believed to be a ‘risk in the contemporary era.’ In the adaptation not only does the Handmaid experience Moral Injury but I will argue that the visual drama creates an injured viewer also. We see woman wearing western clothes (American audience’s own) before donning fairy tale costumes. Anne Crabtree, the adaptations costume designer explains that when she conceived the dress she used ‘The point of view of the Commander, who designed Gilead society with clothing as the key tool of misogyny, oppression and erasure’. Here Fundamentalism retains its masculine trope by showing it’s directly linked to a male desire to cover up. Just like Atwood plays around with formal science fiction tropes to critique these misogynist clothing methods, the camera critiques traditional cinematic techniques that clothe women. The adaptation portrays the clothing having a silver lining through a feminist lens as the Handmaid’s react against Gilead’s homogenization of themselves. The adaptation portrays a fanatical fundamentalist state that is suddenly somewhat limited in how they can mute woman. As the show goes on, the Handmaid’s clothing seems to acquire both a tribal and activist quality.
Before analyzing the clothing, I will observe how the regime imposes this identity of original sin on the Handmaid’s. Under the eyes of the regime the Handmaid’s are indoctrinated through a rejection of their previous way of living and being. Aunt Lydia is the voice that symbolizes female identity pre-Gilead. She remarks ‘‘the spectacles women used to make of themselves. Oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit, and bare backs and shoulders, on the street, in public, and legs, not even stockings on them, no wonder those things used to happen.’’ The use of repetitive caesura as a form of listing and the harsh sounding assonants such as ‘spit’ convey the regimes hateful approach to past actions from women. The simile of being like a pig also introduces the idea that woman were base. The simile’s connotation of a pig that has been killed, is the regimes attempt to frighten the Handmaid’s. If they do not subscribe to being chaste women, if they do not don their modest apparel, they will be the meat they seemingly were before. Offred mirrors Lydia’s complaints when she sees a Japanese trade delegation that still exist in this contemporary society. Offred’s very psyche has been infiltrated by the Centre. She discusses the short length of the skirts, the ‘high heeled shoes’ and the ‘lipstick, red’ and is shocked that their exposed hair is shown ‘in all its darkness and sexuality’. She says she is ‘repelled’ by these dressed up women. The regime has worked to install a corrupt identity for women associated with minimal clothing and makeup. Here I have observed how Aunt Lydia becomes the mouthpiece of the fundamentalist desire to erase contemporary society for a new ‘sacred past’ where the ‘good’ woman was chaste.
The conversion of woman from being in ‘darkness and sexuality’ to their subsequent control towards pious bright clothing, is developed by Gilead’s theocracy within their two contrasting concepts of freedom. Offred reminisces on the freedom of choosing love before, ‘falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were fallen women.’ The lexical choice of ‘falling’ connotes the character of Eve, however Gilead labels this concept of freedom and activity as sinful. Atwood tells us that red of their dresses resembles ‘‘Mary Magdalene-who is often, remembered, many would say mistakenly, as a fallen woman.’’ Myth has become entangled in their clothing, as they become somewhat of a saintly prostitute as their identity is both negative and positive. The italicization could expose the satisfaction that Offred has in saying these words that allude to an identity that are now forbidden by the theocracy; suggesting by the past tense of ‘said’ and ‘were’. The caesura prolongs this thought as Offred attempts to stay in the past. The act of ‘falling’ is celebrated by Offred. In stark contrast to this energetic action, Aunt Lydia makes it clear that choice under the regime is precarious. In the Centre, Offred tells us that ‘‘there is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of Anarchy, it was freedom to and freedom from. Now you are being given from. Don’t underrate it.’’ Atwood may be remarking on the works of Isiah Berlin’s, Two Concepts of Liberty that detail Positive Liberty and Negative Liberty. Positive liberty is, ‘the possession of the capacity to act upon one’s free will, as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from external restraint on one’s action.’ For Handmaid’s each type of freedom is restricted under Gilead. ‘Freedom to’, or positive freedom for woman has been charged in with the hyperbolic adjective, ‘Anarchy’ whereas ‘freedom from’ or negative freedom is viewed by the reader and the Handmaid as a tool to pacify and control woman. Handmaid’s cannot have Positive Liberty which is ‘primarily concerned with the possession of sociological agency’ because then they are sinful, they are ‘fallen’. In Gilead they make woman afraid of Positive Liberty and use Negative Liberty to create restrictive clothing. Modesty in its extreme becomes the only way women can be returned from the promiscuity in which they came. Although the ‘red’ of the clothes is a significant reminder to the Handmaid’s, and Gilead of their past identity and the inherent precariousness to their one now.
The clothing reflects the fundamentalist desire for this past where myth dominated:
‘’Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen’’
In direct contrast to the Japanese women, the creation of an covered up Handmaid is a depiction of the pure woman or virginal Mary. Reflecting on her novel, Atwood retorts that the outfits she had curated to the ‘Mid Victorians, with their concealing bonnets and veils to keep strange men from leering at their faces, would not have found them so unusual’. Seemingly the Handmaid, like the Victorian woman are in danger if viewed. There is a constant ideal of preventative dress from the danger of men’s gaze. Aunt Lydia states at the Centre that ‘‘modesty is invisibility. To be seen- to be seen- is to be- her voice trembled- penetrated.’’ For Gilead, the only way to stop this innate sexuality that they perceive as dangerous is to limit being ‘seen’. In their costume this becomes apparent. Everything is designed to cover up their features. We are told that everything is bloodlike red ‘‘that defines us’’ which demonstrates that clothing directly links to their role. The blood depicts both pain and their method of survival as it links to their fertility. Atwood also remarks that the red of the clothing comes from; ‘‘German prisoners of war held in Canada (in WW11) were given red outfits because they show up so well against the snow.’’ This represents a dichotomy between the concepts of visibility. The ‘wings’ cover up their faces but if they were trying to escape from the regime, their bodies would be seen. It further highlights the control of their bodies rather than their identities within the regime. Going back to the descriptive quote, the dress resembles a purification process as their clothing is said to be ‘prescribed’. This verb suggests that the clothing works like medicine, in ridding one of a problem. Women through their outfits are seemingly cleansed. However, Offred remarks that the ‘red dress’ is still ‘like a disease’. The ‘disease’ hasn’t left despite Gilead believing a cure has been ‘prescribed’. Offred here notices that even whilst being covered up, one is still vulnerable to be seen. Going back to Atwood’s idea of red being a way to target escaping prisoners, Aunt Lydia’s statement that they will be ‘penetrated’ if seen will, through the connotations of red and Offred’s hatred of such clothing, always be the case. Handmaids are told they are safe through their clothe’s but they will still be subject to penetration by their commanders or as the adaptation signifies, the penetration of a ‘male gaze’.
Figure 4: The Handmaid’s at the Pravaganyza, Episode one. Surrounded by ‘The Eyes’ of Gilead.
Now I will look at the presentation of Handmaid’s clothes in the adaptation and how this controls their identity, whilst also presenting a new critique of such old methods of regulation. In the first episode’s religious meeting of all the Handmaid’s in the 'Prayvaganza' we see the Handmaid’s as lacking distinctive natures. The montage works in partnership with the theme of clothing as an oppressive fundamentalist tool. The episode begins with an eagle eye shot of dozens of Handmaid’s walking in lines, like an army or school children. This is the first time we see more than two at one time, lending itself to the blurring of the image as the viewer is unable to individualize each Handmaid. With an eagle shot the scene begins with just the visible red color of their dresses, and like ants they remain small as they disperse through forest. Their inferiority is represented through this as the viewer only see’s ‘an identically dressed sea of people’ that become a ‘graphic mass’ where ‘human individuality’ is abstracted to blocks of uniform color.’ When we finally get to see their faces, they remain as shadows under the bonnets which suspend over their faces. The camera only focuses on the women’s faces for a short time, until it spans out into a long shot where they remain a mass once more. Thus, in the show the Handmaid’s clothing expresses a loss of individuality at first. The Handmaid’s movements as a red collective are consistently monitored by the camera, as its long shots and high angles work to mirror Gilead’s surveillance. Whilst they sit in this clothing, they are always at the lowest angle, whether this is through the camera shots or through the directorial choice of male actors who stand around them whilst they sit, these being the ‘Eye’s’. The show’s first episode explains that to wear this clothing is to be inferior. Jaine Gaines’ assertion that Hollywood costume ‘dress tells the woman’s story’, is correct for the show’s dressing of the Handmaid’s; the ‘story’ the show is presenting, is that of woman’s subservience under Gilead’s theocratic codes of clothing.
Unlike the novel, the clothing takes on a symbol of resistance against the fundamentalist methods of control. Crabtree states that whilst the red of the clothing accords to their function as breeders for a new society, it also manifests itself in the red ‘of anger, passion and defiance’. I will argue that through the control of clothing, the fundamentalist state has distorted individual identity into mass identity that becomes fervently activist against the oppressive methods. In episode one we have seen that they are homogenized, the state craving universality for governmental power. Conversely, in the final episode of the ten- part series we see a Handmaid where the clothing has taken on a ‘tribal quality’ that Crabtree intended. The episode remains in the same environment as the first, however there is no longer an eagle-eyed long shot, each face is shown through their bonnets in focused close up’s. They have become seen to the viewer and they are not ‘penetrated’ like Aunt Lydia states they will be, if observed. Instead they become understood by the viewer, their emotions focused in on. This directly contrasts with the exploratory camera when Offred is instructed by her commander to wear revealing clothes in the episode before called, ‘Jezebels’. Through the zoom an examination, close up shot exposes skin that has been previously covered up, the contrast arguably inducing discomfort for the viewer. The Commander gives her these clothes, whilst he grins and inspects her just like the camera, a further way to show that the sinful identity of woman is the invention of man to both control and then to be used for their sadistic enjoyment. Laura Mulvey a feminist film theorist developed the term the ‘Male Gaze’ in 1975 stating ‘‘the gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer’’, enforcing the ‘outdated’ idea that ‘‘men do the looking, and woman are to be looked at.’’ The camera and director collaborate to present the male gaze because the gaze of the commander is the same as the cameras. It creates an awkward and nervous atmosphere for the viewer as the adaptation criticizes these patriarchal fixations on woman’s sexuality. These techniques disappear in the final scene at the ‘Prayvagnza’ as finally the woman own the master shot of the camera.
They are commanded to stone a fellow Handmaid, Offwarren. However they form a defiant sisterhood. Aunt Lydia orders ‘’death by stoning’’, an allusion to the utterance of Jesus’ in John 8:7; “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’’ The television series turns this scene on its head. By putting the stones in the hands of the women who willfully resist as those in command are ordering violence, it suggests that the Handmaids’ resume the power they once had in their presumed sin (pre-Gilead). Offred stands out of the circle, transgressing Gilead’s desire for universality. Her uniform is seen as she breaks from the militant like spectacle of the Handmaid’s in a circle. She drops her stone which also motivates the Handmaid’s to do so. In this montage of defiance against the regime’s orders, they have seemingly reclaimed their identity whilst staying in the clothes that Gilead thought would imprison this. Anne Crabtree’s assertion that clothing is somewhat tribal becomes evident as they cooperatively form a resistance. Offred’s inner voice exclaims ‘It’s their fault- they should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to become an army.’ In direct contrast to the first episode which finishes with a bird’s eye view of the submissive woman, this scene ends with an empowering montage. It chimes with Handmaid’s desire to retain control; literally turning their backs to the regime’s religious ceremony and walking away. According to the film composer, Bernard Herman ‘music on screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters.’ The underscore music played out in their act of walking away is empowering and supportive to the show’s imagery. ‘I’m feeling good’ by Nina Simone amplifies the Handmaids collective energy and strength. Arguably to the viewer, the red dress becomes a symbol of sisterhood, as it becomes framed within cinematic techniques that liberate the clothing. To the viewer, the clothing has greater parallels with suffragettes rather than a uniform given by a fundamentalist regime to restrict and subordinate woman.
Meredith McGuire states that scriptural myths disapprove of the side of woman as ‘temptress, seducer and polluter’ and create an ‘approved side’ which is the pure ‘virgin/chaste bride and mother.’ The novel illustrates how woman are shamed and made to where clothing that connotes purity, subservience and their role as the fertile woman of the new world. The clothing is dangerous whilst being a key to survival for the woman. Through Gilead’s formation of myths that create the restrictive clothing, Handmaid’s have become caged in both identities. Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion, writes that permeating through American fundamentalism is a tradition that ‘has blamed Eve for Adam’s downfall’ and through these encomiums they ‘trumpet the unique purity of women’ and through clothing Atwood critiques these ideals. These goals though, seem to be male centered, the commander in the speech to the Handmaids states ‘I will that women adorn themselves in modest apparel’ because the alternative is penetration as we have highlighted in the warning of Aunt Lydia. As a result of men’s desire, woman have to subject transformations. The Adaptation postulates the reaction of the Handmaid’s if this mythic clothing was placed on woman of today. Fundamentalism with dress codes like Victorian societies ideals of ‘piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity’ seem to a modern viewer a poignant metaphor for those who have tried to restrict contemporary women or their ideals. It is interesting to see how, when expressed visually, dress can be re-imagined. It has jumped out of the screen, as Elizabeth Moss (Offred and co-producer on the show) remarks, the clothing is a ‘symbol of a new resistance, with the Handmaid’s uniform co-opted by protesters, on marches and in Hollywood itself.’ Clothing has become a powerful symbol of oppression and something to be reclaimed by the women that have been made to wear it, against the men or religion that have told them too.
Chapter 3, i: Violated fertile bodies.
In the final chapter Gilead has produced a woman that is stripped of worth, other than that of being a functional breeder. This is climatic in the sense that the manipulated language in the first chapter has defined the Handmaid’s role and created subordination, whilst the clothing has erased their humanity. Now they are using these external influences to justify internal command of their bodies. The Handmaids have become ‘walking wombs, muted breeders for a new society’. It is then that violent methods become legalized, such as insemination of the Handmaid by commander’s that is essentially rape. Atwood detailed that ‘since most totalitarianism we know about have attempted to control reproduction in one way or another.’ The totalitarian fundamentalism in The Handmaid’s Tale has control of the Handmaid’s reproductive capacities. Again the novel uses myth to justify the ‘ceremony’, which is the umbrella term for the monthly act of the commander’s attempt at this insemination. Sharon Wilson writes that in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘Little Red Riding Hood, Mother Goddess, and biblical Bilhah is reduced to a womb that must endure pseudo- religious ceremonies’. The tale of Bilhah, an Old Testament Genesis figure specifically, is integral to this argument. The adaptation exposes the viewer to voyeuristic violence as women are abused on screen. Women become mutilated into animalistic figures through new technology that takes form outside of the novel. A subhuman is created who is represented as strikingly far away from the accommodating surrogate Bilhah. Using Michael Foucault theories of violence, this extreme form of fundamentalism makes viewer and Handmaid suffer Moral Injury as they become reduced to animals whilst we watch. As we observe this ceremony the ‘Me-Too’ movement and subsequent rape allegations scattered across America become strikingly redolent of the Handmaid’s controlled sexual defacement that the ‘ceremony’ presents.
The Handmaid’s fertility is the foundation of the regime’s extreme policy of self-preservation and through this authorizes and necessitates the control of the woman in red. Atwood places, in the epigraph of her novel, the scriptural tale of Rachel and Bilhah that interweaves as a controlling technique throughout the novel. It quotes Genesis, 30:1-3:
‘And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister: and said unto Jacob, Give me children or else I die. And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruits of the womb. And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.’
Gilead is constructed on manipulated and literal readings of scripture and this is the central story that allows for Handmaids to be used as wombs. There are three parts of this reading that are interpreted by Gilead for the purpose of control. Firstly ‘give me children or else I die’, which is then pronounced by Offred, reiterated by Aunt Lydia and repeated by the Commander in a dogmatic indoctrination that the Handmaid’s purpose, if unfulfilled, will be death. Secondly, ‘Jacob’s anger’ is mirrored in the novel by the male dominated violence that keeps the Handmaid’s from transgressing this role. Thirdly the possessive pronoun of ‘my maid’ that motivates the creation of Gilead’s Handmaids, is then seen imitated in the possession of all women’s movements in Gilead. Bilhah’s surrogacy is responsible for the continuation of Jacob’s lineage and the sanctifying of a marriage with children. Similarly, the Handmaids duty is to provide a child for the ‘Wives’ and ‘Commanders’ of the home they have been assigned to. Bilhah is not given a voice and her name only appears once within scripture. Atwood and subsequently Gilead, have seemingly modelled the Handmaid on the muted Bilhah, who is wholly responsible but lacks reward. I will go on to explore the dangers of this myth.
The tale acts as a formula for Gilead’s oppression. It justifies Gilead to draw a stark distinction between fertility and worth. Within Gilead, Handmaid’s are ‘explicitly defined by their potential fertility (or its absence) procreation and maternity and are simultaneously idealized and dehumanized.’ We have observed this dichotomy in the clothes as they represent purity (idealized) but also the vulnerability of the homogenized and ex-sinful Handmaid (dehumanized). This dichotomy is presented in the scene where the Handmaid’s are checked by the doctor for their fertility. The doctor remarks, when Offred goes in for a monthly check, that ‘’there are only women who are fruitful and women that are barren, there is no such thing as a sterile man, that’s the law’’. Whilst ‘fruitful’ has connotations of vitality, nourishment and life, ‘barren’ has that of dried up, desert like landscapes, signifying emptiness and death. Through these contrasting images, Atwood shows that Gilead is a society where women can only live, if they are fertile. As a result, Gilead effectively perpetuates females as actually wanting to be a surrogate. Offred emphasizes ‘‘what we prayed for was emptiness, so we would be worthy, to be filled with grace, with self-denial, semen and babies.’’ Offred places the dehumanized women and the idealized women in one description. ‘Grace’ and ‘worthy’ lie in the same listing as ‘emptiness’ and ‘self-denial’. This reduction to a subhuman category because of their fertility makes the Handmaid’s fragile. This is represented further in Offred’s descriptions of the Handmaid as ‘sacred vessels’ and ‘ambulatory chalices.’ Offred notices that they are special; ‘sacred’ is a religious adjective and the noun ‘chalices’ has connotations of a cup used in the Christian Eucharist. Just like the tale of Bilhah, Handmaid’s become associated with religious purposes, however the fragility of this purpose is also signified in these descriptions. Moreover, they are reduced to objects that’s movement is coordinated by a master, whether this is the priest using the chalice, or a sailor who’s driving the vessel. In Gilead they are objects for the new world and their masters within that.
This reproductive totalitarianism within Gilead is Atwood critiquing a ‘male dominated society wherein women with viable ovaries are stripped of their identity, dehumanized and made the private domain of the top rank males of society, the commanders.’ In reaction to the doctor’s statement, fruit is notably never enjoyed by the fruit itself; which could be a suggestion that those who enjoy this ideal woman, are the men and not the woman who this status belongs too. Women have sole responsibility for the continuation of the state, making a man sterile was never considered. Gilead insists that the Handmaids are special, but they are only special as containers for the fundamentalist novel of a nuclear model, then they are exchanged. The commander states that this model is reclaiming ‘Nature’s norm, for women to fulfil their biological destinies in peace’. A peace has been created from a world where choice was substantial. By reducing the Handmaid’s to their biological essentialism, they are vulnerable to rearrangement by the commanders. The ‘peace’ the Commander discusses will only be applied to those women who conform to the duty of fertility that Gilead sets out.
Figure 5: Eagle eye shot from after the ceremony, with Offred (Elizabeth Moss), Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
The Gilead revealed in the television adaptation depicts a Handmaid whose bodies are violently disciplined. Using the theory of Michel Foucault I will observe how this means they can become subservient pets to the regimes ‘ceremony.’ Foucault exclaims:
‘‘The individual body becomes an element that may be placed, moved, articulated on other. Discipline is no longer an art of distributing bodies of extracting time from them and accumulating it, but of composing forces in order to obtain an efficient machine.’’
The discipline is what occurs when Gilead places sacred importance onto the Handmaid’s role of procreation. Their bodies become docile to the ‘forces’, in Gilead which are the commanders that use them as if they were machines to produce Gilead’s ideal theocratic state. Similarly, in the novel they are objectified with the similes, ‘vessel’ and ‘chalice’; however Foucault’s comparison of bodies as machines is more effective in analyzing the totalitarian techniques of this adaptation.
The adaptation successfully ‘’shows how modern technology may be put to use for systematic gender discrimination.’’ Their docility is mastered through this. The ‘re-education Centre’ brutally punches a whole in the cartilage of each Handmaids ear with a large torturous device. This thrusts a small microchip or tracking device into the ear. The Aunts who perform this in episode one grin, whilst Moss screams. The show presents a sadism of Gilead’s leaders within this characterization, illustrating that violence and subordination is enjoyed by the regime. Just like the Star of David, Jews had to wear in Nazi occupied Germany, the Handmaid’s are labelled instantly as inferior and consigned to specific roles within Gilead. The clothes can be taken off, however this Gilead is more traumatic and invasive, in the adaptation as there is a permanency to the hole the device would leave. In episode 3 the camera performs a close up that lingers on the red device while Offred is bathing. The scene is initially optimistic for the viewer as Moss appears naked with her hair down. She becomes closer to what she looks like in the flashbacks pre-Gilead and not the doll Gilead intends her to be. However when we see that the tag is scarlet red and mirrors the restricted clothing, we sink deeper into the melancholy of her situation. This is the bath before her first ‘Ceremony’ and in the novel Atwood describes Offred as being ‘washed like a prized pig’. The adaptation thus extends this simile with the tag, feeding into the Handmaids animalistic resemblance, as they become readied for the symbolic slaughter. It also suggests the ownership over woman that Gileadean society has, acquired by the mutilation of their bodies. The fundamentalism has used the foundations of theocracy to go one violent step further.
In the novel, Offred’s side notes expose how Gilead has successfully made the Handmaid’s act out the ‘ideal woman’. Similarly the Adaptation shows how the Handmaids fulfil their duties as the surrogate Bilhah. I will now analyze one of the most uncomfortable scene’s in the series that arguably ‘blurs the lines between deviance and normalcy’ and ‘obliterates the distinction between abuses of women and the social definition of what a woman is’ By creating the docile woman who’s only social definition within Gilead is as a womb, the men in these households ‘have the right-even the duty- to assert their god given authority, violently if need be.’ The sexual servitude is presented most severely in the uncomfortable scene in episode 1. As viewers we are instantly introduced to the ceremony. The tale of Rachel, Jacob and Bilhah is read out by Commander Fred that motivates the camera to move into the ceremonial penetration of Offred. It spans to Offred, whilst the sound effect of the Commander recounting this scriptural tale umbrellas the scene in the form of a voice over. The scripture is accompanied by the background hymn; ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ while Offred moves up and down, simulating the penetration. The music supervisor on the show, Michael Perlmutter remarks how this adds to the ‘’strange environment’’ where the juxtaposition of goodness and religion is matched with the ‘’raping’’ of a girl. The low pitch of the male singers creates an ambient sound that is arguably prophetic of Offred’s anxiety and the horror that is prominent throughout. The song’s religious themes as well as the voice over, add to the suggestion that the action of penetration is justified by religion. We experience Moral injury when we see the close up of Offred. Elizabeth Moss has a passive, blank expression whilst she barely blink, looking straight up at the ceiling. These directorial decisions all seem to present Offred’s coping method as she attempts to remove her identity from this disturbing act, as if to save herself from trauma. The trauma though, is reinforced after the act is finalized and Moss is seen experiencing a nervous attack, gasping for breath outside of the house. As a viewer you become breathless with her, shocked by the spectacle you have seen and aware that Gilead has successfully controlled the body of the Handmaid’s. We observe the abnormal, normalized through this state sanctioned rape.
Margaret Atwood writes that ‘what is needed for a really good tyranny is an unquestionable idea or authority’. The Handmaid in the novel epitomizes Bilhah, whilst Rachel and Jacob represent the commander’s (who are also part of the sons of Jacob) and their wives. Rachel and Jacob need children from Bilhah to continue the lineage in Jacob’s name. Similarly, the Handmaid’s provide their wombs for the continuation of the society of Gilead. After a child is born, the Handmaid’s do not see it, they are quickly moved to a new commander. This model is both controlling and damning to the identity of the Handmaid. In the adaptation they are also presented as being controlled by this tale, however it is successfully illustrated how this can produce a vulnerable and panicked woman. There is one attempted suicide from a Handmaid who tries to take her new born child with her. Fundamentalism that controls through making woman into animalistic wombs is horrifying to read and even more disturbing to watch. In 1995 Pope John Paul 11, head of the Catholic Church wrote the ’Vocation and Mission of Women.’ In It John Paul made it clear that the ‘sexual division of labor in which women’s reproductive capacity means they will be ‘’mothers’’ and wives’’ is the very nature of ‘global society.’ Although the term ‘biological essentialism’ is not used, the ‘mission’ of women is bodily. The novel and screen represent what extremes these ‘Kyriachal’ writings can produce for woman if fulfilled.
In my comparative examination of how The Handmaid’s Tale on page and in this adaptation represents fundamentalist attempts to control Handmaid’s, I have discussed three significant ways that women are controlled. Atwood uses Gilead’s fundamentalism as a way to show the history of women’s repression and the vulnerability of their fight for equal status whilst she was writing. At the beginning the reader may think it is satirical and extreme representation of religious groups that have become oppressive and totalitarian, however Atwood makes a commitment that ‘‘There’s nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened.’’ The novel obtains an intimate relationship with the past and the present conditions that have literally been a dystopia for women. The tale explores what results from using these past models to define a future. This transference between past ideals on modernity is presented in the first chapter as scripture or traditional language formations become the cobbled foundation of Gilead’s law. Here the slogan ‘God as a national resource’ is used to justify reclaiming old models for women as we have analyzed in chapter two and three. By combining all cultural models and influences (language and codes of clothing) that have used religion to authenticate women’s roles as inferior then men and confined their movement within society Atwood is able to move from presenting exterior to interior control. Women are mentally and physically organized by those in power.
This dissertation raises questions of how a novel works, its document of a reader’s reality means that it has become an instrument for a conversation on its own context. Thus when I have discussed the adaptation that illuminates Atwood’s tale that resides in a different cultural context its similarity means that it is also influenced and influencing the society it premiered in. Atwood explains that ‘I wrote the book hoping to fend it off, and I believe it will be fended off’’ however the Hulu TV series holds a cracked and shadowy mirror up to the twenty first century America that Gilead is created in. Atwood, who co-produces the adaptation, stated that on the 9th November 2016, when Trump was elected everyone on set agreed that, ‘’people would be viewing this differently’’, the book hadn’t changed, nor did the script for the show, but the ‘frame had changed’. It seems the necessary adaptation came at a time that Atwood’s tale is 1needed more than ever. A time where mostly white men sit in power and religion is being used as a resource to go back in time when supposedly America was great. Although other adaptations came between 1985 and 2017, the Gilead which uses an even more fanatical and extreme fundamentalist methods sends chills down the American viewers spine. Seemingly each time progression of equality comes there seems to be those who are against it. In the context of Atwood’s novel it was the significant rise of religious conservatism with Reagan vs Second wave feminism. Today it is the rise of Trump’s flirtations with theocratic governance and fears of the far-right vs liberalization. It is when ‘Kyriachal’ fundamentalist tropes are used within the powerful structures of politics that the tale becomes a threatening and powerfully resonant voice. Maybe it will be a tale that is ‘fended off’, however with the adaptation continuing to churn out new series’ and Atwood’s own sequel, the tale’s relevance still frightens its modern audience. Placards read ‘Make Atwood fiction again’ as the adaptation visualizes a world close to the viewers home that has been turned into a world where women’s rights, movement and identity has been homogenized and made to suffer abuse. When I picked up the novel at the age of sixteen I felt these women represented by Atwood were always in an alternate reality to my own, however with my context of theological and literary research, and my experience as a woman the adaptation hauntingly blurred the lines between reality and fiction.
The fundamentalism that is presented in the novel, staying in line with Marty and Appleby’s theories, is a model for the Handmaid based on tradition and scripture, with a strong will to eradicate liberal concepts such as equal rights for woman. This society holds sacred the nuclear model of family whilst removing those who threaten this. Atwood reports that her tale ‘has nothing in it that hasn’t happened somewhere at some point in time.’ Thus we can observe a mesh of fragmented models of extreme groups whether it be a dictatorship, totalitarian or even a cult. The state of Gilead’s theocracy yields the worst aspects of all that have subjected and enslaved woman. Picking out myths from scripture for modern woman to perform is something fundamentalists such as John Robinson a pastor of Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts (the setting of both show and novel) enjoyed too. Robinson said woman must not ‘shake off the bond of submission, but must bear patiently their burden, which God hath laid upon the daughters of Eve.’ More importantly, when I observe that men were regarded as the head of household by many Puritans, I hear Offred’s remark ‘’women are just a man’s way of making other women’’ loud and frighteningly clear. Woman are mostly disposable in Gilead, but the Handmaid’s have the ability to procreate, which keeps them alive. Atwood through her prescient novel showcases our history’s treatment of woman and makes us fearful of what can happen when our society is put under pressure. Her novel is there to show us it’s a mistake to ‘shield ourselves from the oppressive practices by patriarchal ideology, with its hierarchal arrangement of the sexes-practices exemplified by the new rights deliberate scapegoating of independent, autonomous women and insistence on the restoration of women’s traditional roles.’ This statement made five years after she had written the novel exemplifies that these philosophies and codes of conduct still bubble away.
@NOWTV. Watch The Handmaid's Tale Online - Stream TV On Demand. [Online, 2019] Available at: https://www.nowtv.com/watch/the-handmaids-tale/2aa8770b64a63610VgnVCM1000000b43150a
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