Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale: Feminism Uncut

Set in a dystopian future, in a world that is not so different from our own, a woman is forced to live as a paramour under a fundamentalist, theocratic and patriarchal dictatorship. Based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is told from the first-person perspective of our lead character, Offred (Elizabeth Moss). Our protagonist is part of a class of women who are kept for one purpose, to bear the children of high-ranking men. And these women are handmaids. In an era of depleting birth rates and violent sterility due to severe environmental pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, it’s the handmaids’ “duty” to cater for their oppressive masters’ every need.

“Blessed are the meek” says Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) quoting Matthew 5:5 from the New Testament. This is part of a longer quote which reads: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”. Typically, which is often custom with organised religion, fanatics like Aunt Lydia selectively quote bits to suit their agenda. Yes, “for they will inherit the earth” and by the finale, ‘Night’, the handmaids have struck back at the forces of the systemic oppression of Aunt Lydia and those like her.“And blessed are those who suffer with cause of righteousness” continues Offred (Moss) off of Lydia’s quote. And Hulu’s series shows religious fanaticism at its most dangerous, and that’s scary.

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia is deliciously bad, reminiscent of Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca
(The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu)

I’m up for anything that shows minorities / oppressed peoples fighting back, onscreen and off. Whether it be showing a positively portrayed black man in Luke Cage or the LGBT community being represented as something more than a stereotype. Sense8 did well with Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Aminita (Freeman Agyeman), whereas Modern Family did not. The Handmaid’s Tale creator, Bruce Miller (ER), along with main writers: author Margaret Atwood, Nina Fiore (The Vampire Diares) and John Hererra (Eureka) managed to create realistic female characters who are not just cardboard cut outs, but actual real people who we can understand in one way or another.

This is an updated adaptation of the novel to meet the twenty-first century, but it’s a faithful one. Yet, Hulu’s original series is also its own beast as well. It’s an adaptation, but still retains enough originality to be able to be worthy of being donned part of the current online original programming culture we now find ourselves in. Many thanks to the efforts of Netflix (Dear White People), Amazon Prime (The Man in the High Castle) and recently Sky, with such shows like Guerrilla, and Jamestown which is about the first English settlers in America in the early seventeenth century. And it’s one more female-led show that portrays women as more than just domestic house slaves.

Whilst Game of Thrones has Cersei Lannister, The Handmaid’s Tale has Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski)
(The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu)

Having recently finished Atwood’s novel, the series is what happens when creatives actually read the source material without completely submitting to it. And it was easy enough to draw comparisons between the novel / television series with our own reality, as well as other sources, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. That is a novel that similarly talks about female persecution based on their sexuality. What got me whilst reading The Handmaid’s Tale and watching the show is that I now want a prequel depicting the war and the events that pushed their world into the one we now see. But more importantly, showing why there are so few fertile women.

FEMINISM! Yes, that word! Liberating to some, but fearful to others. To me, as a man, feminism is gender equality, women having the same rights and benefits as their male kin. The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist show, a feminist drama if there ever was one; and the novel even more so, putting sexual and gender politics onto the world stage. If we had this show in 2010, it would not have had the same splash that it is having now. All due to the feminist agenda having now come full circle to what occurred in the 1980s as we are living in fourth wave feminism, or so I believe. And when we have world leaders saying “grab ’em by the pussy”, yes we need TV shows like this.

If Elizabeth Moss (Top of the Lake) doesn’t win an Emmy for her performance, I’ll be flabbergasted
(The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu)

The pilot episode, ‘Offred’, takes us into the thick of the action of what we’re supposed to think is the present. The story is told in an unorthodox style. Television fanatics would call the style nonlinear. It may be nonlinear, but I found it simple to follow. I’m curious to see if people going into this show without any prior knowledge of the original novel found it just as easy to understand as I did. Or did they have to rewatch bits to fully understand it? Furthermore, Margaret Atwood’s original story is written in the same style which may leave many members of the audience confused and muddled, which acts as an undertone for what is taking place to our characters on screen.

It’s no wonder that this show has received thirteen Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Series, Outstanding Leading Actress for (Elizabeth Moss) and Outstanding Supporting Actress (Ann Dowd). But my joy comes at hearing that it also got nominations for cinematography, casting and production design. All three are simply out of this world. Each character is played to perfection, especially Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) as the scaly Commander and Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia. The cinematography is truly beautiful. Especially in episodes like ‘Night’, as it starts snowing. The red mixed with the white is awe-inspiring, and that colour mix is really easy on the eye.

From the cast to the crew to the cinematography, this show has it all: it should be compulsory watching
(The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu)

It shouldn’t be uncommon to walk into your local store in five years time to find seasons of this show in the documentary section just like how the source material should be in the nonfiction section. But I won’t stint in saying that the show and the book alike are brutal. From the cast to the cinematography to the excellent musical score (Adam Taylor), this show is an experience within itself and I applaud those who have the resilience to stick it out to the end.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian triumph is a feminist novel, and now a TV series; and that’s the progressive thinking that should go on to define today’s twenty-somethings as the Protest Generation