The Horrifying Truth Behind The Handmaid’s Tale

I have been hooked on The Handmaid’s Tale. With being a die-hard feminist and Margaret Atwood (writer of the original novel) being an absolute genius- this was the perfect recipe for binge-watching. This novel, and Hulu TV Series, is a fictional depiction of dystopian America. It’s eerie and devastating, but what makes it even more horrific is that Atwood’s inspiration for this story was based on real-life religious and political history.

If you haven’t yet watched The Handmaid’s Tale *totally judging you*, you can find a great synopsis here.

So, the reason you’re here, what truth lies behind this fictional masterpiece?

The repressed state of The Republic of Gilead is a dictatorship developed by Christian extremists who use violence and aggression to control everyone living there. Gilead is ran by a hierarchy of male commanders and high-class couples whose primary focus is to increase levels of reproduction. Despite this, pleasure is a sin, and so instead of making love with their wives- they rape and abuse women (those who are fertile and therefore chosen to be handmaids). When their handmaid has successfully given birth, they will get moved on to the next family.

This entire concept was inspired by The Old Testament of the bible- particularly the story of Rachel and Leah (Genesis Chapters 29- 35). It tells a tale of these two women, both married to Jacob, who are trying to conceive. Leah discovers she is pregnant quickly, whereas Rachel struggles with infertility. Somewhere along the line, a handmaid named Belhah is offered to Rachel as a “vessel” in which she could have children. Although Gilead isn’t real, this is a perfect example of how extreme interpretations can lead to the misuse of scripture to validate oppression and hate crimes.

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Photograph from Hulu.

Atwood has advised in several interviews that the constant oppression of women in Gilead was also inspired by conservative control in America, specifically in relation to the views of Ronald Reagan in 1981. He was the first president to propose a constitutional amendment for organised prayer in schools. He teamed up with religious organisations and, as you can imagine, this had a dramatic impact on views of fertility and access (or lack of access) to abortions. The similarities of this to current politics in places like Ireland and Mexico, are unnerving- but it doesn’t end there. In 1966 Romania, there was a ban on both abortion and birth control, instigated by President Ceauseacu to increase the countries population. How barbaric.

The protagonist of this book/ series June Osborne, or ‘Offred’ when in Gilead (of- Fred, a reminder that she is property of Commander Fred Waterford), is placed in the Waterford household solely to provide them with a child. The expectation is that once the baby has been born, she will be moved to another household for the same purpose. This happens frequently to every handmaid and the emotional turmoil of immediately removing a new-born baby from their biological Mother without consent, is brilliantly portrayed. Unfortunately, this happened in reality to women during World War 2. WW2 generals in Argentina were reported to be ‘dumping’ people out of aeroplanes, however, if they were pregnant- they’d be looked after (to some extent) to provide a healthy baby. This baby was then given to those in command and Mum put right back on the aeroplane. There is also evidence to say that Hitler kidnapped children depending of their appearance in hope to raise them in to being blonde Germans. Similarly, there are so many reports of children from unwed or indigenous women being removed and given to families deemed ‘more worthy’ throughout 1950- 1970.

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Photograph from Hulu.

It’s well known that one of the main inspirations for Atwood was The Salem Witch Trials, with a specific interest in the case of Mary Webster. Webster was accused of being a witch in 17th Century New England. She went to trial and was declared guilty- which was followed by a series of physical assaults and the decision to hang her. After years of avoiding the noose, she survived. Evidence of misogyny yet perhaps a symbol of hope- as Atwood says, “she made it through”. It is rumoured that the fabulous Atwood is actually a descendent of Webster. Who knows? Either way, she definitely has a keen interest in her story, writing a poem about her in 1995 called Half-Hanged Mary.

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Photograph from Hulu.

Of course this is a feminist masterpiece, but Atwood also draws attention to other forms of oppression- such as the criminalisation of homosexuality. I wish this was just fiction but homosexuality is illegal in 69 countries around the world and, even in the UK where we like to think we’re forward-thinking, it was still illegal until The Sexual Offences Act was published in 1967. It’s worth baring in mind that marriage equality was only passed in 2014.

One of my favourite characters in the show is referred to as a ‘gender traitor’ as people discover that she is a lesbian. Not only does she have to deal with toxic, derogatory slurs on a daily basis but when she finds love in what otherwise seems to be a loveless place, she is punished with Female Genital Mutilation (and her girlfriend hanged). FGM is used in Gilead as a ‘corrective procedure’, whereby they forcefully remove their outer labia, inner labia and clitoris. The belief is that women will no longer experience pleasure but can still be baby-makers. Devastatingly, this happens in the real world too. It is estimated that this has happened to 140 million women around the world and, despite FGM being criminalised in the UK in 1985 (a little bit late, don’t you think?), research suggests that approximately 23,000 English/ Irish/ Scottish girls are still at risk.

Another form of punishment in Gilead is being sent to The Colonies whereby women who have broken ‘the law’ are expected to perform intensive manual labour in dangerous conditions for the rest of their shortened lives. Atwood talks openly about how this idea stems from prisoners of The Soviet Union during the 1970’s who were sent to work in toxic uranium mines and exposed to fatal levels of radiation (making their expected life span only 2 years).

Incarcerating women and stripping them of their human rights is completely inhumane and it’s mind-blowing (in the worst possible way) to discover that this actually happened. In America during World War 1, during the implementation of the American Plan, women whom were thought to have sexually transmitted diseases or were seen to be ‘promiscuous’ were sent to detention facilities. The purpose of this was to protect soldiers (whom were men, because equality was an abstract concept back then). Clearly, they didn’t think twice about the women.

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Photograph from Hulu.

Atwood’s attention to detail is astounding. The dialogue used by handmaids, “blessed be the fruit” and “may the lord open”, are inspired by the book of Deuteronomy (5th book of the bible) and the enforced dress code relates to both religions’ and cultures (both historically and currently) whom place these expectations on women and to the idea of uniform dehumanising people, making it easier to cause them harm. There are so many more subtle yet equally thought-provoking features of this book and series; such as the handmaids sitting in a circle, pointing their fingers at a peer whom is thought to have done something wrong in the eyes of Gilead, and repeating “it’s your fault”. This encapsulates the stigma thrust upon survivors of abuse, whom are often not believed and made to feel ashamed, despite them being a victim.

See the source image
Photograph from Hulu.

I could write for days about The Handmaids Tale. The concept is intriguing. The actors in the TV series are extremely talented. Antwood is a genius.

If you plan to watch, you’re going to want to clear your diary. You’ll be hooked! The rest of us will have to patiently wait for series 5…


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