Imagine a society in which the state forbids women from owning property, speaking out of turn or even reading.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” a winner in five categories at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, presents a United States in the near future that imposes such archaic rules on women. The state punishes reading, for example, by amputating a hand.
In the story’s fictional setting, worldwide fertility rates have plummeted and a totalitarian state called Gilead has taken power in what was formerly the United States. Women who are capable of conceiving, known as handmaids, are subjected to inhumane conditions and forced to bear children for the high-ranking officials of Gilead.
Many viewers have commented on the topicality of the show, the actors and showrunners themselves noting subtle parallels between the fictional series and reality in present-day America. Women have protested against abortion bills in multiple locations, including Ohio and Ireland, by donning outfits inspired by the show.
Although plot points in “The Handmaid’s Tale” mirror events that have occurred during President Trump’s administration, such as mass protests and threats to reproductive rights, the story of the women of Gilead serves as a broader warning against the danger of complacency – a message that extends beyond a four-year presidency and one the series captures beautifully in its haunting narratives of the handmaids.
Margaret Atwood, the author of the novel the show is based on, has revealed many of the story’s influences, including religious influences, most notably the Puritan colonies of the 17th century, and political influences, such as public hostility in Cold War-era Germany.
Gilead’s backstory is sparse. Little is revealed about the political or social catalysts that sparked the rise of the state, which redistributes focus to the characters themselves and their personal narratives. The show’s broad setting also allows viewers to apply its themes to many social and political situations in the real world.
Timing plays an essential part in establishing the show’s core themes. The juxtaposition between the normalcy of protagonist Offred’s (Elizabeth Moss) life just a few years prior and her present role as a household slave leads viewers to wonder what triggered such as drastic change in such a short amount of time.
The shift between Offred’s two lives unfolds gradually at the start and grows increasingly chaotic. First, Offred and all her female coworkers are let go by the company they work for, then her bank account is drained and reallocated to the male of her household. Throughout all this, Offred and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) ignore the warning signs, and when they finally decide to escape to the Canadian border with their families, it’s too late. Their complacency forms the entire premise of the show.
Offred is not the only character suffering the consequences of her complaency. Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of high-level Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), played a pivotal role in the establishment of Gilead as a well-known reactionary and conservative figure who wrote a book titled “A Woman’s Place.” However, she stayed silent even as she slowly realized the life she wished for wasn’t the life she wanted, and because of her quiet acceptance, spends her days knitting clothes for a child that may never come and is even barred from reading the book she authored.
Watching from the outside, it’s hard not to plead with the onscreen characters to do something – leave, escape, protest, run. But the audience can do nothing but watch passively as the show’s characters continue to rationalize the situation happening around them. The dark outcome of their complacency is fictional, but the same rationalization has contributed to many real-life political conflicts.
The rise of Gilead and the lives of its citizens acts as a loose metaphor for the unintended consequences of failing to speak up or take action. And although Puritan-inspired capes and white bonnets probably won’t appear in the distant future, the image serves as a cautionary tale for all, a timeless lesson to take heed of – if you sit on your hands for too long, they might get cut off.