Welcome to another edition of Maybeland, where we explore some of the cinematic visions of the future. Here we examine the right-wing religious tyranny of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The U.S. is no more – transformed into the Republic of Gilead, the religious element has taken over in reaction to a dangerous reduction in fertility. Women have been reduced entirely to second-class citizens valued for their breeding capability, and social status is reinforced by a fascist police force. Kate (Natasha Richardson), who is forced to go by Offred – literally ‘Of [her husband] Fred’ (Robert Duvall) – is one of the limited fertile women left, who after a failed attempt to escape with her child and husband into Canada, is assigned to a class of breeder or ‘Handmaid’. As they are forced to report to the handlers who train them in their new role, they are ‘the lucky ones’.
It’s heartbreaking, frustrating and elegantly done; though the film itself is a little dated, the story, based on Margaret Atwood’s infamous novel, is skillfully handled. Handmaids are in essence slaves assigned to rich couples and forced into a twisted ritual rape until they are impregnated – their child, born without dysfunction or mutation, will belong to that couple and the Handmaid will move on to another family. They live entirely at the mercy of the husband’s sexual ‘duty’ and their wife’s mercy: sex is functional in this world, so much so that women have the soles of their feet cut up for “abusing themselves” with masturbation. Pleasure on either end of the breeding transaction could lead to a Handmaid being destroyed or sent to waste away in labour camps at the orders of the wife, as will failing to provide a child quickly as the wife loses patience.
The Handmaid’s Tale is uniquely restrained as a dystopian film: its plot is laid out in a relatively quiet and reserved way. It’s about the subjugation of women – the frustration and the fury that comes with moments of hideously stifling, boring oppression punctuated by moments of sickening sexual abuse. It’s a film of waiting, where the tension comes from Kate’s total inability to influence the world around her, from the insane violation of forcing women into this place of impotence. It’s also a clever enough narrative to recognise a real tenet of feminism: that there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Where women are forced to play the role of victim, men are encouraged to play the role of monster. Where some women rejoice in servitude and some men run free in the opportunity to violate, men and women both find themselves falling apart under the weight of this toxic setup. The breeders and the infertile are all crushed under the weight of their losses. When you categorise people and when you set out roles and obligations, you destroy everything that could make a society good and happy. As Kate, Nick and Moira are quick to point out, the world of Gilead breeds insanity.
The relationships that Kate/Offred forges are strong and enduring. Her beloved friend Moira (Elizabeth McGovern), who was arrested for “gender treachery” (“I like girls”), keeps her sane while they take risks to save each other. It’s also a romance story, of lust, love and trust. Nick (Aidan Quinn), the Commander’s driver, who is equally as pained that he would not be allowed to have a child – his status is too low to allow him to take up the womb of a precious breeder – may well be Kate/Offred’s only hope and only ally, but when her trust is the only thing she can give or refuse, Nick knows how precarious her situation is and appreciates that she must have control of her own life to truly survive.
The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrates a clear understanding of what feminism means on film, for all individuals anywhere on the sexual and gender spectra. The feminists and free women from before are branded ‘sluts’; lesbians are useless because they do not function in a way that can be commodified; and money equals motherhood in the same way it does ownership of an object. The firebrand that is the Commander’s wife Serena (played by the perfectly cast Faye Dunaway) rails at the world she fought to create, trading her power as a woman for power over other women. A former TV personality, her value was destroyed by her infertility, branding her “a defeated woman”. It’s all hideously familiar – the threats that religious fanatics throw at women realised, a perfectly imbalanced world where power corrupts absolutely. And all the while the Commander, this ultimate symbol of the patriarchy, acts like a cheeky boy, making the best of a situation that privileges him above all by breaking the rules. It’s sickening.
The design team did a wonderful job of recognising that less is more – in her striking red gown, somewhere between a mandatory hijab and a scarlet A, Richardson’s body is claimed by a new world and a new set of rules that starkly contrasts with the familiar one around her. The shops, streets, cars and houses are all familiar but sterilised; somehow people have given themselves up to a cookie-cutter life through which they can only suffer. One of the elements that makes The Handmaid’s Tale so unique is the understanding that this change has taken place within the lifetime of its central character. Kate remembers a former life, the freedom that she took for granted and felt slowly slip away until it was suddenly torn from her. As she spits against the apathy that sprung out of fear, so aware of the despicable impulses of these rich white straight men that have created her suffering, we cannot help but look around and notice the cracks our own society could slip through. This film never fails to remind you that women are not what oppression would make them: through endless years of tragedy, indoctrination, sexual and physical abuse and isolation, Offred – Kate – never forgets her own mind, desires and identity. She never does forget her own name.