I cannot speak to the historic moment from which Margaret Atwood was writing when she penned The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. However, reading her iconic feminist text and watching the new Hulu adaptation of the series as an American citizen today is startling to say the least.
When I heard about the Hulu adaptation I was determined to read the book first, which somehow had not yet made it to the top of my “to read” pile. I did not want to be one to claim love for a show that had butchered the source material. Upon reading the book and watching the show though, I have come to discover that the two mediums make for a vastly different experience.
Reading The Handmaid’s Tale is heartbreaking and horrifying in the way of your worst nightmares. It pulls you into your deepest, darkest fears in which you have no control and no say over your life. Watching, however, is more visceral. Hulu’s adaptation forces you to feel the thrust of the Commander as Offred is forced to sit through yet another “ritual”. It forces you to feel the animalistic rage that comes with being allowed to punish a rapist.
Atwood’s words hold what feel like aphoristic truths—experiences all women have undergone at one point or another. “Modesty is invisibility, said Aunt Lydia. Never forget it. To be seen—to be seen—is to be—her voice trembled—penetrated. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable. She called us girls.” Who among us has not been preached to about the virtues of modesty (as though it were a form of protection)?
To read her work is to be taken back through every childhood memory, every lesson about what it meant to be a “woman” — or more importantly what it meant to be a “lady”. To read is to hear the restrictions ring in your ears as though they were being said to you directly.
To watch is another form of horror.
To watch is to surrender a second sense to your own subjugation. Though beautifully shot, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is like a train wreck, so tragic that it forces you to look. It hurts to watch Offred and the other handmaids suffer at the hands of their commanders, boiled down to no more than incubators, valued for their working ovaries—their ability to procreate.
The contrast posed by “the time before” versus the reality we are presented with as the show proceeds eviscerates the mind. We are forced to watch as women are stripped of every last right until they are nothing but slaves to wealthy men. It is a feminist nightmare — dystopia at its most terrifying. This is, however, not beyond the pale.
Hulu’s adaptation reads like a cautionary tale for modern times. We are forced to watch every day as American health care is stripped away, as politicians claim a woman’s body has measures to prevent pregnancy by rape, as Planned Parenthood is defunded and as our girls and women are disenfranchised. It is heartbreaking to watch—heartbreaking to see the country I grew up loving begin to hate me so openly—heartbreaking in a way that I know I will tell my daughter one day, if only so she learns from our mistakes, if only so she knows how important it is to fight.
Trump’s America is not unlike Gilead. Here it is hard to get out of bed in the morning. It is easy to feel hopeless. It is easy to feel defeated. To resist can take everything you have, as Offred’s resistance took her husband and daughter. To resist sometimes feels futile—a shout into the void. It aches, living here now and seeing the hatred that has overtaken this beautiful place I’ve called home.
Sometimes there are glimmers of hope. Like when millions of women around the globe stand up and say we will not stand for this, when travel bans are rejected in federal courts and when powerful people pledge to keep funding Planned Parenthood and the Paris climate accord. There are still good people fighting—still rebels worth joining.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it can feel gray and hopeless. It can feel like there is no escape from a world when men are allowed to decide what women do with their bodies. It can feel like you have no control. It can be suffocating. But there is hope.
A world where The Handmaid’s Tale can be written is a world that can learn from its truth. A country that can elect Donald Trump is a country that can learn to do better. I have to believe that. As an educated American who still hopes beyond hope and loves her country beyond all reason, I have to believe that. My only hope is others will too — before we wake up one day and discover it’s too late.
Image source: Hulu
Kelly Livingston is a freelance writer with a passion for intersectional feminism. After four years studying English and Anthropology at the University of Florida, she remains fascinated by the ways we can use writing to comment on and change our culture.