Margaret Atwood’s 1984 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, echoes the historical belief that men are the perpetrators of oppression, while Hulu’s 2017 television adaptation suggests that some women are just as responsible for the misogynistic foundations of the fictional ‘Republic of Gilead’. So we ask, are women the real gender-traitors in this not-so-dystopian near-future?
Atwood’s 1984 novel paints an oppressive dystopian landscape created by privileged Anglo males exerting dominance over a society they believed had strayed from conservative values.
However, the TV series heavily implies that Serena Joy (Commander Waterford’s wife) was also an instigator of this oppression upon discovering that she was once a conservative activist. Serena, who admits to having “quite the temper” in the past (a chilling comparison to her present-day icy demeanour) used to make impassioned speeches at rallies, and even published a book called A Woman’s Place – whose subject matter borrows from the tired notion that a “woman’s place” is in the domestic household. It was Serena’s vision of a theocratic society that propelled the Commander’s involvement in overthrowing the American government and establishing the ‘Republic of Gilead’.
More disturbingly, Serena casually floats the idea of “fertility as a national resource, reproduction as a moral imperative” to the Commander as the subject of her second book. Perhaps the greatest and most brutal irony of Gilead is that it was inspired by the ideas of a woman who was never given credit for them, and is then consigned to a life devoid of any intellectual stimulation. Whatever world she imagined, it wasn’t this one – but make no mistake, she was complicit in creating it.
We are often so quick trigger to blame the patriarchy for gender inequality that we are rendered blind to any female accomplices. In an essay for the New York Times ‘Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means In The Age Of Trump, Atwood commented on the narcissistic tendencies that women exhibit:
“It was way too much like way too much history. Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power”
Social media has steadfastly enabled a sickening trend of online bullying and torment, providing a platform for individuals to ridicule and abuse. More often than not, the victims of this abuse are women. The perpetrators? Other women.
Victim-blaming and slut-shaming are typical weapons of torment in the female arsenal. Whether or not it is an act of jealousy or an effort to comply with the patriarchal defence of ‘she was asking for it’, this form of abuse is a prime example of anti-female rhetoric. The antagonistic Aunts of Gilead instigate this behaviour by literally cattle-prodding the Handmaid’s into victim-blaming fellow a Handmaid for having been gang-raped.
In an interview with INSIDER, series showrunner Bruce Miller admitted to casting a younger Serena Joy (as opposed to the elderly and arthritic wife characterised in the novel) as a means to invoke competitiveness and subsequent jealousy between her and her Handmaid, Offred. Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena, already physically towers over Elizabeth Moss (Offred) before she dons the trademark blue heels of her status. The powerful image of Serena literally standing over Offred further cements the female oppression she so wilfully traded for her own selfish gain.
Conversely, any female that has enjoyed a night out on the town will have witnessed the innate bonds of sisterhood displayed between acquaintances in the women’s bathroom. The 8th episode, ‘The Jezebels’, pays homage to this unspoken etiquette when Offred is reunited with her best friend, Moira. The women’s restroom in which they meet is symbolic of a sanctuary, a place where they can temporarily escape the confines of their oppression – until an Aunt interrupts and casts Moira back to the bar teeming with lecherous commanders. This scene illustrates a chilling metaphor for women complicit in other women’s oppression: invading the safe haven, rejecting the implied camaraderie of this space, and then breaching the unspoken contract of sisterly protection from unwanted sexual advances.
This show is by no means a call-to-arms to the sisterhood; Moss reminds us that the inevitable goal is gender equality, “Men and women are both humans, so, for me, that makes my characters and the work that I do human stories”. In an already divisive world, amidst an increasingly unstable political climate in which misogyny undeniably runs rampant, it is important for everyone – not just women – to stay awake. As Offred pensively narrated, “we didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late…”