The current adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is possibly the greatest piece of propaganda I have ever seen.
I mean this as a compliment as well as a criticism.
The reason why it’s a compliment is because THT is brilliant television. Atwood’s original vision of a dystopian future, in which (weirdo) neo-Puritan theonomists have overthrown the American government and forced the few fertile women that remain into concubinage, is rendered with care and conviction. When I read the book many years ago, it struck me as contrived and implausible. Yet the Hulu series makes it terrifyingly believable.
First, the acting is astonishing. Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) offers a masterful performance as the eponymous handmaid, communicating worlds of emotion in the tiniest inflections of speech and expression. On Moss’s lips jarring colloquialisms such as “you too”, “you think?” or “sure” become shockingly defiant declarations of an unbowed spirit. June—or “Offred” (of-Fred) as she is patronymically branded—is an immensely sympathetic hero: not necessarily a good person, but a gloriously brave person in an impossible situation.
Second, THT’s writing and characterisation are extremely subtle. Both the goodies and baddies in this story are depicted as real people with histories and mixed motives. Commander Waterford and his wife—Offred’s jailers and sexual abusers—are shown to be cogs in a machine that abuses them too. Even Aunt Lydia, whose zealous brutality veers closest to caricature, reveals an unexpected tenderness toward her damaged victims.
Third, the construction of the series is ingenious. THT interleaves its visions of the brutal present with flashbacks to scenes and music from the past (our time). These provide backstory, but, more importantly, they also serve to convince us that our own flawed world—despite its sexual anarchy and infidelity—was infinitely preferable to the false Christian piety of Gilead (the new name for America).
THT is not subtle about its ideological subtext at this point. Although there are some merciful depictions of mainstream Christianity being repressed—we see a priest hanged, and a church demolished—it is very clear that the sect in charge is meant to be identified as Christian fundamentalist. The greetings and pleasantries of Gilead are a mishmash of clunky grabs from the King James Bible. “Blessed be the fruit” … “May the Lord open,” say handmaids to each other when they meet. “Praise be” is the standard response to every piece of good news. The perverse practice of the handmaid ritual itself (there’s some pretty explicit stuff here, be warned*) is justified by a quote from Genesis 30:3—“Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees.”
Now, on one level this is all fine. It’s not hard to imagine a kooky cult where people talk in forced religious clichés like this; where Scriptural descriptions of ancient customs are misread as timeless prescriptions. And, if we suspend our disbelief for the sake of the story, we might even imagine such a cult gaining political power.
But, of course, THT is more than simply a story. It is no secret that when Atwood wrote it in 1985, the book was a pamphlet for the culture wars—a protest against the religious right and its views on abortion, homosexuality and so on. And, given the rhetoric that surrounds this new adaptation, THT still serves that function. It appeals to the prejudices and fears of the intellectual left. It shows us what the makers (and many of the consumers) of the show think religious conservatives want to inflict on women and other minorities.
This makes watching the show a strange experience for religious conservatives like this one. I watch it, and I’m on Offred’s side. I like her spirit and her strength. I want her to win. I want her to regain her freedom, choices and family. I cheer-on her feisty gay friend. I want to see the people using the Bible to justify their violence overthrown. I want an end to their evil exploitative religion.
Yet I get the distinct feeling that the people making this show think they are targeting people like me. Flashbacks depict the Waterfords as an ordinary-looking Christian couple (perhaps of the Mary Pride, have-as-many-kids-as-you-can sort) who fail to realise where their radical biblicism is headed. The arguments and euphemisms they use to defend their position sound like a kind of creepy parody of complementarianism—“equal but different” without the equality, or (most significantly) any real consideration of Christ.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a great production. You’ll love it if you enjoy great storytelling and acting.
You’ll love it even more if you don’t like conservative Christians.
And if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself turned upside down by almost every episode.
* Strong caution. As mentioned above, The Handmaid’s Tale contains explicit content (which gets worse in the final episodes). My wife and I have been grateful to have been able to watch it via the SBS web-portal which allows us to scrub past the worst bits, but please bear this in mind if you are considering whether to watch it yourself.