I have always wondered what would have happened to me if I lived in Salem during the witch trials. After watching Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I’m pretty sure I know what my fate would be… in Gilead at least.
Backdrop: Consider that government has been disbanded as we know it. Imagine religious and puritanical extremism being the law of the land. Imagine women considered as property. Imagine not having a voice. Imagine solely being a vessel for a man’s seed. Imagine losing your name. What now? These are the rules of law; and if you run, you are, quite literally, dead.
This is also a world of sisters ― some of whom you would give your life for and others who would happily trade your life for theirs. Pitting women against each other seems to be what keeps this system in place. Because the stakes are so high, you don’t know who to trust. And that stress extends to us as viewers, too.
There are significant problems with herd identity (“Marthas,” “Handmaids,” Wives,” Aunts”). I have always believed that one of the greatest challenges women face is taking ownership of who we are. We assume many roles and often act for the benefit of someone else. I am most often: “Memphis’ mom. Lou’s wife. Steve’s daughter.” It’s not that these descriptions aren’t true, but they only tell people our worth as it is measured by what we do ― or who we are ― for others. These titles deny us a name. Who are we without a name?
This is the framework for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where Handmaids must take on the names of their male heads of household. Offred (played by Elizabeth Moss) is, literally, “Of Fred.” Ofglen is “Of Glen.” If this is making you uncomfortable, welcome to the club. Names are the core of who we are. They may initially be chosen for us by our parents, but we have a say in generating our preferred names or nicknames. Our names allow us to reinvent ourselves. No name? No agency. No identity.
As we watch Offred navigate her current life as a Handmaid, we feel claustrophobic. She is trapped in a life that she cannot get out of without being in great peril. Her role in society is that of a walking uterus. Her caste is represented by the cloak of red she wears and the white wings that shield her face. If she is seen ― truly seen ― then she has an identity, other than a job description. Offred dreams of escape. We do, too.
In my work as a sexuality and relationships educator, I spend most of my time dismantling the system of double standards, slut-shaming and toxic masculinity. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” these systems are law. As Aunt Lydia says to a young woman who discloses that she was gang raped, “[Rape] is God’s way of teaching you a lesson.” This is a world that purports that men cannot control their impulses and women are supposed to be innocent, virtuous, sexually pure (reproduction aside) and temptation-free.
It is clear that for the people of Gilead (especially Handmaidens), women are the root of all that ails society. We are told that years of birth control, emergency contraception and access to abortion have caused a plague of infertility. Sex and pleasure of the non-procreative variety are taboo. Before Offred’s Commander is forced on her, she has to thoroughly wash herself. In Gilead, to be a woman is to be innately “unclean.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” speaks to how women’s sexual agency is fraught with suspicion and fear. The ability to control reproduction is power of the highest degree. She who controls it wins. (Okay, not exactly, but you get my point.) To be free means that you have control over your body; you are accountable for your actions and take ownership of your choices; and you are not judged by the decisions you make. To be free means your identity is respected.
I am excited, and simultaneously terrified, to see what “June” (pre-Offred) experiences next. Because now that we know her real name, we should use it.