Okay, so we’re all pumped that one of our favourite novels from a Canadian author is becoming a 10-part TV series (coming to Bravo April 30). And based on what we’ve seen so far, this show is going to blow everyone’s bonnets off. But no one — not even Margaret Atwood herself — could have predicted just how relevant The Handmaid’s Tale would become in 2017, more than three decades after it was first published.
When the novel hit bookshelves back in 1984, Atwood was exploring issues of female rights, religion, puritans and individual liberties, to name a few. And so she introduced us to Offred and a world of “handmaids” whose sole purpose for existing (according to the totalitarian world of Gilead where the story takes place) was to help powerful, barren couples procreate.
Now, as the series starring Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men), Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), Yvonne Strahovski (Dexter) and Josephe Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) gets ready for its big, two-hour debut on Bravo on April 30, a lot of people are freaking out about just how relevant the series actually is in today’s world.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
1. The established order disappears
The situation in Gilead: When we first meet Offred she is already living in the established world of Gilead, which is essentially an overthrown Boston. Through flashbacks we learn that the modern-day world crumbled when the U.S. Constitution was put on hold because of terrorist threats, and congress was taken over by a group of extremists.
What it was originally based on: Atwood began writing The Handmaid’s Tale when she was in West Berlin. The wall was still up, the Soviet Empire still existed and there was a sense of impeding doom.
How it translates today: The feeling in America has changed ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, so there’s that. However, since the trailers for the series have been released, some Donald Trump supporters have also been freaking out in the comments sections, claiming the show is a response to his leadership and some of his executive orders (it’s not; the novel was written 33 years ago, and the TV show was announced before Trump became an official candidate in any election).
2. Fertility issues
The situation in Gilead: Thanks to pollution and conditions in the environment, fertility is at an all-time low in the world. And of those babies that are born, many of them are born with severe defects thanks to radiation. As a result those women who are able to have children are considered commodities.
What it was originally based on: When Atwood wrote the book, U.S. birth rates were already steadily decreasing due to a variety of factors.
How it translates today: Infertility is often seen as a taboo subject. At home, one out of every six Canadian couples experience infertility while birth rates abroad continue to decrease. Notably, the book places all of the “blame” on the women, despite the fact that many of the men in Gilead are actually sterile. In today’s world many women are made to feel as though they are less feminine if they are unable to have children, or that something is wrong with them if they choose not to have them.
3. The use of handmaids
The situation in Gilead: Any unmarried woman who is able to bear children is trained to become a handmaid, a servant who is sent to live in the home of a rich, barren couple in power. Once a month the male head of the household performs a “ceremony” in which he essentially rapes the handmaid in hopes that she becomes pregnant. If she does, and has a successful birth, the baby is then taken from the handmaid and given to the couple to raise as their own.
What it was originally based on: This one goes all the way back to the bible, specifically the story of Jacob and his wives and handmaids. Jacob had 12 sons mothered by four different women, but the handmaids weren’t able to claim their babies as their own.
How it translates today: Because women’s bodies are technically owned by men in the novel, the idea has sparked debate around abortion, women’s rights, and the U.S. government’s role in all things fertility. Recently, women even dressed up as handmaids to protest an abortion ban bill in Texas. That bill passed, by the way, bringing second-trimester abortions in that state one step closer to being illegal.
4. The suppression of LGBTQ rights
The Situation in Gilead: Being a “sex-traitor” results in a public hanging — on the Harvard wall, of all places. Although some notable female characters (including Offred’s best friend Moira) are gay, they are also forced into becoming handmaids if they’re able to have children. Otherwise, they’re expendable.
What it was originally based on: In the U.S., anti-gay sentiment was much more prevalent in the early eighties than it is now. Same-sex marriage, for example, still didn’t exist.
How it translates today: As LGBTQ communities and supporters continue to fight for equal rights, being gay remains a crime punishable by death in many countries around the world.
The Situation in Gilead: Women are divided into “categories” depending on what they contribute to society. Wives wear the puritan colour blue. Handmaids are in red. Marthas, who do most of the cooking and cleaning in the rich households, wear green. And “econo-wives,” the wives of poor households, are in stripes. In all cases the women are to be covered as much as possible so as to not elicit attention from the opposite sex, and for handmaids in particular, eye contact is completely forbidden.
Meanwhile, at the red centre where the handmaids are “trained,” it becomes clear that woman who are raped or hurt by a man must take full responsibility for their actions.
What it was originally based on: The colours of Gilead were based in part on Western religion and in part on Totalitarian regimes that have historically used clothing to divide factions of people (being forced to wear the Star of David in Germany, for example). Meanwhile, the term “slut shaming” didn’t exist back then, but Atwood was interested in exploring the idea of second-wave feminism in the ’80s, and how women sometimes turn on each other while assigning blame.
How it translates today: There have been many cases where a woman’s credibility or character have been attacked in the wake of a claim of sexual assault (look at Canada’s recent Jian Ghomeshi trial as an example). Meanwhile, there are still countries, religions and dress codes that force women to cover themselves up so as to not “provoke” men.
6. The argument for feminism
The Situation in Gilead: Once the Constitution fell, female rights were taken away. Suddenly, women weren’t allowed to hold jobs or have their own money. Eventually they became the property of the men in their lives. At one point the Commander explains to Offred, “Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business.”
What it was originally based on: Atwood has never flat out said that this is a feminist novel in the sense that it puts women on some sort of a moral high ground, but she did set out to create interesting and complex female characters whose roles in society were suddenly defined by their sex and ability to procreate.
How it translates today: Third-wave feminism remains a hot debate with different approaches, ideologies and aims. Whether it’s wages, the right to choose or issues of safety, plenty of women are still fighting the good fight for equality.
7. Having a voice
The Situation in Gilead: Offred is unable to speak her mind in her current situation, so she resorts to telling her story in hopes that someone in a different time will eventually find it, carry it on and give it meaning.
What it was originally based on: Atwood has referenced many examples of people keeping a record of their struggles as an inspiration for the book; from Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Pepys to Romeo Dallaire and Anne Frank.
How it translates today: In writing a column for The New York Times on how The Handmaid’s Tale translates in today’s world, Atwood admits that people often ask her whether she predicted the future. The answer is no, with a caveat:
“In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate. Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades, and indeed the past centuries. In this divisive climate, in which hate for many groups seems on the rise and scorn for democratic institutions is being expressed by extremists of all stripes, it is a certainty that someone, somewhere — many, I would guess — are writing down what is happening as they themselves are experiencing it. Or they will remember, and record later, if they can.
Will their messages be suppressed and hidden? Will they be found, centuries later, in an old house, behind a wall?
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. I trust it will not.”
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 30 on Bravo.