The Handmaid’s Tale has received a lot of attention since the November election—and for good reason. This dystopian novel depicts a world in which environmental pollution has rendered the majority of the population sterile and the religious right has seized power. The events of the book, written by Margaret Atwood in 1985, are eerily similar to our current political climate. The constitution is suspended under the guise of protecting the country from Islamic radicals, abortion is outlawed, and Christian fundamentalists run the government.
I’ve thus far enjoyed Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, though I am forever a book-loyalist. Ofglen’s story significantly deviates from the novel, but in this case I’m actually interested in the direction they are taking her. In the novel, Ofglen hangs herself when the Eyes come for her because of her participation in the resistance. In the adaptation, however, Ofglen is arrested for gender treachery (i.e. being gay.) While Ofglen’s parter, a Martha, is hanged for her crime, Ofglen is pardoned because of her fertility. Her life is spared and she is instead sentenced to Redemption which, in this world, means the removal of her clitoris. (I actually wrote my thesis on genital cutting and have a lot of thoughts about this, but they are best explored in their own post.)
Alexis Bledel’s performance in episode two, in which she is featured but does not speak a word, redeems her from the awful Gilmore Girls revival (something I didn’t think possible.) Overall, I think that the show is maintaining the ethos of the book and I am impressed with how they are incorporating Offred’s internal monologue.
While I like the adaptation, the Hulu series focuses exclusively on fertility and does not address its intersection with race. On one hand, this means a more diverse cast with actors of color in significant roles—which is great! But on the other hand, race and reproductive rights are inextricably linked and to gloss over that means erasing a complex, problematic, and violent history. The executive producer, Bruce Miller, has said “What’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show?” And this is a major challenge of adapting a story about a white supremacist society. I do prefer watching a show in which actors of color are playing significant characters and are not relegated to playing “the help.” The Handmaid’s Tale is a great example of how Hollywood can, and should, deviate from source texts to create more diverse casts. Effecting change in the real world is, I think, more important than recreating the text. But, as viewers, we need to remember that this society (both Gilead and the real world) is not post-racial and find ways to engage with the complexity of race and reproductive rights.
To be clear, “reproductive rights” doesn’t just mean being pro-choice. Forced sterilization still happens in low-income communities, to people of color, and to people who struggle with addiction and other mental health problems. Structural barriers limit queer people, people of color, people who are incarcerated, and people who are mentally ill in their pursuit to have children. This topic deserves more attention and has been written about by people smarter than myself, so check out the links at the bottom of this post.
In her work, Atwood is careful to only include events that have actually happened. Forced reproduction of enslaved women has happened in this country, but there is some critique about Atwood employing this storyline in a book that features only white women. Is it co-opting an experience? Is it following the power of the religious right to its logical end? If The Handmaid’s Tale is altering Ofglen’s story in order to explore the world of Gilead, should they also follow a character who is sent to the Colonies? I’m all for a second season exploring the rest of Gilead.
Have you watched The Handmaid’s Tale yet? What are your thoughts?
Update June 2017: Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale is going to explore Gilead outside of the novel, and showrunner Bruce Miller has specifically said that race is going to get real attention in season 2.