The Handmaid’s Tale: Living in Red

Featured Artwork: Shawna X

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Trigger warning: mentions of rape.

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In 2017, Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction novel regained popularity when the Hulu adaptation launched its series. Now sitting at 3 seasons, the story of the protagonist, Offred, and her red gown remains an icon and inspiration for the feminist movement.

But, why?

To further understand this, context is needed. Within the dystopian future of the United States, the Republic of Gilead has been set in power, made possible by its founders and their plans to assassinate the president, suspend the constitution, and take control. The government lives and breathes as a theocracy, depending on religion. References of the Catholic Bible lay strewn across the story’s scenes, found within the required vernacular of its citizens, the storefront signs of grocery shops, and the Ceremony, an event built and relying on state-sanctioned rape.

Such an event exists due to the direct plummet in birth rates within Gilead where the accumulation of toxic waste haunts the environment, leaving the next generation dependent on the current female population who are still fertile. Now set by law, any woman who carries viable ovaries and had been living a life of infidelity or was in a second marriage before Gilead must become handmaid dressed in red.

By force, these women are trained into their class of society by the Aunts, true believers and servants to the Republic. This is done in the Rachel and Leah Centre, where the women learn that they’ll be assigned to different houses with a Wife and her husband, a Commander, and of the Ceremony, a ritual based on Genesis 30: 1-3. This verse describes the Biblical figures, Rachel and Jacob, using their maid, Bilhah, as a surrogate for their own children. In reference to this, the handmaid will lie on the bed between the legs of the Wife, head resting on her pelvis, required to give herself up to her Commander until he finishes so that she may become pregnant.

It may be odd to some to find this as a description of rape, although it is. Our narrator, Offred, is never given the choice to say “no” to the Ceremony or her Commander throughout her story because of the consequences she’ll face if she does, and is, therefore, unable to consent. In the eyes of the Republic, the handmaid serves one purpose: childbearing. Offred and the handmaids around her are stripped of their right to free speech and education. They also find themselves banned to read and write or to work for pay. The protagonist’s moniker is revealed to not even be hers as Atwood explains this in the novel’s introduction:

“This name is composed of a man’s first name, Fred, and a prefix denoting ‘belonging to,’ so it is like ‘de’ in French or ‘von’ in German or the suffix ‘–son’ in English last names such as Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: ‘offered’, denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.”

Gilead has reduced its handmaid class to be viewed as nothing but “–two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.” They have incorporated this belief so heavily that when Offred participates in the birthing ceremony of an old handmaid acquaintance, Ofwarren, with others like herself, they are of course rejoiced over the birth of the new child. But, the shadows of the Republic’s ideology grips at their consciousness afterwards. These other women of red realize that Ofwarren is safe — she will never be reclassed into an Unwoman and shipped off to clean the toxic waste outside of their borders — and that they are all losing time to prove their fertility as they age every day: We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now that the excitement’s over, is our own failure.” (Offred, Chapter 23).

It is clear, then, that Gilead’s government has gained control over women’s bodies and their decisions over what they can do with them in one of the most wicked ways imagined. 

This is how we got here. 

The development and the conflict over easier access to abortions, the need for Planned Parenthood, birth control, and marches in the name of “my body, my choice” have formed an ever-growing presence to secure women’s rights in recent years, but have also resulted in the schism between pro-choice and pro-life groups. Laws and bills made in resistance to these issues by governments around the world have resulted in groups coming out in the streets to protest, dressed in vibrant red cloaks and white wings. One of the earliest acts of opposition was in 2012, outside the parliament building in Ottawa, Canada. Handmaid-dressed women stood to protest Motion 312, an effort to reopen the debate of when human life begins, one of their signs reading, “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual.”

Because of Atwood’s creation and its popularity, she has also obviously received questions about her work, one of the speculations/assumptions being: Is The Handmaid’s Tale anti-religion? Is it anti Christain/Catholic? Atwood answers this again in the novel’s introduction, explaining,  “So the book is not ‘anti-religion.’ It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.” 

It’s satire. The novel and adaptation altogether call for us to stay awake, to listen and understand where we are in this current world, and what we can do in the midst of change. If we are passive, if we become complacent, it may be too late to go back. We are capable to act in any way, always.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Desmond Tutu

The Canadian author has made waves with her art and her characters, intentionally or not. Where the masses will carry on its themes, symbols, and messages in the future is unknown, but I assume it’s safe to say that regardless of the political and social issues now connected to it, Offred’s life and her story by Atwood will remain breathtakingly written on her pages as a classic in this ever-evolving world.