I don’t want to see red – in apples, leaves, especially, robes – for a long time.
Why am I dissing a fab color? Because I’ve been watching “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the horrifying, yet, spellbinding adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel with the same title streaming now on Hulu. Four episodes of “Tale” are up, with six more episodes going up in the next few weeks. Season 2 of the series will premiere in 2018.
It’s fiction. But, in the Trump era, it seems quite real.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is set in the near future in the Republic of Gilead (previously, the United States), where a Christian theocracy rules. Due to environmental toxins, the birthrate has plummeted, and infants often have birth defects. Women, whose hands are cut off if they’re caught reading or writing, are valued only for their child-bearing ability. The wives of the ruling commanders (of course, they’re all men!) are infertile. The handmaids, forced to bear children for them, must wear red, habit-like robes along with Amish-like bonnets to hide their faces. Wearing red, the color of menstrual blood, shows that they’re Christian breeders.
In Gilead, women can’t work, have bank accounts or own property and LGBT people are “gender traitors.” Quakers are persecuted and Jewish people are killed unless they emigrate to Israel or convert to Christianity. All sex except that involved in procreation is forbidden, and fertile women who are queer or have been divorced must become handmaids. During “ceremonies,” the handmaids hold the hands of the wives as the commanders (fully clothed) rape them. This is for the “Christian” purpose of being “fruitful and multiplying.” If women aren’t wives, or “Marthas” (who cook and clean), they must be handmaids. If handmaids aren’t able to bear children, they’re sent to “the colonies.” There, women die after cleaning up toxic waste.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is narrated by a handmaid named Offred (Elizabeth Moss). As is the case with all the handmaids, Offred is not her original name. After they’ve been forced to become handmaids, the women are taken for “reeducation” to the Red Center. Their real names are taken away from them. They’re not allowed to walk alone or do anything other than pray, endure the “ceremonies” or go shopping. Spies, known as “Eyes,” are all over Gilead.
Before Gilead, Offred had a job and money of her own. She and her husband Luke had a little girl named Hannah. Her best friend was Moira, a lesbian, who also was conscripted to become a handmaid. A group of the women, the Aunts, piously intoning Scripture while wielding cattle prods, keep the handmaids in line.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” was written during the time when Ronald Reagan never mentioned the word AIDS and Phyllis Schlaffy was on her anti-Equal Rights Amendment crusade. This touching, mordant novel, has always been a chilling, cautionary story. “Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II,” Atwood wrote in a New York Times essay on the “Handmaid’s“Tale,” “I knew that established orders could vanish overnight… ‘It can’t happen here’ could not be depended on. Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.”
Today, in the Trump era, it feels not only as if “The Handmaid’s Tale” could morph from fiction into reality, but as if the United States could become Gilead at any moment. If the American Health Care Act passed last week by the House of Representatives were to become law, pregnancy, rape, domestic abuse and fertility issues would become pre-existing conditions. The Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade.
Yet, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” though scary, offers the possibility of hope. In Gilead, there are women (and some men) who resist the oppressive government. Offred tells her story so that generations to come will be inspired to fight tyranny.
For ourselves and future generations, let’s work to keep our country from morphing into Gilead.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.