By Laura M. LaVoie
Hulu’s original series, The Handmaid’s Tale, is getting a lot of buzz right now. And when they dropped the first 3 episodes on the streaming-only service on April 26, people like me tuned in to binge right away.
The Handmaid’s Tale may be the most important book I’ve ever read. It has been among my favorites since I was 19 years old and first picked up the ratty, used copy my roommate cast aside. I can use all the terms like “brilliant,” “excellent,” “amazing,” or “incredible.”
The story is, in fact, all of those things. What it isn’t is “light entertainment”. It is not a story you can read for an escape and put down when you’re done. Author Margaret Atwood created a future society that is far too real and entirely based on things that happen in our world right now. That is what makes speculative fiction (as opposed to science fiction) plausible, and what makes this dystopian future scarier than many others.
At its core, The Handmaid’s Tale is about female agency and women’s rights to their own bodies. The focus of the story is fertile women who are enslaved to produce babies for the ruling class of a totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist government. On the surface, this might not feel as though it applies to women without children, both by choice and by chance, but the fictional Republic of Gilead is about so much more than just that.
What about the non-fertile women? Where are the NotMoms? Oh, we’re in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale in various roles, and none of them are flattering:
Marthas. A Martha is the woman who keeps house for the commanders and their infertile Wives. They can’t bear children, they can’t marry. But they’re not unwomen, so they can be put to work in public roles.
Aunts. The Aunts are the infertile women who run the training program for Handmaids. They use intimidation, slut shaming, and brutality to break and prepare the fertile women for their new life as livestock.
Wives. The important men in Gilead take virtuous wives as a way to display their importance in the community. These are infertile women who have status, but still no real rights. They are prisoners as much as the fertile Handmaids.
On the other hand, women with good ovaries, whether they want children or not, are forced into servitude as Handmaids for the important men in Gilead society.
Some words I have ACTUALLY HEARD in my life? “It’s selfish for you to choose not to have children because some women can’t. It’s your role as a woman.” That’s what the leaders of Gilead believe to justify their bizarre practice.
Unwomen. Through the first four episodes, Unwomen are also unseen. That’s not an accident. An Unwoman is an infertile woman who isn’t desirable for any of the other positions in the Republic of Gilead. They are sent by the ruling class to the “colonies” to clean up toxic waste from the destruction of war. Basically, they are sent away to die.
In Real Life, it’s not uncommon for a NotMom to be told she isn’t a “real” woman because she isn’t a mother. Unwomen show how far that attitude could take us.
Margaret Atwood’s bleak speculative future affects every woman, and every NotMom, in soul-shattering ways. That’s not the future I want as a woman and why The Handmaid’s Tale is a cultural essential.
Join the discussion at the NotMom.com Facebook page each Wednesday as Hulu releases new episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. Laura leads the discussion thread — new episodes are pinned to the top.
(Image Credits: Hulu)