I watched the first couple of episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale miniseries. It does a good job of moving Margaret Atwood’s story into the present day, and of exploring the inner life of Offred’s thinking.
The story explores a world in which biblical fundamentalism is used to justify coping with rampant infertility by turning fertile women into commodities. The selective use of the Bible by those in power is highlighted, when Offred hears a teacher say “Blessed are the meek” and notices how they always leave out “for they shall inherit the earth.” And when punishing a girl by gouging out her eye is justified by appeal to scripture: “If thy right eye offend thee…”
The complexity and diversity of religion is also seen when Offred thinks about her daughter and prays to God that she will remember her. And we see it at its most sinister as we witness the teaching that victims are to blame for their own rape, which God allows to teach them a lesson. The later scene, in which a man accused of rape is executed by handmaids, illustrates at once the strength and power women have, and thus also the reason why that strength is channelled by oppressors. These scenes also show how our desire to survive becomes a means to get us to participate in our own oppression.
The emphasis on how required false piety is used to prevent handmaids from trusting one another says something important about religious fundamentalism. It cannot thrive, and may not even be able to survive, in the absence of such distrust. And so the warning that one must always be on one’s guard against liberalism and false teaching can be seen for what it is through this lens: a piisoning of the well, aimed at turning potential teachers and allies – who can help you to learn and grow – into presumed enemies.
The second episode mentions the destruction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, as the demolition of a local St. Paul’s Cathedral is observed. We also get a glimpse in a flashback of crowds praying at a hospital, and the religious language used by a nurse in an almost entirely empty maternity ward nursery.
The third episode focuses on the process by which totalitarianism came into effect, starting with martial law justified as defense against terrorism, but then leading to the firing of women from jobs and freezing of their bank accounts. We also hear more of Offred’s prayer, as she is interrogated about Ofglen, who was apprehended for being gay – or what they call a “gender traitor.” This time, when the aunt says “blessed are the meek,” Offred says she remembers her scripture and quotes back, “blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness.” We see the travesty that is Ofglen’s “trial” at which she is called an abomination and sentenced to “redemption, effective immediately.” At the end of the episode we learn that this refers to the surgical removal of her clitoris.
I realize that I ought to have finished the entire first season by now, but unfortunately the good weather, and my son deciding he wants to jog daily with me in the morning, has disrupted my normal routine, which has been to exercise indoors while keeping up with the shows that I want to watch. I’m sure that my watching and blogging about television will be back to normal soon. In the meantime, there has been a lot of blogging and reporting about the series elsewhere, and so I will share some links to other sites below.
There are interviews with director Reed Romano, Joseph Fiennes. 3quarksdaily focused on the book behind the series, and IO9 offered a comparison between the two, as well as highlighting the first major departure.
IO9 has multiple pieces on the series. Blastr had interviews with Samira Wiley and the executive producers, as well as many other posts about the series. There was also a post on Jezebel about this misogynist vision of the future (or better, this vision of the misogynist future).
The Root related the show to the question of why people vote against their own interests.
Sojourners related the show to the question of what faithful activism looks like today.
An article in Christian Century found the show surprisingly comforting. Think Christian referred to “dystopia by prooftexting.”
Love Joy Feminism blogged about the show here on Patheos.
If you haven’t been watching the series, you can find it on Hulu.