The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is the film rendition of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. The film is set in the futuristic America, governed by the religious right. Past pollution has left only 1% of women fertile and capable of bearing children. Determined to continue the human race, the government has designated the task of childbearing to Handmaids, women who are still capable of bearing children. In this society, bearing children if you are able is a duty to society, not a choice. The film follows Kate, a woman who witnesses the murder of her husband and kidnapping of her daughter as they try to flee to Canada. Kate, a fertile woman, is forced to train as and become a Handmaid. The role of a Handmaid is to bear the children of the man to whom she is assigned. In the case of Kate, she is assigned to a Commander and his wife. While in the Commander’s home, Kate begins an affair with his chauffeur, Nick. Eventually, Kate becomes pregnant with Nick’s child. Ultimately, Kate kills the Commander and with Nick’s help, flees in order to escape her job as a Handmaid and her crime, as well as attempt to find her daughter.

Four of our course themes are extremely prevalent in the film, the themes of: human rights, the family and reproduction, ethics, and religion. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the individual is subordinate to society and is used as a means. The women who are fertile are kidnapped and educated (brainwashed), in their role as a Handmaid. Their task is seen as a duty to the nation morally; the failure to conform to their set of beliefs is met with severe punishment or death. Their freedom is entirely stripped in order to serve society. The role of the family and reproduction is also represented. Kate’s family, for example, is split apart in order to use her body as a Handmaid. Because fertility is rare, even in the men, few families are able to reproduce or have the opportunity. Few families are assigned a handmaid as well. Reproduction and fornication out of wedlock are punishable by public hanging which all partake in. You can see it here:

Ethics and religion also play strong roles in The Handmaid’s Tale. America in the film is run by the extreme religious right. The population is expected to repeat religious phrases such as “bless it be,” and protest against the sins of the past including fornication and abortions. One example in the film is when a girl being educated as a Handmaid is told to tell her story to the rest of the women about how “bad it was back then.” In high school she was raped by multiple classmates and became pregnant as a result. Her mother forced her to abort the child. The educators and women around her began aggressively shouting that it was her fault for being a slut, for leading them on, and ultimately committing the worst crime: abortion. The role of ethics and religion became a force of brainwashing unification in society in order to keep each member in line. The film is also a contrast to the society in Herland. In Herland, while women have freedom in decisions and most are capable of bearing children, only those deemed “fit” for bearing children are allowed to. It is seen as a privilege to give birth, rather than a choice. In The Handmaid’s Tale however, childbearing is seen as a dutiful obligation, rather than a choice. In a sense then, the two are similar by taking exact opposite views.

2 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale is a particularly chilling dystopia to me because it seems the most likely to actually happen. The religious right in our society is attempting to control reproduction whenever they come into power in our government. Abortion rights are slowly being chipped away and along with that comes the fear of criminalization of miscarriages. Related is the criminalization of pregnant women who are addicted to drugs and therefore can’t stop using even though it could harm their baby.

    On top of all that, they are also cutting social services for poor mothers and are putting into place abstinence-only sex education in schools and trying to make it harder to access affordable birth control on the faulty reasoning that they also cause abortions.

    Is it any wonder I’m scared?

  2. Robin – I totally agree!! It felt like this was a weird prediction of the future US if the conservative tradition continues on. People have become SO obsessed with butting their heads into everyone’s business and trying to force them to act the same as them.

    The most disturbing part of all of this for me was the scene where the woman is killed for having sex out of wedlock… WHICH is punishable by death and has been in many countries where families think it is right to do honor killings. However, unlike in the scene, the reality is that the men don’t get in trouble. The woman is known as the slut and is killed.

    You also raised a good point about the contrast of The Handmaid’s Tale to Herland in regards to choice. I think that has been a central theme in our course – choice. These women in The Handmaid’s Tale are slaves to the system…. nevertheless, I definitely want to watch this movie now!

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