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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Modern Transformation of The Handmaid's Tale


Thirty-two years later, and we're still facing the reality of Atwood's Gilead.  ♦ 
There has been a noticeable trend among new TV shows as of late. Speaking as a faithful and avid viewer of television, I have noticed a pattern among popular, new shows over the past ten years—many award-winning television series have begun as award-winning books. One successful book-to-TV adaptation is adapted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I suspect its success isn’t entirely due to this trend, but also due to its engagement with the social, political, and cultural issues facing American currently.
   The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel that takes place within a former US territory called Gilead in the implied (yet unspecified) near-future. A theonomic military dictatorship has taken control and removed the rights of all women. In this society, women of a child-bearing age are expected to submit themselves sexually to military commanders in order to restore the rapidly plummeting birth rate. The main protagonist, Offred, tells her story as she struggles with oppression; she also details her old life, as well as how this new society came about.
   Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. It became a big hit immediately— the book sparked debate in both academic and non-academic settings. Atwood’s novel focused on ideas from second-wave feminism such as sexuality, reproductive rights, and domestic violence. Many of these ideas were woven into Atwood’s novel as commentary on the political climate of the ‘80’s. Thirty-two years later, the television show by the same name was released to the public, in a political moment seeming much the same as before.
  The show won the 2017 Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series. The show went on to win the main category and seven other Emmys -- the series was nominated for a total of thirteen awards. It became wildly popular and the show was renewed for a second season just three weeks after the first episode premiered. But, how can this book be relevant today when it was published thirty-two years ago in a totally different era?
   Atwood doesn’t give us the answer, but the show does.
  The television producers transformed The Handmaid’s Tale from a product of second-wave feminism into a series that embraces current feminist beliefs and practices while also looking towards the future. The show allows the book’s argument to become fully realized through visual elements, adding more intensity, relevancy, and immediacy to the experiences the show seeks to explore. With movements like #MeToo and number of powerful Women’s Marches, The Handmaid’s Tale comes at a moment in the feminist movement that hinges on solidarity between women and finding ways of challenging societal expectation and constructions.
   One of the ways the show addresses current issues is via “The Ceremony.” It happens once a month when a Handmaid is most likely to conceive a child. During the ceremony, a handmaid submits sexually to the man of the household with the wife present for the purposes of recreation. This ritual is directly in conversation with the rise of conversational around sexual assault and rape. The Ceremony promotes non-consensual sex for the needs and requests of the patriarchy. The handmaid has no choice but to submit to forceful intercourse; a woman who refuses is sent to the outer edges of society to clean up radioactive waste. To refuse would be a death sentence. Rape has continually been quietly smoothed over by the voice of men in power, but by reframing the way the audience thinks about non-consensual sex, the show strives to challenge that history by giving women a visual voice.
   While The Ceremony is a rather blunt correlation to issues today, there are other aspects of the novel that are enunciated better through the show’s visual elements. Activism and solidarity play a large role in bringing the women of Gilead together to discuss their qualms with the government. The oppressed women in the show form a resistance group, something that doesn’t happen in Atwood’s original piece. It’s hard not to think of the Women’s Marches in this instance. Several rumors suggest Offred will be rescued by the resistance—a glimmer of hope for not of the future of Gilead, but also of America. Women’s actions and voices affecting change.
   The series portrays Offred before the creation of Gilead: her name was June. After all the women are fired from their jobs, June becomes active in protesting the new laws. She holds a sign and chants with the crowd while facing policemen who eventually begin to open-fire. The image of the marchers running away from gunfire and explosions is terrifying. Within the confines of the US there have been countless anti-protest protests that have resulted in the injury and death of peaceful individuals. It is difficult to delineate which events are from the book and which are based in our own reality. This is the most striking aspect of watching, as if nothing had changed in the 32 years since the book’s publication.
   The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best modern examples of a successful book-to-TV show: it takes important elements from the text and transform them into something that feels fresh, yet faithful. The changes made from book to show were necessary, positioning the conversation in something more immediate, something more real and threatening.
  • About the Author
    Lynn Vormbrock is a junior English Literature major at Miami University. She hails from Cincinnati, Ohio--which is her favorite place to eat Skyline chili. Lynn spends her free time playing the piano, reading Brit Lit, and watching an embarrassing number of The Office reruns.

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