With its new TV adaptation a huge hit, Bronwyn O'Neill looks at how relevant 'The Handmaid's Tale', published almost thirty years ago, still is.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story that has stood the test of time. Since being published in the 80s, it has touched and changed lives of anyone who has read it. Margaret Atwood’s novel has been adapted into a film in the 90s and just last week a new television series on the streaming site Hulu premiered. It is clear that even three decades later, the story of female oppression still rings true.
Reading the book at seventeen years old awoke something inside me to the daily inequalities that women face. The book, which was published in 1985, tells the story of a Christian fundamentalist group overthrowing the government to become a totalitarian state. Slowly but surely, they take women’s rights and independence away, from their ability to work, to owning property and eventually into the class systems we see throughout the story. The rich women, who are married to men high up in the ranks of The Republic of Gilead, are dressed in blue and are unable to naturally conceive children. Women who work in the house for the privileged families are referred to as Marthas and dress in green. Handmaids, the women who are still able to get pregnant, wear red and must perform a fertility ritual each month, whilst the Commanders’ wives are present.
In a world where women are stripped of their identities, reproductive rights and the ability to read and write, it leaves the audience with the inability to shake the feeling of 'what if'? We see Trump across the ocean demanding women’s rights to be taken away, but not, of course, as dramatically as we see in Atwood’s imagination. He uses fear, like the leaders in The Handmaid’s Tale, to amass followers. He blames terrorists to bolster himself, as in Atwood’s story; the fear of terrorism allows the rise of the Sons of Jacob.
In the Republic of Gilead, being homosexual is illegal. In Hulu’s adaptation, the audience are shown the torture that those who identify as gay are put through. Those who are not needed for reproduction are murdered and hung up on the wall in the town so everyone can see their crimes. With a haunting nod to the Nazi regime, the bodies of gay people are marked with a pink triangle. With Pence as Vice President in the States, it is clear that he is strongly opposed to the LGBTA+ community, advocating for conversion therapy and other such horrors.
The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on the declining birth rates, due to STIs, abortion and birth control, which is why handmaids are necessary, according to the Government. We see women being blamed for being gang raped, for having abortions and for miscarrying. Victim blaming is of course a huge part of our society, so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine this part of the dystopian future Atwood describes. Trump is trying to defund Planned Parenthood and make abortions illegal in America.
Here in Ireland, women line the streets calling the government to give us reproductive freedom, to give women the choice to do with our own bodies what we will. The parallel between the power of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Sons of Jacob in the Republic of Gilead is almost scary. Why should the church have so much control over women’s bodies?
The Handmaid’s Tale is terrifying. It is a hard read but it is important to see that these atrocities are happening, just not to the extent we see in the novel. The Hulu adaptation does the book justice, following the novel almost word for word, whilst expanding on the world outside of our narrator’s eyes. It certainly has a place in society today.
Whilst the story may be over thirty years old, the themes in the book are ageless. We as a society are still not equal and we seem to be moving backwards rather than forwards. For anyone who hasn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, what are you waiting for?