The Handmaid’s Tale is set in Gilead, a society created in what used to be New England by a theocratic coup after attacks have eliminated the existing power structure in Washington, D.C. The rest of the country is referred to as “the colonies,” which consists of both farms where forced labor supplies Gilead with the food and resources it needs to survive and wastelands where forced labor cleans toxic refuse.
The Tale is told from the perspective of Offred, who is a handmaid, a supposedly auspicious position in this post-apocalyptic dystopia. Handmaids are women who are still able to bear children, making them a rare and valuable commodity in Gilead, where most women are infertile (many men are too, but it is illegal to say so). Handmaids are confined to the homes of powerful men called commanders and are expected to provide them and their wives with a child.
Offred belongs to Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy Waterford. Her body is their vessel and her prison. Each month, when she is most likely to conceive, Offred lays fully clothed between Serena Joy’s legs while Fred has sex with Offred, her handmaid’s dress bunched up around her hips. This ritual is referred to as “the ceremony,” though another word came to mind as I watched the scene depicting it in Hulu’s adaptation of the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood.
In the second episode a handmaid, surrounded by other handmaids, gives birth while the wife of the man who has impregnated her, surrounded by other wives, performs a painless pantomime in another room. This is the apex of a handmaid’s career. Once she has performed the crucial service of providing a commander and his wife with a child, she cannot be sent to the colonies. The handmaids are repeatedly told how important they are, but when Offred briefly leaves the room where the real labor is taking place, she has an interaction with Serena Joy and two other commanders’ wives that lets us know what they really think of the handmaids: “little whores, all of them.”
There are other kinds of women in this world too. Marthas are infertile women who act as domestic servants, and aunts train and watch over the handmaids, wielding brutality and dogma. But the central dichotomy in The Handmaid’s Tale is between wives and handmaids. They are the codified duality of womanhood as it is prescribed in deeply patriarchal cultures: Madonna on the one hand, the whore on the other. This dichotomy is visually underscored by their state-mandated dress. The handmaids wear a vivid scarlet, the wives a saintly teal. One cannot be mistaken for the other.
Their roles are complementary, each serving the man at the center of the household in different ways, one as ideal woman, the other as the fallen non-woman. The wives are not quite partners in Gilead, because that would presume equality, but they are companions, retaining a kind of personhood afforded to them by the status of their husbands. The handmaids are essentially disembodied wombs, receptacles for the potential for human life, without inherent value of their own.
Since the premiere of the Hulu adaptation, a lot of great writing has been making its way around the internet about the ways in which The Handmaid’s Tale is particularly prescient given the current political climate. And it’s no coincidence. Atwood has said that she prefers for her work to be referred to as “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction,” and that she was careful not to include anything in the book that did not have a basis in reality. This makes the Tale distinct from other dystopian works in that the world it presents feels less like an invention than a composition, and it is made up of parts that we recognize.
The political parallels between Offred’s world and my own disturb me, but as I have watched the show I have felt most deeply horrified by the resonance of the division between handmaids and wives. Serena Joy’s world is almost as closely circumscribed as Offred’s, but she has power over Offred, a power that she believes she is entitled to by her innate superiority. This, to me, seems like the ultimate precondition for Gilead—whether in fiction or in actuality—a pretext that allows a ruling class to extract power from an oppressed class. And it is the pretext that allows Serena Joy to extract power from Offred—her position as wife and Offred’s position as handmaid—that I find so uniquely horrific, because, as a woman, it is so intimately familiar.
The division of women in Gilead into wives and handmaids is representative of a division between women that has existed in just about every civilization in human history, and it is predicated on traditional values that are still pervasive today. We don’t call non-wives handmaids, but our culture still makes a distinction between a woman who is “wife or girlfriend material” and one who is not, the implication typically being that such a woman is only good for sex.
This understanding of women is reinforced by tropes in popular culture: when the good virginal girl survives in the slasher film but her sexually active friend is murdered, and in song lyrics that tell us “you can’t turn a ho into a housewife.” These cultural messages tell us that there are different kinds of women, those whose value is secured by their perceived virtue, and those whose value is diminished by their lack of it. I remember learning the distinction in middle school when girls who let boys go past first base developed reputations (and the boys didn’t) that often persisted through high school.
The difficulty of moving from one category to another in our own world is due to the view of female sexual purity as an asset that once lost, cannot be regained. The same is true of Gilead. Handmaids are selected from fertile unmarried women, lesbians, women in second marriages, or women that have otherwise violated Gilead's strict moral code and exist outside of the protection of traditional marriage. There is no upward social mobility for women in Gilead: you can't turn a handmaid into a housewife.
TV has explored the ways in which traditional gender dynamics and sexual mores have been upended—think everything from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Sex and the City—but The Tale explores what the world would be like if instead those traditional gender dynamics and sexual mores were taken to their most horrendous logical conclusion. The result is a world in which women willfully participate in their own subjugation, because at least some of them have taken the arbitrary division of women into worthy and unworthy classes as an inherent rather than an imposed reality.
Women experience inequality in different ways. The intersection of marginalized identities means that some women experience more inequality, while others are privileged by membership in a non-marginalized group even as they experience the inequality of being a woman. These identities can usually be described in terms of race, ethnicity, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation. The Handmaid’s Tale is a reminder that there is yet another type of inequality among women, and that the oppression of any class of women inherently oppresses all women.
Within the hierarchy of Gilead, wives and handmaids are counterpoints: the value of one relies on the debasement of the other. And as long as our own society makes a distinction between women who are worthy of the wife or girlfriend moniker and those who are not, we are sowing the seeds of Gilead.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.