“The Handmaid’s Tale” Is Finally Here, Super Queer, as Horrifying as You’ve Heard

The trick to creating a truly terrifying dystopia is showing us exactly how we got there. Sure, almost anyone can imagine a future gone mad with its own ugliness. But to tell us why, well, that’s where the real horror lies.

Hulu’s new original adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is a startling reminder that what we as a society will accept as normal can and will change when the circumstances are right. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian feminist masterpiece may be more than 30 years old, but decades have done nothing to dull its sharp, merciless edges.

The new series has been called timely and topical and anti-Trump. Given your perspective, it could indeed be seen as all those things. But it is also timeless in the weary way that human’s ability to commit untold atrocities against other humans is timeless. Alas, misogyny, homophobia, and zealotry still remain ever-present unworthy foes.

The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred (played by a magnificent Elisabeth Moss), a woman who serves as a childbearing concubine to the ruling class in a world plagued by infertility. Among her friends and fellow Handmaids are not one, but two gay women – Moira (Samira Wiley) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) – whose lives also play prominently.

Authoritarian religious militants have taken over what used to be the United States and rule it with puritanical zeal and lots of machine guns. And to get there, to no one’s surprise, their first step was to strip women of their rights. Our right to own property. Our right to have bank accounts. Our right to work. Our right to autonomy over our own bodies. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before.

The new nation Gilead is a patriarchal (because, of course, it’s always patriarchal) system forged with devout totalitarianism and forcible piousness. All the Handmaids must wear plain crimson dresses and robes, which in public are punctuated by white, blinder-like bonnets to keep them from seeing and being seen.

The rest of the country’s barren women are divided by specific purpose: the Marthas (who cook and clean), the Aunts (who command other women), and the wives (who marry commanders and raise the children the Handmaids bear as their own). Those women with no purpose or those women labeled “Gender Traitors” (that would be us queer folk) are sent to clean toxic waste in the colonies and die.

What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so striking isn’t just this world where all the pretense of female equality has been stripped away, but the ordinariness of such oppression even today.

Sure, we might not label women Handmaids or Marthas or Gender Traitors – just yet. But we do have states passing laws forcing doctors to lie to women about abortions. And we do have congressmen incensed that men should have to pay for women’s prenatal care. And we do have a president who openly bragged about being able to grab women by the pussy. So, there’s that.

In Moss, the series has found its perfect Offred. While the actress has no need to prove herself, Mad Men and Top of the Lake did that for her, she puts on a master class in restraint and under-the-surface everything – rage, sorrow, disbelief, despair, et al. Most of her dialogue is delivered via internal monologue voiceovers – as Handmaids are not to be seen or heard, just fucked for procreation in nightmarish sterile rituals called “the ceremony.”

We see Offred’s before and after as the series unfolds. Now, as a Handmaid, and then, in flashback as a book editor with a husband and a child. Before her best friend was Moira, a seemingly carefree lesbian played by the always winsome Wiley of Orange Is the New Black fame. After she walks daily to do errands with Ofglen, a seemingly dutiful fellow handmaid and secret lesbian played by Bledel of Gilmore Girls fame.

Bledel is a quiet revelation here. Sure we knew she could banter with the best of them and look utterly adorable. But nothing prepared us for the haunted torment those big baby blues could convey. In the first three episodes released to the press, Ofglen’s story deviates most from the books (giving her a wife and child) and making her sexual orientation integral to her past and present – as it should be.

By amplifying the queer character’s voices – and indeed making them essential to building empathy in the audience – Hulu’s adaptation has taken things a bold step further than its source material. We care for Ofglen and Moira because they are people caught in a monstrous scenario where their entire existence, in fact even the word “gay,” has been outlawed.

This is something LGBTQ viewers will feel intrinsically. For all the strides we’ve made both legally and societally, our fight is never far off. Sure, we’re not rounded up and arrested in bars anymore. And, sure, we aren’t banned from marrying the people we love anymore. But so-called “Religious Freedom” laws and bathroom bills keep trying to legislate away our very lives. Progress is all too fragile all too often.

Rounding out the show’s supremely talented female cast is The Leftovers veteran Ann Dowd (as the Nurse Ratched-like true-believing Aunt Lydia who directs the Handmaid indoctrination centers) and Chuck star Yvonne Strahovski (as the Commander’s wife with the supremely paradoxical name of Serena Joy).

The Handmaid’s Tale is not easy to watch, yet mesmerizing in the way it depicts some of its most upsetting imagery in hushed tones. Just as stunning is its rich, visual language. The blood-red of the Handmaids’ robes. The agean coldness of the wives’ frocks. The first three episodes are directed by Reed Morano – the female cinematographer behind Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings and Beyoncé’s Lemonade – and it shows. Shots taken from above exemplify one of Gilead’s creepiest (because, trust me, they’re all creepy) religious maxims, “Under his eye.”

The best dystopian stories remind us, even in their most fantastical hyperbole, that the human capacity to accept the unacceptable is nearly boundless. It is only rivaled by our desire to find convenient solutions to complex problems. Cling to dogma. Assert your superiority. Blame the other. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The essential question The Handmaid’s Tale poses then is whether, when faced with the unspeakable, we look away or stare ahead. Whether we comply or we resist.

Find more from Dorothy Snarker: visit dorothysurrenders.com or @dorothysnarker.

Dorothy has written 14 articles for us.

56 Comments

  1. Came here first thing this morning bc I needed to talk to other ppl about it. FUCKK. “Sharp, merciless edges” indeed. I am so impressed with what they’ve done in terms of adding to and fleshing out elements of Atwood’s novel. It all still feels organic and true to the original story, but like just SO VIVID. I’ve read the book several times and I don’t think I was really prepared for the experience and the horror of seeing it onscreen.

  2. It’s interesting the things I’ll watch post-Trump. Like, right now it’s like a hair shirt to watch anything like West Wing, or even Designated Survivor (not trying to totally equate the two), shows where government is led by people who are trying to make the best decisions based on the best information they can find. I just can’t do it. We were so close!

    I’ve also been losing my taste more and more for shows that emphasize the male gaze, or are too dude-heavy (exacerbated if it’s just white dudes). This means there are quality productions that just aren’t to my taste, and I’m at peace with that. Into the Badlands has been a bit of a departure for me, but the diversity in the cast, and the increasing role of women (plus the fact that one of the main male antagonists played on prominent role on Xena? I’m made of seeming contradictions) have kept me around.

    I’m sorry for the meandering thoughts! What media I consume is such an interesting window into my own psyche. I guess my point was that I’m very much anticipating something that’s getting a lot of buzz, and is so potentially unwaveringly feminist, and that feminism isn’t “political” to me and doesn’t discomfit me like it sometimes did in my 20s (sad effects of growing up in an insular, religious, patriarchal society).

    I’m looking forward to this. The show, the reviews, the thoughts of my fellow Autostraddlers. Thank you to everyone who works to make this space to discuss what can seem frivolous (TV, y’all), but is so much a part of our living fabric!

    • If you need a palate cleanser of (mostly) sheer joy, Jane the Virgin is a strong recommend. POIs and women LITERALLY make the show and while there are moments of sadness and heightened drama, the focus is about family and love.

    • I completely feel you on post-Trump World viewing. I cannot bring myself to rewatch Parks & Rec because the hopefulness about the good government can do is just too painful right now. The Handmaid’s Tale is difficult to watch, but also invigorating in its horror. I can’t (and an terrified) by what’s next.

    • I was initially skeptical to Yvonne Strahovski’s casting since in the book, Serena Joy is supposed to be much older and a former televangelist, like a mix of Tammy Faye Bakker and Phyllis Schlafy. But she’s acted the hell out of that role, and won me over.

      I do hope they eventually go into her more, and keep the “conservative figurehead who urged women to stay in the home while never doing it herself, and clearly is uncomfortable with being forced to do that now” aspect of it. That was something I really loved about the book: her character and it being a “be careful what you wish for” to conservative women.

  3. I just binge watched all three episodes and…jesus. Some of it stroked uncomfortably close to home (replace fundamentalist Christianity with Malay-supremacist Islam and the Red Centre lessons might as well have been my school years). I feel like some of the Powers That Be (not just Trump & Co) will see this not as a dystopia, but as a utopia.

    I’ve been seeing criticism of the world being white-washed, but I think it makes some sense in context. The few women of colour we see are Handmaids or (more commonly) Marthas; WOCs are only ever good as breeding stock or as labour, if they weren’t already being shipped off or killed. None of the Commander’s Wives is WOC. No immigrants; I wonder if all diplomatic ties were broken off, and if so by which side – Gilead’s or the rest of the world? Probably a lot of sanctions, or maybe some other countries want to borrow that style of governance, kinda like how you don’t exactly see a lot of Muslim countries speaking up against Trump despite his Islamophobia and the Travel Ban and such…

    Also the melding of contemporary music and the dystopia – not even a gritty cover! but the original! – just adds to the creepy “this is real right now” feeling.

    It’s been a while since I read the book but I am hoping the resistance is something like ILU-486, red handkerchiefs and all.

  4. With these types of shows, I can usually only watch one episode at a time and then I need a break to process and come up for air. But, I had some down time this evening and went through all three episodes and damn. Like I should’ve known better, especially having read the book, but damn.

    Throughout each episode there were a solid 8-10 moments where I just kept picturing Pence and his creepy dead-eyed smile gleefully taking delight at this rendering of his perfect world. Bleck.

    • We in Australia, have just had a nice little visit from Pence, as he flipped round the Pacific patting fauning conservative governments on the head, shoring up support. As a way of introducing of him to local viewers, on our national broadcaster last Friday night Pence was described as a person representing “the grown up voice of reason” in the White House.

      It seems the US has had it, Australia has had it, the U.K. is off the agenda and Canada and NZ are probably not far off either.

      I’d better go and find someone who can teach me how to clean up Toxic waste.

  5. I had every intention of reading the book before watching this series, especially since my wife has been encouraging it for years, but I couldn’t wait once the episodes went live and I’m an overall lazy reader, so what can you do.

    Damn. I knew the premise of the story and a lot of it didn’t shock me while watching it, but like another person commented, I wasn’t expecting this depiction to be so damn vivid. Especially the last two scenes with Ofglen in the third episode–it has stuck with me more than other generally enjoyable dystopian stories not only because I’m a woman, but because I’m a gay woman.

    I’ll continue to watch and I’ll enjoy doing so, but this is going to stick with me, for sure. And to answer the question posed in the last paragraph of this article, we resist. We have to.

      • Yes, I too intended to read the book before these episodes would air. But then I couldn’t wait and watched anyhow.
        I felt the last episode about Ofglen is hardest, feel it sticks to my spine.
        As a woman but mostly as a gay woman. I realise that for women in other parts of the world this sometimes is not far from the truth. And that makes me feel lucky and guilty at the same time…

  6. I watched one and two last night. I’d assumed I would binge all of the first three but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

    It’s so well-done. The anachronistic nature of the puritanical customs and clothing in juxtaposition with the secretive lapses into modern language, the SONGS, the freaking Prius parked out on the street. When I read the book, I knew it was set in the ‘future,’ but since the flashbacks were placed squarely in the 80s when it was written (cassettes, the slang), it still felt like the past.

    And I could be wrong – older queer people, please weigh in here – but it feels like where our government and technology are at now make the premise far more plausible than it was in 1985.

    Ugh. I need to renew my passport.

    And oh hey! Alexis Bledel is playing someone other than Rory Gilmore convincingly! (Not to be snarky. I was always on her side, but oh man, some of her recent roles have been wooden). All of the acting is superb.

    One thing that never rang true for me when it came to this story was the boredom – in order to keep people complacent, don’t you have to give them SOMETHING to pacify them? Nothing to read, nothing to watch, no substances, very nearly nothing to pass long hours sitting in respective rooms – the parlor for Serina Joy, the bedroom for June – it seems improbable that more of the women don’t lose their minds/will to live faster.

    Anyway. A gorgeous, terrifying series from a gorgeous, terrifying book.

    • Interesting question about the boredom. The whole largely self-imposed prison the wives have placed themselves in is fascinating in and of itself. I think fear, in many instances, replaces all else. The sense of constantly being watched, not knowing who to trust. Physical torture is, of course, horrendous – but the mental anguish involved here is just *low whistle*.

      As for Alexis, I believe this might absolve her of the wooden chemistry fest known as Jenny’s Wedding. Maybe.

      • As a forever anti-Gilmore-Girls person, I never got behind Alexis Bledel in the role of Rory Gilmore but I DID enjoy the sharp left she took from that character in Sin City. Handmaid’s Tale seems more along those lines, for sure!

  7. The series also captures really well the awkwardness that happens when you split the Madonna/whore thing into two separate women, and then make them live in the same household

    A lot of things that were easy not to think about too hard when reading the book – like the sex on the wife’s lap – that are inescapable on screen

    • It’s so interesting to see how different parts of the book stuck with people and how that changes with seeing it on screen. The sex on the wife’s lap struck me when reading the book but I didn’t fixate on the birth rituals. Just… yikes.

  8. Please, Ms Snarker, I’m begging you, I need some weekly recaps. This is too fucking powerful. Episode 3 was too much.

    PD: Nop, NOOOOO, that’s forbidden, you can’t make me cry with a Bob Marley song, especially with Three Little Birds…

  9. Just finished the first episode, currently watching the second as I type and I have to say that so far it is making me want to take back every negative thing I have ever thought about Alexis Bledel. She really is great in this role. All the women are to be honest.

    Also, Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast here because he has always creeped the fuck out of me and this role is definitely suited to his wheelhouse. I just find everything about him unsavory.

  10. This show makes me feel like I’m not watching a show, but bearing witness to real suffering. It’s almost too much. The scene whether Alexis Bledel and her girlfriend get torn apart… I want to go stand in the shower and cry, as Carolyn’s most recent Read a F*cking Book suggested.

  11. “And, sure, we aren’t banned from marrying the people we love anymore.”

    If only :( This might apply to the US and an increasing number of other countries. But there are still too many areas in the world where same-sex couples can only get “pseudo-married” (same duties as straight couples, but not the same rights, e.g. no adopting kids together) , or not married at all >:(

  12. I was never into horror movies. To me, the two scariest movies ever are “WarGames” & “Outbreak” … becos while I’m not overly concerned about a psycho in a hockeymask (or ugly sweater) hunting me down, the other scenarios are much more likely, and thus more terrifying.

    Point being, I think this has replaced those as the scariest of all.

    — Yes, I am male. But please, don’t hold it against me; I promise, it wasn’t my fault. —

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