by Rachel Luo
Photography by Marybeth Schmidt
Models: Tonya Chen, Jillian Westphal
Hair & Makeup by Genna Miller, Rachel Cook
Styling by Rebecca Wong, Sarah Graham O’Malley
The words are met with silence: “Who led them on? Whose fault was it?” Then in unison, all of the Handmaidens raise their arms and point at the sole girl in red in the middle. “Her fault,” they repeat the two words over and over, accusation running through each syllable.
That scene is from Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Our initial reaction is shock and horror at the obvious victim blaming that occurs in that scene. The disappointing realization sets in when we admit there are vivid parallels between that scene and the reality of our world. Women continue to bring down other women. We see this everywhere, from its direct form on social media to the seemingly innocent question, “You’re going to wear that?”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” was written in the Reagan Era, yet it seems to echo the events of society today. In an essay for the New York Times, Atwood writes that her intention was to “not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history.” Despite that, several of the central historical events of the book almost seemed to predict the current political climate of the United States.
The book is set in Gilead, a futuristic version of the United States in a world where environmental changes have caused widespread infertility. As a consequence, the entire country has returned to its Puritan roots. Within this society, there are three designations for women: Wives, Marthas or Handmaids. They are bound to their assigned roles, and the color of their clothing represents their imposed classifications. The Wives wear blue to represent their purity. The Marthas, those who take care of the home, wear green to show their cleanliness and health. At the bottom of the hierarchy lie the Handmaids, whose sole purpose is to reproduce. They wear the color of blood. Our central character is Offred, a Handmaid. Everything about her existence reinforces the idea that she does not have individual rights, from her name “of Fred” to the red dress and white bonnet that mark her as a Handmaid.
Last year, Hulu adapted the book into a series. It was well-received and praised for its ability to tactfully approach difficult topics. Beautifully filmed, the scenes were poignant and resonated with its viewers. The show was created with Atwood’s input, and there are several noticeable differences between the two. One deliberate choice was to feature non-white, non-heterosexual characters within a world that had previously been envisioned as a segregated society. Atwood made this decision because she wanted the Hulu series to reflect our present day. In Elisabeth Moss’ words, the actress who plays Offred in the Hulu series, “We wanted the show to be very relatable. We wanted people to see themselves in it. If you’re going to do that, you have to show all types of people. You have to reflect current society.” The series also dramatized the plot, giving Offred the name “June” and making her into a heroine. However, as much as our society needs a heroine, Atwood did not write “The Handmaid’s Tale” with the intention for Offred to be one. Instead, she simply writes the book from the perspective of a survivor, someone who is experiencing the horrors of Atwood’s imagined world.
The premise of the Gileadean society is that they have returned to their “traditional” roots. At face value, that doesn’t sound all that alarming. However, Atwood has taken this simple premise, and she has painted an alarmingly terrifying picture that forces us to reexamine our own history. If you look back at the beginning of feminism, one of the first historically significant time period in the context of a feminist movement was the Industrial Revolution. The most remarkable effect of the Industrial Revolution was that it created jobs that anyone could do. They did not require skill, training, or anything beyond simple human ability. That was immensely beneficial to one specific under-appreciated and underutilized population: women. The ability to work only furthered the rights of women, and that continued to have a compounding effect. To this day, we see the powerful effects of giving an oppressed population a voice. That is where the strength of “The Handmaid’s Tale” comes in. In Atwood’s imagined world, we have returned to a system that renders women powerless.
Not only have women been stripped of their ability but also their humanity. Within the series, the bonnet hides the faces of the Handmaids and strips them of their identities, emphasizing that they are inconsequential and replaceable. In contrast, the red dress and cape remind us that below the façade, they carry an underlying strength. The white bonnet and red cape have become iconic within recent political movements. Last year when Congress was voting on a controversial bill to defund Planned Parenthood, 30 women stood outside of the Capitol wearing white bonnets and red dresses. Atwood chose red because it is a primal symbol of nature that reduces women to their basic biological purpose as reproducers. These women wore this color as a refusal to be reduced to just that. Women are no longer just functions of nature. We make our own choices and have the ability to enact change. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a constant reminder. Not just that we must beware of the consequences of our actions, but also that there is strength and resilience inherent in each and every woman. •