Welcome to Gilead
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
*Cis-gendered men: Read the book, Watch the series, Get the men you know to do the same
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children,
Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob,
Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel:
and he said, Am I in God’s stead,
who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her;
and she shall bear upon my knees,
that I may also have children by her.
-Genesis 30: 1-3, King James Version
In the Book of Genesis, a man named Jacob had asked for permission to marry his Uncle Laban’s daughter Rachel. While sensibilities may grimace at marrying one’s cousin and scoff at the necessity of bowing down to patriarchal authority to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage, those sensibilities are perfectly at home in Gilead. Uncle Laban, no apparent stranger to the art of odd negotiations, demands that Jacob work for seven years in order to earn the right to marry his own cousin. Jacob agrees but then, in a cruel twist that would be undone by basic intelligence, he is tricked into marrying his older cousin Leah. Leah bears him two sons, which apparently undoes the whole stupidity and injustice of the marriage in question. Rachel also happens to be married to Jacob (noting that polygamy isn’t constrained to non-white cultures) and the Book of Genesis implies that she ought to be grateful that Jacob loves her more. But Rachel isn’t grateful to be stuck in what is obviously a non-consensually polyamorous relationship, as she shouldn’t have to be if that is not what she wants. But an ungrateful woman is a religious nightmare and within that nightmare, there is only one way a woman can act: sexual spite. Rachel insists that Jacob have sex with her handmaid Bilhah, who also happens to bear two sons. Now there are five men in one household, a clear victory in a story where men continue to make stupid decisions and somehow women are responsible for their lack of intelligence, wit, and basic thinking ability. But the moral of Jacob’s sexual trysts is simple. The most morally loose, repugnant behavior comes from a woman who has not conceived but critically has not conceived sons. That story of the Handmaid forms the thorough justification for the Republic of Gilead and if Margaret Atwood’s critically acclaimed novel felt dystopian to some, to many women this story is anything but.
Within the narrow spectrum of religious fundamentalism, regardless of the religion in question, sexuality is often quite explicitly defined. Strict heterosexuality is the only allowable form of sexuality, every other form of sexuality is an abomination and an affront to whichever god or gods are being referenced in the conversation. The idea of a sexual spectrum terrifies the fundamentally devout as it could negate the possibility of conception and it forces them, to their horror, to question their own sexuality. Strictly heterosexual desire may only be acted upon in the name of procreation, a singular expression that makes it known that a woman acting upon her biological desires in any other fashion is committing a sin. If a woman is raped in an act of a man acting upon his biological desires, then that it expressly the woman’s fault. She invited the man to act upon her desires that she somehow may have expressed, as if attraction (if that is even the specific case) was equivalent to consent.
In an especially harrowing scene, a partially blinded Handmaid previously named Janine (Madeline Brewer, Black Mirror) is forced to sit in the midst of a circle of Handmaid as her immediate oppressor Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, Law & Order) asks her to recount her experience of being gang raped in front of all the other Handmaids. Janine, in a quiet, hushed voice talked about how men in groups of two or three came down into the basement where she was and took turns to rape her. She knew several of them, she quietly wondered out loud, and she couldn’t move in part because a part of her mind couldn’t believe that it was happening, that it was happening to her, least of all by those whom she knew. Aunt Lydia proceeds to shame her, asking all of the Handmaids to question out loud about whose fault it was that Janine went through such a traumatic experience. “Her fault,” they chant, pointing their fingers sharply in her direction, afraid of the retaliatory consequences if they did not. “Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?” Aunt Lydia asks as Janine’s visage was overwhelmed by grief, shame, and isolation. “To teach her a lesson,” all the Handmaids reply in quiet unison and there’s nothing but absolute empathy descending upon Janine.
Gilead was constructed upon the ideals of a return to traditional, conservative values. It exists as the wet dream of a modern-day right-wing religious fundamentalist, but there are a plethora of elements that would fit right within the purview of the government in existence today. To be a priest ostensibly opened the impression that the power of faith lay anywhere besides the state, the one hanged in the episode possibly for speaking against Gilead’s fundamentalist approach to Christianity. To be a doctor is anathema to the traditional values of midwifery and open to the possibility of performing abortions. To be anything but straight, for example, was to give unwanted legitimacy to the reality of the sexual spectrum, which in and of itself is struggling to gain acceptance as our society is still stuck in a binary construct. Existing outside of strict heterosexuality also served as a reminder that biological pregnancies may not be a possibility for everyone and that terrifies conservatives. They give credence to the horrifying myth of predatory homosexuals who “convert” using some sort of ritual or spell because they cannot have children of their own. It serves to delegitimize any expression of sexuality outside of the heteronormative paradigm, to criminalize it and provide justification for violent retaliation against it.
In our world and in Gilead, you are seen through the conservative lens as choosing to live outside of heteronormativity and that must mean that you cannot have children, that you must be punished for not contributing to the continuing traditional legacy of Gilead. Totalitarian regimes often fight to make heteronormativity absolute and Gilead is no different. The sight of a gay man hanging next to a priest makes complete sense in the context of such demonization, his face and identity obscured by a white bag with a marker of a pink triangle on it. The pink triangle symbolizes that he was not a real man, that he was a woman. The pink triangle serves as a reminder to the Handmaids that a man must never be seen as a woman, that a woman had no individual identity or dignity of her own. The homosexual purges critically wiped out scores of non-heterosexual women, deemed unworthy to Gilead as they might not be able to reproduce. They were shipped off to the Colonies, to clean up toxic waste until their skin peeled off and their bodies wasted away. They could be hanged like gay men, but this fate is much more prolonged, darker, and the imagery exists to remind women that they would suffer a more prolonged suffering as their fate simply on account of their gender.
The crux of Atwood’s tale is that of Offred (an Emmy-worthy Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men). Offred finds herself in the midst of what is a horrifying nightmare that is nevertheless far closer to feminist rights than men could ever imagine. She begins her story in the present timeline as being transferred to a high commander in the Gilead forces, a Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love), who treats her as a sexual object to penetrate for procreation and nothing more. He’s largely a blank canvas as of the pilot, giving a face to the horrifying upper hierarchy of the men running this totalitarian regime. His wife, Serena Joy Waterford (an excellent Yvonne Strahovski, Dexter) is an embittered frame, letting one key moment of emotion wash over her but remaining cognitively aware of her circumstances otherwise. Offred’s relationships are tumultuous outside of the Waterford household, in part because she has no real way of knowing who has the intention of harming and or informing on her. Ofglen (a terrific Alexis Bledel, Gilmore Girls) is a “pious little shit” according to Offred, before the latter realizes that Ofglen’s piety is much like her own: calculated to help her survive the horror they’re ensnared within. Offred’s childhood friend Moira (an Emmy-worthy Samira Wiley, Orange Is the New Black) is a lesbian who has survived in spite of the homosexual purges. Moira is sharp, blunt, and has a fire under her being of surviving come hell or high water.
One day Offred is told by Janine that Moira had been sent to the Colonies as a veritable death sentence, having been caught trying to escape. Offred can’t believe it and suddenly something within her snaps when presented with the right opportunity to vent her anger. In Gilead, rape is punishable by death. On the surface, it points towards what is an obvious contradiction as consent is not there when Commander Waterford rapes Offred as she lies in Serena’s lap. The key, however, is noting what type of man has control over women and in this specific case, it wasn’t an official of Gilead, who is given full authority to rape women and impregnate them. The rapist sentenced to execution committed the crime of raping a pregnant Handmaid, which caused her pregnancy to be aborted. Even in the pain of being raped, the death of her unborn child was the greater tragedy. The method of execution for the rapist was being beaten to death by the Handmaids. It’s a mechanism of release, designed to give an avenue for the Handmaid’s righteous fury to be unleashed but critically it was a mechanism the Gilead officials could control. Offred’s fury is something to behold and even though she takes a step back from the rapist’s bloody form, that fury ignites a renewed sense of determination. Her name isn’t Offred. It’s June and she will escape, she will get her daughter back.
+“I didn’t read it. I promise.”
+“I don’t need oranges. I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.”
+Orgies and Tinder are responsible for the downfall of society, according to Aunt Lydia
+“Please, god. Let her remember me.”
+The ice cream shop conversation was fantastic
+“It was good to finally meet you.”
+“Her name is Hannah. My husband’s name was Luke. My name is June.”
A Feminist Story You Should Read/Watch: Four Months, Three Weeks, & Two Days: A great Romanian film chronicling the struggles of two women as one of them tries to obtain an illegal abortion in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Communist dictatorship. Riveting, horrifying, timely.
Episode Title: Offred
Teleplay by: Bruce Miller
Directed by: Reed Morano
Image Courtesy: Indie Wire
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Syrian Refugee/Refugee Crises
Women’s Reproductive Rights