Gilead’s Totalitarian Society is Eerily Familiar

May 28, 2021

The Handmaid’s Tale: where fiction meets reality

By Nahla Valji, Senior Advisor, Gender, Executive Office of the Secretary-General, United Nations

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Pigs” — Episode 401 — On the run after the end of Season 3, an injured June and the fugitive Handmaids find refuge at a farm, where the 14-year-old wife nurses June back to health.

After an almost two-year pause, the newest season of The Handmaid’s Tale began airing last month. For those unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood’s gripping book or the Emmy award-winning TV series, Hulu’s own description succinctly summarizes the plot as: ‘A woman forced into sexual servitude struggles to survive in a terrifying, totalitarian society’.

The terrifying society is Gilead, and it has taken over the United States. The totalitarian ideology it has enforced can best be described as patriarchy. Or perhaps better yet, totalitarian misogyny: A socially engineered society of deliberate and extreme inequality between men and women, justified as a return to orthodox religious beliefs and spread through fear as the solution to a world devastated by climate change, where human reproduction has been affected and the ability to survive is at threat.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Household” — Episode 306 — June accompanies the Waterfords to Washington D.C., where a powerful family offers a glimpse of the future of Gilead.

Here, women are assigned specific, subservient roles structured around their sole utility for reproduction, to repopulate the country, or in support of motherhood. They are classified from early on as wives, Handmaids (sexual slaves to reproduce), Marthas (Maids), Aunts (who groom and police the Handmaids). A few women escape these categories, but only to serve men in another capacity, invisibly in brothels.

Atwood’s original book was both a page turner and deeply discomforting. A glimpse into a dystopic future that felt only a few shades off reality and eerily familiar. Unsurprising given that everything portrayed in the show, all the horrors detailed, occurred at some time in history.

When the TV series first aired its timing played off that discomfort. Increasing trends of misogynistic authoritarianism felt so close at hand in the real world that the show was almost too on point. As The Atlantic headlined in 2019, there was a rise globally of a ‘new authoritarianism’ with a pushback on women’s rights at its core. A few years later, while some of those forces may have receded, that tension remains.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Unfit” — Episode 308 — June and the rest of the Handmaid’s shun Ofmatthew, and both are pushed to their limits at the hands of Aunt Lydia.

And now that discomfort is heightened even further by a realization that radical and sudden shifts on a global scale are not farfetched. With growing pressures from climate change, shifting political powers, and inequality, they are perhaps likely. If the last year has highlighted one thing it is how quickly our day-to-day reality can change. In a matter of months, more than 3 million people have lost their lives. Some 120 million people have fallen back into extreme poverty. The equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs have been lost. More than 170m children have been out of school for a year. And the crisis is far from over.

Looking back to March 2020, those initial days were filled with uncertainty.

But crises exacerbate and amplify already existing trends. And one thing became quickly clear — that this would be a crisis with a woman’s face. Around the world, 70% of essential workers and global healthcare workers are women. The pandemic also highlighted the role of those workers who literally keep our communities functioning, from nurses to teachers, grocery workers and service workers; but have been underpaid, undervalued, and largely invisible. It also laid bare the realities of inequality, with women more vulnerable to unemployment and poverty, many in informal jobs with no protections. This inequality has meant that it has been women who have been forced out of the labor force in larger numbers, borne the economic brunt of the crisis, and have taken on the spiraling burdens of care responsibilities as child, elder and health care has shifted into the home. Most alarmingly, in every region of the world, as lockdowns spread so too did an alarming uptick in male violence towards women and girls — domestic violence, sexual abuse, trafficking and exploitation, online bullying and abuse.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “The Crossing” — Episode 403 — Captured by Gilead, June faces a vengeful Aunt Lydia and endures a torturous interrogation to discover where the other Handmaids are hiding.

The trends Gilead amplifies are with us — they take the form of legalized discrimination, exploitation, child marriage, violence, rape. There is nowhere in the world where women have equal rights under law. Property, inheritance, types of jobs, ability to open a bank account, decisions over their own body all are regulated differently for women and men to varying degrees in different countries. In Gilead this is simply taken to a logical conclusion. Women are little more than walking wombs or registered property.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Nightshade” — Episode 402 — In Toronto, former Handmaid Emily struggles with the trauma she experienced before escaping Gilead.

The show puts a magnifying glass to the way in which women’s roles as mothers are manipulated, used as a tool to contain and oppress as they have in our care crisis presently, while still celebrating the powerful force of a mother’s love. It deals searingly with the end logic of a society where choice and control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights is not with them as individuals with rights but subjugated to collective decision. Specifically, the decisions of men. None of this is strikes too far from home. Scanning the newspapers in a single week reveals stories from all over the world of women in prison in one country for having miscarried, another of a 13 year-old raped by her neighbor whose mother and teacher illegally obtain an abortion for her only to end up in prison themselves rather than the rapist. Of everyday child marriages, women forced to marry their rapists, kidnapped for marriage, trafficked, exploited, experiencing constraints through laws, actions, or simply threat over what a woman can wear, where or what she can be.

In short, the newest season continues to capture Atwood’s vividly and deliver a timely message — if we want to avoid the possibility of a future that amplifies the worst of our societies, addressing inequality, sustainability, and the health of our planet have never been more urgent.

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Handmaid’s Tale UN Blog Series

This article is one in a series of blog posts that coincide with the global release of Season 4 of the award-winning TV series The Handmaid’s Tale. Each post explores the realities behind the show’s storylines including, the refugee journey, gender-based violence and sexual servitude, international justice, and arbitrary detention, torture and summary execution, among other compelling topics. The blogs also explore the power of community and resilience in the face of trauma, and the path to healing and recovery.

United Nations staff and experts with experience working on the frontlines of violent conflict, gender and refugee issues, human rights and international law have regularly consulted with The Handmaid’s Tale writers, producers, Directors, actors, and production team, to help ground many of the show’s storylines in the lives of real people and real experiences.

The United Nations’ Creative Community Outreach Initiative (CCOI) is responsible for bridging the gap between the United Nations and creators in the film and television industry, with one of its objectives to ensure issues on the UN agenda are depicted in film and television and reflect reality.

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Gilead’s Totalitarian Society is Eerily Familiar was originally published in We The Peoples on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.