The Privilege of Passivity & The Handmaid’s Tale

Zachary Colao

Staff Writer


On April 23, Hulu unveiled the first three episodes of their new mini-series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which is based on the famous dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. “The Handmaid’s Tale” details a dystopian future where reproductively viable women are coined “handmaids” by the ruling elite and forced into sexual slavery to provide children to a sterile, fundamentalist Christian theocracy. The sterility of the elite comes as a product of the past: sexually transmitted diseases and an overtly polluted atmosphere caused most of their generation to lose the capacity to bear children. The regime stems from a radical Christian group, who slaughtered America’s top politicians and established the United States as a new land called Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale plays like a slow-burning horror film, but not because of jump scares or sinister music of typical scary films; in fact, it proudly dances outside the confines of the psychological-horror paradigm. Instead, the horror of Atwood’s adaptation comes from the horror of the viewers’ own reality. However, what is truly striking about this show is that Atwood, the author of the original book, claims that the events she writes about are not vignettes of our future, but of our past. Not one episode depicts the main character Offred (Elisabeth Moss) fearing for her future, but each provides scenes of her reminiscing about her past, specifically the things she took for granted.


In the first episode, Offred revels in her past: she had a job as a book editor in Cambridge, a picturesque apartment in the city and a perfect husband and daughter. In a quick turn of events, Offred has everything taken away from her as the new theocratic regime suspends the rights of all women in America. Before she knows it, the rights she knew to be inherent— like owning a bank account and having a job— are wiped away by the new government. These reflective scenes are cut with dialogue from Offred, who claims ignorance during the period that the fringe group took power in the United States.


At first, I was disappointed with how unresponsive the characters were to the hostile takeover of the government. When the rights to her bank account are suspended and given to her husband, Offred barely complains. She marches in a demonstration against the government that goes awry and ends in bloodshed, but she goes back home to sip wine with her best friend and husband, who assures her (in a patronizing tone) that regardless of what happens, he will take care of her.


In those moments of both obvious misogyny and terror, she barely flinches, while I was both unnerved and annoyed. How could they get it so wrong? Then, it hit me: that’s reality. The passivity of Offred was the most realistic snapshots of our society that this show has produced. Politics, it seems, were hardly a concern for Offred before she became a handmaid. Offred was a white woman with a stable job and a family that fit into the patriarchal lens of home life.


In contrast, Offred’s friends Moira (Samira Wiley) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) are completely cognizant of what’s happening around them as societal minorities: Ofglen is a lesbian and Moira is a lesbian of color. The politics of identity had already determined their lives before the government takeover.


Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale provides an interesting, and sometimes eerie, glimpse into the current political scene in the United States as it mirrors life before and after the dramatic presidential election of 2016. The same passivity Offred displays feels similar to the ignorance of privileged Americans before the election, and like the theocratic takeover in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the election served as a catalyst for those Americans to wake up and realize that passivity is no longer an option.
Photo from HULU


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