Watching the newly televised version of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is like watching a sciencefictional drama about tooth extraction. The elegant camera work, frequent slow-motion sequences and good musical score are not enough to refine the pain of the procedure or to make it entertaining.
The story is set in the near future. Human fertility has fallen so drastically that in a country once known as the United States of America, now called Gilead, the nuclear family has been shredded. Both sexes live in extreme segregation. Women in particular are identified by their colour-coded floor-length gowns and social designations. Handmaids are women of proven fertility who live as concubines in the homes of powerful men, the socalled Commanders, and their wives.
Handmaids wear wine-red gowns and white bonnet-wimples. Their purpose is to bear children. But wait! This society is Biblepowered! So the sex is strictly procreative. It’s performed via a ritual rape ceremony that takes place once a month, during the Handmaid’s fertile period. She lies supine between the wife’s outstretched legs, in the master bedroom. Everyone is fully clothed and the domestic help are called in to watch. Bizarre and provocative? Yes, but only in the book. Onscreen, the sight of a fully-clothed man, standing with one hand on his hip, bumping solemnly back and forth until he stops with a dainty little snort, is quite frankly ludicrous.
Elisabeth Moss, with her raptor’s nose and shocked-blue eyes, is convincing as Offred the protagonist handmaid. But Joseph Fiennes as Offred’s Commander, looks about as virile and powerful as the Energizer bunny.
In Episode 6, Offred finally receives a tiny ray of hope about her future, and the book assures us that her story ends well. Nevertheless, to watch women being systematically tortured and stripped of dignity surely reinforces a regressive stereotype— that women are physically and mentally inferior to men.
If we’re gawking at the travails of these red-robed western women onscreen it’s because they have chosen to engage in oppression-porn. Maybe our sympathy for their fictional anguish will spill over to the millions of child brides, tortured housemaids or sex slaves who share the world with us. Or maybe not.
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