Sunday, April 8, 2018

April Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: The Handmaid’s Tale, Season One

Genesis 30:
And when Rachel saw 
that she bore Jacob
no children, 
Rachel envied her 
sister and said 
unto Jacob, 
“Give me children, 
or else I die… " 
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. "

Margaret Atwood’s enduring 1985 novel retold on HULU will debut Season Two on April 25. The following is a review of Season One, already celebrated with Emmys, Golden Globes, and other awards. Show creator Bruce Miller (above), Colin Watkinson (cinematographer) and the early input of Reed Morano (director of the first three episodes and herself a cinematographer) have recreated the novelist’s vision of an America subverted by a religious cult with the same creepy authenticity of the novel. The headquarters of her dystopia (“a bad place”), Gilead, is Harvard, which began as a Puritan theological seminary in Cambridge, MA, 1636. Atwood takes us back to our 17th century Puritan roots and witch trials, and by inference, to misogyny through history. Misogyny darkens our thoughts still with ongoing threats to abortion and birth control and conflicts with theocratic Muslim regimes. Although Atwood penned her novel during the Reagan-era ascendance of the Christian right and Moral Majority, the story stays current.

Atwood (above) has said she did not include anything in her novel that has not already happened in real life or that may not be happening somewhere now. (Paying tribute to Atwood’s imagery, women demonstrated against anti-abortion legislation in several states and WDC in 2017 dressed as Handmaids; see photo at bottom.) Its resonance has led the novel to have been translated into 40 languages, made into film, opera, ballet, and couture fashion too.

The still-life color palate of Gilead is photographer Reed Morano’s distinctive contribution and its painterly quality gets trapped in your head like a memorable Vermeer (although relieved by flashbacks to pre-Gilead times, filmed naturalistically with hand held cameras). What sticks most is the deep red of body-shielding Handmaids’ cloaks  —  the color of prostitution, menstruation, the scarlet letter of adultery  —  and red lines of women under duress.

The premise here is of an unlivable America ruined by unnamed environmental catastrophes. Population and childbirth have plummeted, many adults are barren. Fundamentalist Christians have staged a coup, massacring U.S. leaders. To control reproduction, the regime segregates women according to their value — the fertile ones become Handmaids, parceled out as temporary property, fertility slaves, to powerful men and their barren wives for childbearing.

The Handmaids are indoctrinated by ‘Aunts’ who teach conformity and obedience alternating praise and torture (below).

Marthas are the domestics, Unwomen are designated to clean toxic waste; Gender Traitors (gay persons) are killed or tortured, and Jezebels are assigned to brothels for powerful men. Gilead is a curated place, says director Miller — inorganic and intentional.

The Handmaid of our tale, Offred, is played by Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake), choking us on Gilead and herself. Named for her “Commander” Fred, she is now ‘of’-‘fred’ (Joseph Fiennes, of the irresistible Shakespeare in Love ). Fred’s wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) had been a gifted televangelist in the cult that brought about Gilead. She is now neither serene nor joyful having made no gain from the revolution. It insures that she sits mostly at home knitting for the child from her handmaid — an agent of her own oppression.

This apocalyptic Brave-New-World is qualified by Atwood’s intention to arouse sympathy and worry for her characters. In order to get inside Offred’s head, the camera smothers her closely. The effect is to convey the sense of claustrophobic entrapment by commander Fred and wife whose modus operandi is the holier-than-thou of a Mike Pence and a Phyllis Schlafly. Offred says, “Handmaids are two legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”

This is borne out by the most pious event in Gilead (above and below), a monthly ceremony recreating the biblical imagery of Jacob, Rachel, and her handmaid Bilbau. Fred reads a Bible verse; Offred lies between Serena Joy’s legs, her head in her mistress’s lap while Fred deposits sperm in Offred — a tableau filled with suppressed rage, jealousy, and shame.

A fourth character figures here, Fred and Serena Joy’s young driver, Nick, (Max Minghella). After months of the Handmaid’s failure to conceive, Serena Joy faults her husband and arranges for Nick to stand in for Fred during Offred’s fertile period. It leads to pregnancy and Offred’s first genuine emotion since her capture.

From here on, the action moves from her desperation to stay sane to hope and thoughts of escape. The novel and first TV series ends with uncertainty about the fates of Offred and the family of her own from which she had been abducted — Luke, her husband, who has made it to Canada, and their daughter, Hannah, now a captive of Gilead.  (Shown below, on the run before capture.) 

Season One reprises the essence of Margaret Atwood’s novel and ends like the novel with uncertainty. Atwood has collaborated with Bruce Miller for the next chapter in her characters’ lives, thus the new HULU series is a joint literary and media event.

As a footnote, one can’t help ruminate on the historically repetitive, seemingly endless parade of violence against women. Environmental causes have been put forward in the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are genetic rationales: men oppress women because they can.

My own view puts these together with the thinking of British scholar Steve Taylor; he wrote in Psychology Today ( 8/2012) that women’s sexual power, perceived as inability to resist arousal in the face of temptation, affronts the male need for power and control. Misogyny, then, cut loose in civil or environmental disorder, may be revenge for testosterone-driven sexual drive.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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