Review: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ depicts gradual ascent to religious patriarchy

Posted on May 2 2018 - 5:20am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

The second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a Hulu series based on the eponymous 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, started streaming last week. Its plot provides a haunting look into a dystopian American society called “Gilead” that is ruled by a totalitarian, radical-Christian patriarchy.

After a large terrorist attack on the U.S. government, the environment is left polluted and birth rates are declining due to rising infertility. A small group of wealthy men establishes martial law, gradually gains power and creates a new theonomy in which they collect all the fertile women and enslave them as “handmaids.”

In order to ensure that children are born, the ruling patriarchs, who refer to themselves as “commanders,” systematically rape the handmaids in front of their wives during a monthly “ceremony.”

In the television show, rape is justified in the ceremony through the Old Testament reading of Genesis 30:1, in which Rachel could not have children, so she offered her maid Bilhah to her husband, Jacob.

If a handmaid gives birth, she immediately gives the newborn to her commander’s wife and then moves on to another household – she is not treated as a human being but, rather, as an incubator.

The handmaid’s only value is determined by her ability to reproduce, and if she does not embrace her God-given gift of fertility, she is deemed “unwoman” and sent to the colonies, which are outlying areas akin to labor camps. This exemplifies the notion that to be a woman, one must dedicate her life to reproduction.

The most riveting parts of the second season are the flashbacks that help the audience understand how Gilead came to exist.

One scene depicts the protagonist, June, at work before the overthrow of the government. She receives a phone call from a nurse at her daughter’s elementary school who tells her that her daughter, Hannah, has a high temperature and has been sent to the hospital.

“A child is required to be fever free for 48 hours before she can return to school,” the school nurse says. “When we couldn’t reach you, we called an ambulance. The state has policies; we couldn’t take any chances.”

Hannah ends up having a harmless virus, but during this interaction, the hospital nurse questions June’s ability as a mother instead of sharing joy about the child’s well-being.

“Hannah is so sweet. You’re really blessed,” the nurse tells June, subtly hinting that June should be grateful to have a child. “The school was having a hard time reaching you today,” the nurse continues.

When June says she went back to full-time work 10 months after her daughter was born, the nurse looks at her disapprovingly, suggesting that, as a mother, June’s happiness should depend entirely upon nurturing her child and not at all upon her career.

“What kind of arrangements do you have to take care of your child if she needs to stay home from school?” the nurse asks June, who replies that she or her husband would stay home from work with their daughter. The nurse, however, accuses June of medicating Hannah with Tylenol to bypass the school’s fever policy and avoid missing work that day.

“I understand we have busy lives, but children are so precious. We have to make certain that they are in a safe home environment with fit parents,” the nurse says. This statement clearly conveys the Gilead belief that children are the most valuable resource in society and that a mother who has a career is not a “fit parent.”

Instead, Gilead only considers a commander and his wife, which constitute a wealthy, powerful, heterosexual couple of the highest social class, to be fit parents.

In addition, the common belief that genetic relation determines one’s parenthood is completely discarded. In Gilead, even though the infertile wife is not genetically related to the handmaid’s baby, she acts as the child’s mother, which indicates that a competent mother is not one who is genetically related to her child but, rather, is one who has money, power, time and the desire to fully commit to being a stay-at-home mom.

Though a work of speculative fiction, “The Handmaid’s Tale” has eerie similarities to our current society that elicit questions about that society.

Today, we are all in support of child protective services. We want to ensure that innocent children are not neglected by their parents. The question remains: how do we determine what is “neglect?”

Nowadays, in the eyes of the law, an unstable, drug-addicted single parent is not deemed fit to take care of his or her children. However, as birth rates decrease and the value placed on babies increases, could the definition of “unfit” one day extend to include parents with full-time jobs? This second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” begs the viewer to consider this question as well as others about the future of society.