With the much-awaited release of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” only four days away, much has been said in the past 24 hours about who the story, in both its book and TV show form, is for.
In Saturday’s New York Times review, executive producer Bruce Miller discusses spearheading the show as a man when its creators initially wanted a woman to do so:
“Offred spoke to me,” Mr. Miller said. “She’s in this nightmarish situation but she keeps her funny cynicism and sarcasm. She finds really interesting ways to pull levers of power and express herself.”
But Mr. Miller wasn’t a shoo-in for showrunner because producers were looking for a woman, he recalled. “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been a seminal right-of-passage novel for many young women for over three decades; a feminist sacred text.
“It’s sacred to me, too,” Mr. Miller said. “But I don’t feel like it’s a male or female story; it’s a survival story.”
At the show’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, the starring actors placed a heavy emphasis on the show being a “human” story and not a “feminist” one.
“I think that any story, if it is a story being told by a strong, powerful woman... any story that’s just a powerful woman owning herself in any way is automatically deemed ‘feminist,’” said Madeline Brewer, who plays handmaid Janine. “But it’s just a story about a woman. I don’t think that this is any sort of feminist propaganda.”
Elisabeth Moss, who plays the show’s main character Offred, echoed Brewer’s comments.
“It’s not a feminist story, it’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights,” Moss said. I never intended to play Peggy [from ‘Mad Men’] as a feminist and I never expected to play Offred as a feminist ... I approach it from a very human place, I hope.”
Atwood has since responded by neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the cast.
“It’s not only a feminist story,” she said. “It’s also a human story.”
While the show doesn’t need to be labeled as “feminist,” and while it’s fine that a man who loves the story spearheaded its televised iteration, a story that a woman wrote about the forced subservience of women and their subsequent survival deserves to be owned by women. We get to claim it.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian fiction, sure, but it’s one that has women storming to their local libraries to grab a copies of the book. Last month, women dressed up as handmaids and protested anti-abortion legislation in the Texas Senate gallery. And, at this year’s SXSW festival, women wore handmaids costumes and roamed the streets of Austin, Texas, as performance art. Even though the book was written more than 30 years ago, it is resonating with women all over again.
Rebecca Traister wrote about reading the book in the era of President Donald Trump for New York Magazine in Februrary. “[T]here’s no question that reading about Atwood’s imagined dystopia is far scarier today than it was, I suspect, for adults living in 1985,” she wrote.
For anyone who has read the book, there shouldn’t be much surprise as to why women feel so connected to it in this current political and social moment. After all, it feels closer to reality than the show’s creators wanted.
Moss, who also serves as a producer, acknowledged the eerie and terrifying parallels between Offred’s nightmarish journey and Trump’s America.
“We never wanted the show to be this relevant,” she told Entertainment Weekly in December.
The relevance of story is easy to spot.
In the dystopian theocracy of Gilead, where “The Handmaid’s Tale” is set, women’s bodies are policed and controlled by the male-run state. Handmaids’ only purpose is to bear children ― they have no rights, no freedom, no lives. Women are not trusted with their own bodies.
America now has a president who brags about grabbing women “by the pussy.” This week, a lawyer in Tennessee said that women are “especially good at lying ... because they’re the weaker sex.” A Missouri congressman said last year that becoming pregnant after a rape is a blessing from God. Rooms full of men make legislative decisions about women’s bodies. A panel of men in Maryland decided that rapists can continue to have parental rights over the children who were conceived by rape. And abortion access is under threat across the U.S.
But the beauty of “The Handmaid’s Tale” ― something that Miller misses and perhaps what women connect to most deeply ― is that it is inarguably, explicitly, a story of women’s survival and audacity.
The first time I read the novel, in the fall of 2015, I cried. Not because its content was so traumatizing. (It was.) And not because it felt so eerily similar to what was happening in our political landscape. (It did.)
I cried for lines like this:
“We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we would stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren’t looking, and touch each other’s hands across space. We learned to lip-read, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other’s mouths.”
And lines like this:
“I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story, because after all I want you to hear it ... By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you ... Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.”
Atwood’s beautifully constructed prose is at its finest when she is portraying the sheer resilience of my fellow women.
In the wake of the presidential election, the resilience of women is what has kept me going. Women are resisting, calling, volunteering, donating... and living.
And like the fictional Offred ― whether Moss thinks she’s “feminist” or not ― we intend to survive.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Madeline Brewer's character as Jane instead of Janine.