*The following contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly episode six, “A Woman’s Place”.
The Handmaid’s Tale has often been described as the future for women if politicians such as Donald Trump and Mike Pence get their way. The sixth episode of the Hulu adaptation shows us, through the backstories of Commander Fred Waterford and Serena Joy Waterford, how easily current society could slip into a dystopia like Gilead.
The Handmaid’s Tale indulges, though not as much as other prestige television shows, in humanising slightly the villains of the story, the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and particularly Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who enjoyed a career as a “domestic feminist”, writing books about how women neglected their homely duties for professional ambition (that’s the pot calling the kettle black there, isn’t it Serena?), resulting in a low birth rate. She enthusiastically describes to Fred an idea for a book about “fertility as a national resource; reproduction as a moral imperative.” Through contrasting, present-day scenes, we see how Serena Joy helped implement Gilead, a civilization in which she and all women no longer have agency.
The crux of the episode is on a Mexican diplomat’s meeting with Commander Waterford and the other gatekeepers of Gilead. Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara), whom our heroine Offred (Elisabeth Moss) initially overlooks in favour of one of her male aides, internalising the stifling patriarchy of Gilead and, indeed, contemporary culture that dictates that women are not usually the ones in power, asks Serena Joy how she feels about being instrumental in bringing about “a society in which women can no longer read your book. Or anything else.” Serena Joy replies by rattling off a list of achievements Gilead’s made in its young life, such as reducing carbon emissions by 78% in three years.
In this way, it’s hard not to sympathise with flashback Fred and Serena, or at least their concern about the environment and the human race hurtling towards extinction. The Handmaid’s Tale offers a glimpse into the motivations of the religious, politicians, and conservatives who probably, like Fred and Serena Joy, think “we’re saving them. We’re doing god’s work.” So we never end up becoming complacent and siding with them, though, this episode—entitled “A Woman’s Place”—is sure to inject flat out statements about just that. “We put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition we let them forget their real purpose,” one of the Commander’s colleagues tells him after Serena is prohibited from presenting her ideas to the forefathers of Gilead. “We won’t let that happen again.”
However it’s the underlying themes and motifs of “A Woman’s Place” that are far more interesting than the statements that are designed to shock, especially because they’re so prescient to present-day society.
The Handmaids’ infantalisation is front and centre this episode, with Mrs. Castillo asking about Offred’s former name and the Commander, speaking for Offred, explaining that Handmaids choose to take on their patronymic alias. Then, at a ball celebrating the arrival of Mrs. Castillo and Gilead’s impending trade agreement with Mexico, Serena Joy lauds “the devotion of a group of girls” for their sacrifice, yet another theme of the episode. The obvious coercion of the Handmaids, paired with the stripping of their bodily autonomy, their birth names (which calls to mind the exchange of the father’s name to the husband’s upon marriage) and the parade of the children of Gilead birthed by them then ripped from their arms, is a chilling parallel to slavery.
This conclusion is much easier to come to with the Hulu adaptation than Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, in which she drew from the slavery, segregation, internment and genocide to cast people of colour and other religions out of Gilead, where they have been shipped “back” to their countries of origin. Only white people reside in Atwood’s Gilead, a likely result of the regime’s religious and white supremacist ideologies. But a television adaptation with as lofty, prestigious goals as The Handmaid’s Tale couldn’t get away with such blatant whitewashing in 2017. The boycotting of films such as Ghost in the Shell and The Great Wall for eliminating non-white characters indicates that The Handmaid’s Tale would be met with bad press and lose a significant following if it adhered to the source material. And while the inclusion of non-white Handmaids, Marthas, sex- and (presumably, though we never see them) colony-workers, and the handful of peripheral non-white Wives and Commanders, reflect the show’s viewership and thereby make the comparisons to real-world racist atrocities all the more triggering, The Handmaid’s Tale has rightly drawn criticism for centring the experiences of white Handmaids like Offred at the expense of characters such as Moira (Samira Wiley).
There is also a clear correlation between talk of the Handmaids’ sacrifice and similar rhetoric expressed by real-world government. Australian viewers will remember former Treasurer Peter Costello’s 2004 remarks upon an ageing population and decreased birth rate that women should have “one [child] for mum, one for dad, and one for the country”, just as Gilead, Mexico (where in Mrs. Castillo’s hometown there have been no live births in six years, prompting her to trade for Handmaids) and presumably other countries in this dystopic fiction are seeking to bolster their populations. When Mrs. Castillo implores Offred to sympathise with the fact that her country is dying and Offred replies, “My country is already dead,” this is but one of the ways Gilead is hurting the majority of its citizens while professing to help them.
Despite what some of the cast and crew initially said about The Handmaid’s Tale not being a feminist story, “A Woman’s Place” is perhaps the most obvious episode of the 11-instalment first season to prove that what’s going on in Gilead is, indeed, urgently so.