The Handmaid’s Tale is over on Hulu, at least for this season, and I have questions.
Allow me to preface by saying I thoroughly enjoyed this rendition, which makes up for the rushed and too-surfacy 1989 film take on Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 book about what happens when a nation collectively loses its mind after babies cease to be born (or born well) and religious zealots take over.
But, you know, questions.
When a story is contained in a book, you ask a little less sometimes – authors naturally elide over some specifics, because they aren’t writing an encyclopedia or world history; it’s meant to be a brief, window-peeping glimpse into this world. In the case of Atwood, her world-building works great and I didn’t have these questions until I saw it brought to long-form television.
But now I have questions, questions that no one can really answer, but I have them anyway.
At first, watching Offred walk into town to do her shopping I despaired, realizing it would take just a generation for women to become functionally illiterate – if the girls are not taught to read, and only recognize pictures on signs, that’s a major blow. But then I thought even further down the road – and began wondering: What is the long-term strategy for Gilead (aka the former United States) in this scenario? Both on a practical and sociological level?
If we are to believe that for Reasons (environmental, war-related) babies are either being not born or born deformed in most cases, and thanks to those Reasons women have to either be sent to the Colonies (which sound like radioactive concentration camps) or fit into strictly-defined, Madonna/mamma/whore roles by the “civilized” remnant, how exactly does this work ten years down the road? Twenty? Thirty?
Let’s start with the Handmaids. From what I can tell they’re treated like breeder dogs: You breed, give up your offspring, breed again until you no longer breed effectively. Then … you become an Aunt or a Martha if you’re lucky, or sent to become a forced prostitute in underground whorehouses (where you have a short time until your “pussy wears out,” as we’re told by Moira), or possibly to the Colonies. That’s if you don’t go mad and get executed. But either way, this has the feel of a pyramid scheme: you are not going to get enough Handmaids brainwashed or terrified into following the system to create enough Marthas for the dozens of Handmaids you’re expected to be training next.
But where are those Handmaids coming from? Where’s the next generation? We no longer see plebian citizens on the streets – at least not female ones – and one would assume that the generation of girls created for the ruling elite are going to be exempted (if they themselves can’t procreate they’ll likely be considered elite enough to get their own Handmaid). You can’t pull from the Colonies, as those folks are Diseased! And probably dead anyway by the next generation. Are there going to be culls? A new kind of hunger games? You will probably get around 10-15 years of this current Handmaid setup before you hit that next generation of – nobody.
Next, let’s look at the practical level. Everyone in the elite homes is surrounded by nice things – lamps, lace, bedspreads, pretty much all the foods we’re used to now, though some are more scarce than before. Putting aside the question of who is doing all the farming and animal raising now – because we don’t see anyone like that, and exactly where do those families fit in society? – what happens down the road when the Nice Things of the Past begin to wear out? What factories are making bedspreads? Who’s creating new Thomas Kinkade paintings to hang on the walls? Who is doing roof repairs?
Men, you might say, and I’d say: OK, men. But you are not going to be able to sustain even an autocratic society of all men, all the time, doing all the jobs – because they are going to want to get married, maybe have their own kids. That will require women. So where are those women? The women of the factories, the ones doing the creative things? Where do they live? Are you actually going to import everything, which hardly seems practical in a country that can’t export very much anymore? The Colonies do not seem like a “working class” area where you can picture all the actual work of supporting the society comes from – it’s basically portrayed as a short trip to six feet under.
The book (though not the TV series) refers to “Econowives,” who are women who marry low-ranking men – and I suppose these are the wives of the working class. That’s a pretty good catch-all, but it’s simply not a factor in the Gilead of TV.
So I’m left wondering about the long-term. To my mind, this is not a self-propagating system (pun intended) that can go on for decades upon decades. The notion of the pyramid scheme remains strong – not that you can’t have a small ruling class dominate a larger majority, but we’re starting to talk about an ever-growing ruling class and an ever-shrinking minority of people they want to farm their lives from. So where was it meant to go?
I know in the book there’s an epilogue, which implies that this theocracy was a short-term thing and ultimately fell – which always felt like a bit of a cheat to me; it’s much more menacing to allow us to believe that this world is the world forever and ever amen. But OK: In the book, it doesn’t go on forever, and part of that may be due to the weaknesses I’ve mentioned above. But so far in the TV series, there’s no indication of that – nor could those who set up the barbaric system have known it would fall so soon.
So I ask again: Where were they going with this? Discuss, please!
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