The Handmaid’s Tale Mirrors America’s Past and Present

By Lara Robertson


The year is 2017. Under a Trump presidency, a group of largely white, male politicians create and pass a bill that restricts the ability of women in developing countries to access abortion and contraceptive services. Those same men pass a healthcare bill that lists pregnancy as a “pre-existing condition.”


In Australia, Christian conservatives, including the Australian Christian Lobby, are still vocal in their opposition to gay marriage, the Safe Schools program, access to abortions and euthanasia, though their influence is certainly on the decline.


Researchers from the University of Washington have found that there is just a 5 per cent chance that the planet will avoid warming by at least two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The two degrees threshold was set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement goal. And just recently, a study found that sperm count in Western men has more than halved over the last 40 years.


This is the context in which The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, easily locates itself.


In Handmaid’s future version of America, rising pollution levels and sexually transmitted diseases have caused mass sterility. With human populations coming under threat, a fundamentalist Christian group called the Sons of Jacob overthrows the US government. After suspending the Constitution in the ensuing confusion, they are able to quickly take away women’s rights by blocking their access to their bank accounts. A new regime, the Republic of Gilead, is soon established, splitting society into different social classes and enforcing strict rules based on the Old Testament.


The remaining fertile women are captured, taken away from their families and forced to become “Handmaids,” expected to bear children to the high-ranking men whose wives cannot fall pregnant.

The series centres on Offred (literally “of Fred,” the name of her Commander), played by Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, West Wing). We experience much of the story from her perspective, which means confronting scenes become all the more horrific.


Perhaps the reason why the series seems so prescient and so chilling is because it’s not really that far away from America’s “real” history.  Not so long ago, women were subjugated, held captive against their will, raped by their masters, and tortured (sometimes killed) for attempting to escape. Black women in America faced this reality for hundreds of years.


“One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened… nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities,” Atwood said of her novel.


The Handmaid’s Tale is less a dystopic prediction of the future of America, and more a frightening lesson in world history.


However, although The Handmaid’s Tale takes its plot straight from the real experiences of African-American women – and indeed from many other women throughout history and into the present day – race is still very much sidelined in the series.


The cast itself is certainly diverse; Offred’s interracial family with her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) is a departure from her white family in Atwood’s book. There is also a standout performance from Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley as Offred’s friend Moira.


However, the series is still largely a depiction of white women suffering the many horrors women of colour have already suffered throughout history. To disregard the clear connection between the plot of The Handmaid’s Tale and these histories is not only ignorant, but harmful, especially at a time when the history taught in Western schools routinely whitewashes many of the injustices inflicted upon people of colour.


Showrunner Bruce Miller explained that though he and his team chose a diverse cast to reflect a realistic vision of America, they didn’t want to focus on race.

“It just felt like in a world where birth rates have fallen so precipitously, fertility would trump everything,” he said.


The Handmaid’s Tale has been given the green light for a second series due in 2018, which will see the plot develop well beyond the book’s scope. Inspired by discussions on social media, Miller has also promised that Season 2 will address the issue of race.


Praise be!

Watch The Handmaid’s Tale for free on SBS On Demand.