Season 1, Episode 1: Offred
The Drs Donnelly and Hinson are embarking on a blog project to discuss themes in and questions raised by Hulu’s Emmy Award winning show, The Handmaid’s Tale. We are both scholars of the treatment of women in societies, but Kristen focuses on religion, while Erin researches imprisonment. As this tale is an intersection of all of those, we decided to delve in.
These blogs are not meant for people who have never seen the show or read the book. They’re not recaps of the events, but are discussions of the events, and ones we hope will stimulate your thinking as well.
This is our discussion around the first episode, Offred, which introduces viewers to the world crafted by Margaret Atwood and adapted for Hulu. We meet Offred, a handmaid to a powerful family, and through flashbacks are given snippets of how she got to the position she’s in. We are introduced to the Leah and Rachel Center, and to how the handmaid’s perform their ‘duties’.
KD: Okay, there is so much to cover here. We come from such different lenses into this conversation - I am friends with many women raised in conservative and fundamentalist religious movements and have researched them for years, while I know you’re not as conversant in some of the religious language used to talk about women in these settings. So, my first question, is what did you think overall of this world?
EH: I was struck, as I always am by dystopian future societies, by the similarities between that world and ours. I know there have been many comparisons made between Gilead and America (Why not just ban women?, Surrogacy is a dystopian reality, Is The Handmaid's Tale the most terrifying TV ever?), and I think we try and identify with aspects of that society so that we can connect with the experiences of the characters. Though much of the religious language and references are foreign to me, I noticed all the ways in which religious language was used to justify the new set of behavior norms that are introduced and enforced. In reflecting on my knowledge of forms of imprisonment and social control, I was interested to see how the Handmaid’s did or did not address the layers of their imprisonment - which is enforced through the daily participation in rituals, their language, clothing, gestures, and participation in social interactions. All of these layers are governed by the system of control, but the system itself relies on the ideology and language necessary to justify their ‘imprisonment.’
From your background in religious studies, I wondered if there are comparisons you can make to other religious institutions or societies? How accurate are the biblical references they make, have they been appropriated in other circumstances similarly? From what group or society (if any) did Atwood or the writers and producers draw their inspiration?
KD: Oh, those are great questions. There are definitely trappings of fundamentalist cults in Gilead - everything from the Independent Baptists to some of the Quiverfull circles - in that they take language from the Old Testament and directly apply it to the modern world. Yes, Rachel was barren and yes, Leah wasn’t, and yes, that was a WHOLE THING for Jacob and the nation of Israel and therefore the lineage of Jesus. However, there is no evidence in the rest of scripture that selling women into reproductive servitude was the authorial intent of those passages. (Side note: the story of Rachel and Leah is a whole lot more intense than just this bit. I swear to you, most daytime soaps take inspiration from the Old Testament, or at least they should.)
I think what I’ll be coming back to over and over again as we go throughout this series is that religious language is so easily to use to manipulate others. Because of the connection to deity that most humans feel (whatever we define that as), language which refers to that deity or to the practices of worshipping that deity carry more emotional weight than others. “Because God said” is a valid argument for subjugation in some circles and clearly it is in Gilead.
The other bit - in thinking about what you said as well - is that the first step to establishing fundamentalism is removing critical thought and free will. If you examine modern groups like this - even conservative movements that border this theology but appear to have semblance of common sense like the Southern Baptist Convention - they also eschew critical thinking and emphasize authority over participation.
I can go on and on and on about this and I know we will in future posts, but I want to know what you thought of Offred? Were you expecting her inner monologue to be so blunt? Talk about resistance, eh?
EH: Wow, that is fascinating how much they took the story of Rachel and Leah and just ran with it. Why is it always the obscure biblical passages that get the most play? And why aren’t they the ones about love and understanding and compassion? (Mini-rant from the agnostic, here) I think that contrast between authority and participation is really interesting, and certainly something we see play out in this first episode, particularly with the scenes flashing back to the Rachel and Leah Center and the training that Offred and Moira.
I think what you said about the use of religious language in manipulation is so true, and for me what is remarkable to watch is how through the repetition of the language (mini-rituals) everyone in Gilead participates in upholding the new order. As I mentioned before, the natural tendency with shows like this is to compare it to our own society, and the differences in language, especially something simple, like how the Handmaid’s greet each other, is what first stood out to me. So there’s a huge emphasis on participation there, right? But the participation, by using those phrases, is always reinforced through the fear of authority and the paranoia that an ‘Eye’ could be watching you.
I think Offred is awesome, mostly because her actions are so relatable. They really took painstaking detail showing how people resist a system and then eventually become a part of it, usually as a means of survival or protecting others. Using the technique of the inner monologue was a great way to give her dimensions and personality outside of what we see her performing in her new life. I haven’t read the book (and I know you have) and I’m assuming it’s easier to get a sense of Offred’s personal reactions of what is happening to her, and to the other women, through Atwood’s writing. I was not expecting her monologue to be so blunt, but I think it was the perfect (and exciting) way to represent resistance. In a world where everything about their lives is now controlled - dress, behavior, language, leisure, work, emotions - the one thing that cannot be controlled is her mind, which is a beautiful symbol of that resistance.
From my work with formerly incarcerated people, that really rings true, when you are subject to a strict regime of control, you try and find the things (small though they may be) that allow you to keep some sense of individuality. I think watching Offred’s sense of righteousness grow throughout the episodes is really fierce.
I wonder though with such a strong narrator, are we able to see past her representation of Gilead? Are there other voices in the book that we don’t get here? What did you make of the stoning scene at the end? Talk about means of physical and emotional control - the only time they are allowed to show any emotion whatsoever is when they perform a ritual killing? I know that probably has biblical ties as well, but I would not want to be in the mind of the man in Gilead who proposed that ritual. It reminded me so much of this horrible movie I watched as a kid called ‘The Lottery’ where one person was drawn from a lottery on the same day each year and ritually stoned in this really small town, and the rest of the year the town was this idyllic utopia, save for that day, very Hunger Games.
Obviously, the first episode has to set the stage for the rest of the series and it’s hard to find more powerful imagery than all of those women, after we’ve seen what they’ve been through with their capture and forced participation, giving over to their suppressed emotions and killing someone. Yet, you can almost see that scene as a means of collective resistance and unity, since they are killing a man who raped a Handmaid. But as much as Offred ‘resists’ with her monologue, it didn’t stop her from throwing the stone.
KD: Such a fantastic point to end on. I’ll close by saying that I think there’s a lot more to the name of “Gilead” than we’ve been told so far. That’s a very loaded word in Christianity as it appears in Scripture as a place of rest and calm and the hymn “There is a Balm in Gilead” is in frequent rotation in many churches. So… watch this space?