When I was in eighth grade, I stood on a chair to rail against what I perceived was my social studies teacher’s sexism. Looking back, I’m not surprised by my response, given that the philosophies of feminism were ingrained in me at a young age (though I’m not sure I had the language for it until I was in high school).
Yet, while I was vocally and intellectually fighting for female equality against the sexism around us, many of my fellow females steered clear of my mission. It seemed like they were content living with the subtle sexism around us, just as the women of Gilead ― the fictional, dystopian world in “The Handmaid’s Tale” ― seem passively resigned to their fate.
The series’ second episode ― appropriately titled “Birth” ― is exceptionally jarring in its depictions of motherhood and sisterhood, often obscuring the lines between the two. As someone who speaks professionally about sexual agency, pleasure and consent, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a stunning encapsulation of what a world looks like without those things. It’s riddled with so many nightmarish, yet pertinent, scenes that by the time your head has finished processing one situation, it’s on to the next.
Of course, I’m not living in Gilead. My sisterhood is not based upon reproductive potential. My fertility does not define me. And yet, the theme of caste-based sisterhood is carried through this episode, seen in both the sisterhood of the Handmaids and the sisterhood of the Wives.
There are moments when you appreciate that these women have each other to lean on, that they support each other. They share a bond...even if that bond is quite literally tied to their reproductive systems, arguably the most archaic way of defining social roles.
That’s why I can’t help but think of the phrase “herd mentality” when thinking about the social roles these women are forced to play into. While its animalistic depiction makes me uncomfortable, I’m also painfully aware that this description is ― quite literally ― how the Handmaids are used and seen by the elite members of Gilead society. They are cattle: taken for their flesh and the product of that flesh, offspring and milk.
Herd mentality runs strong throughout this episode. When Ofwarren (the Handmaid formerly named Janine ― remember what I said about names?) is in labor, a group of red-cloaked, head-bonneted Handmaids rush to her at the home of her Commander’s Wife.
Together, the Handmaids cheer on their compatriot. Janine is in white, an oddly pure look for this group, given the circumstances. But this sight is not half as odd as the room down the hall, where Janine’s “Wife” is identically dressed in white. She is panting and grunting as if in “labor” herself, her fellow wives cheering her on.
In Gilead, social roles are not malleable ― they are stiff as a board. There are severe consequences for challenging those predestined roles, though we aren’t sure what those punishments are just yet. But as a viewer, I have the innate urge to challenge that (unethical) status quo.
I know how painful infertility can be...but could I, had I lived in Gilead, have condoned forced intercourse, conception and birth, as the Wives in Gilead do? I want to believe that the Wives are privately fighting against the status quo, and that their identity doesn’t prevent them from doing what’s right. But in Gilead, nothing ― and everything ― is what it seems.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a drama series based on the award-winning, best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood. Watch for new episodes of the Hulu Original on Wednesdays.