The Handmaid's Tale portrays a societal response to infertility taken to the darkest of extremes. After watching the two seasons of it, I am struggling to link it to today's world without getting on my soapbox to protest for women's rights and the importance of a secular state.
Nonetheless, I can see some faint parallels in this grim series. For in The Handmaid's Tale, where countries have apparently been stricken with high rates of infertility, the choice of fertility treatments is severely limited. And without choice or access to fertility treatments, the only options – natural conception or surrogacy – lead to the formation of a dystopian world.
In the show, the cause of infertility is somewhat uncertain. In the first episode, it is deemed a punishment from God. Eventually, a key character refers to perhaps more scientific causes, namely unhealthy farming practices and exposure to radioactivity. This is why in Gilead – formerly the USA, now a fiercely religious state – farming is now strictly organic, and handmaids must consume organic food only. Gilead runs on a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture and men are firmly in charge. Even high-ranking women must conform to oppressive rules. It's made clear that in the face of high rates of infertility, women's rights were campaigned away to make them focus on producing a family. Reproduction is defined as a moral imperative.
Handmaids are surrogates. The show's premise is that this is the only acceptable form of fertility treatment. Surrogates, however, have no rights. They are fertile women who have been made into slaves, intended to bear children. A handmaid is assigned to each influential household. In addition to carrying out menial household tasks, each month the handmaid has to be raped by the man of the household while his wife is present. The handmaid has no say in the matter, and disobedience is punishable by various unpleasant means, ranging from physical violence, to surgical mutilation, to being exiled to do hard labour in faraway radioactive lands.
There is a total absence of alternative methods of fertility treatment. At one point the show's protagonist, formerly known as June, now renamed 'Offred' since the man of her household is called Fred, is taken to a doctor. Once her captors are safely out of the room, the doctor offhandedly remarks that it is likely that the man of the household is infertile, since 'most of them are'. He even offers to impregnate Offred himself, apparently confident that there will be no genetic testing for paternity. This is emphasised further when Serena Joy, the woman of the household, orders another man to impregnate Offred. She keeps this secret from her husband, but eventually throws the revelation at him during a bitter argument in the second season. Ultimately it does not matter to him, nor to her.
Infertility appears widespread, beyond Gilead. While at least one other country protests the human rights violations of Gilead, the handmaid system is marketed as a favourable solution to a visiting delegation from another, who are simply impressed to see children. Infertility is rarely discussed by any characters in the show. It is a silent and therefore shameful presence. Handmaids are swiftly separated from the babies they bear, and sent to new homes. Strange rituals are set up to act out the pretence of natural pregnancy and natural birth. When it is time for the baby to be born, the woman of the household pretends to give birth amidst an unwittingly funny and foolish spectacle of flowers, grapes and cooing friends. Meanwhile, upstairs, the handmaid undergoes natural childbirth, only for the newborn baby to be immediately taken away.
The first season closely follows the book, written by Margaret Atwood, while the second season is purely original. I found the second season harder to watch, knowing the story was in someone else's hands entirely, and yet seeing the tone just becoming even darker and more oppressive. There was to be no swift narrative turnaround, only more horror, more violations. As such, any glimpse of hope had me shouting at the screen, wondering if the story had reached a turning point.
These small elements – a backstory to the icy, anti-feminist Serena Joy, June briefly permitted to work as an editor again, babies successfully delivered, abrupt enlivening escapes – kept me engaged as I tried to work out where the writers were taking the story. But it seemed any rebellion, any moment of hope was followed by incredibly cruel psychological or physical punishments. The cruelty of the new society, ostensibly created as a response to infertility, now running on rampant corruption and appalling gender inequality, continued unabated. It actually felt doubtful that anything in Gilead was ever going to change – right up, that is, until the last half hour of the final episode.
It would be an uncomfortable stretch to say we should learn from the horrors of Gilead and, for instance, campaign for access to fertility treatments. But the show certainly makes the point that all the insistence on supposedly natural birth and natural fertility has only bred increasingly unnatural and desperate behaviour. The absence of science means there is little hope for each couple to address their own infertility, leading them to assume other people's bodies for their own use. But how would their children fare in the very society they had created to conceive them? Come the end of the second season, even Serena Joy realised the answer to this question.
I was appalled to watch the many, many instances where Offred is treated as mere property. Casually imprisoned, hunted down when she escapes, and forced to eat and drink whatever is deemed good for her fertility. The series is compulsive viewing, but also a kind of horror. You wonder how bad things are going to get, and usually the answer is 'much more'. Offred's dry inner monologue conveys both her hopelessness at the situation, and her rebellious spirit. I will be watching the third season, uncomfortably, but fervently hoping for a revolution at last.