A the novel that hadn’t already happened.

A dystopia is a dark future world where people lead dehumanized and
often fearful lives (Merriam-Webster dictionary). This world is usually the
result of extreme technological advance and/or environmental destruction and it
is dominated by totalitarian regimes and miserable human beings deprived from
their feelings and freedom. In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood published
her first dystopian novel, titled The
Handmaid’s Tale. Based on an idea that tantalized her for four years, it
took the author one year and a trip to West Berlin for the book to finally come
together. That trip is of great importance. It symbolizes how sometimes
dystopias are not so far-fetched and how changes can happen overnight. “Change
could also be as fast as lightning. “It can’t happen here” could not be
depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.” (Atwood,
2017). This feeling of probability, of the idea that change can happen
overnight led the author to the creation of a dystopian novel in which an
inhumane world is presented in the most discreetly realistic manner. According
to Margaret Atwood, there is nothing in the novel that hadn’t already happened.
It was written in the era of the presidency of Ronald Reagan with his –and his
office- anti-abortion and homophobic views which demonized homosexuals and HIV-positive
people (this is probably where the infertility concept comes from). Atwood had
also travelled in countries like Iran and Afghanistan and had worked with
Amnesty International so she was familiar with totalitarian states and
oppressive religious regimes. Her themes are also drawn from news concerning
the environmental pollution and low birth rates.

In Margaret Atwood’s The
Handmaid’s Tale the Earth is depicted as a dystopian world plagued by
environmental pollution. Unlike other dystopian fictions, its major problem is
not the overpopulation of the Earth, but rather its opposite. Pollution in the
atmosphere has caused severe infertility in the majority of the population.
Exploiting people’s fear, a military, fundamentalist, religious group that
wishes the reconstruction of Christianity, called The Sons of Jacob, managed to
seize power, through violence, overthrow the U.S government and establish the
Republic of Gilead ruled by their authoritarian regime. In Gilead it is all
about reproduction. The Sons of Jacob establish not only oppressive religious
laws, but also patriarchal ones which target women and homosexuals. Women are
not allowed to work, to own property, to make choices or even to read. Those
who are fertile are allowed to live with the leaders of the regime, being
assigned the role of breeders. Their only role is to produce children. Those
who are not fertile are either fortunate to serve in the Commanders houses or
they are sent to clean toxic waste in the Colonies, sentenced to a certain
death. However, there is no choice for those found to be homosexuals. Their
fate is death. And that applies to men also. Men are not untouchable in this
society. If they are homosexuals, if they rape a Handmaid or if they are
doctors who perform abortions their punishment is death. In this dystopian
world Offred the Handmaid is our guide and through her eyes we learn of its
injustices.

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Reading The Handmaid’s Tale
one understands from the start that it is a story narrated from a very limited
perspective. Offred is the Handmaid of a powerful Commander but even she lacks
valuable information about Gilead and the rest of the world. She has no way of
knowing what has happened to her beloved ones and she learns bit by bit about
the changes the Sons of Jacob have brought upon the U.S. It is not very
difficult to understand the misogynistic nature of Gilead, Offred’s whole
existence is evidence of that. But if one was trying to find out what has
happened to members of the LGTB+ community, men and women, s/he would realize
that it is a challenging task. Offred rarely thinks about this issue so the
reader’s only information comes from her surroundings. On chapter 8, Offred has
her daily walk with her partner, Ofglen. They pass by the Wall. The Wall
symbolizes the power and the punishing nature of Gilead. Whoever is sentenced
to death is later hanged there to serve as an example for the rest. Usually
priests and abortion doctors occupy that place wearing black cassocks or white
coats accordingly. Sometimes, men with purple placards can be seen hanging from
the Wall like dolls. Purple is the color of their crime. They were homosexuals,
probable caught having a relationship. Offred’s surroundings reveal one horrid
detail. Homosexuality is punishable by death. Another example is that of the
Unwomen. Using this term, Atwood and Gilead refer to women who cannot and do
not want to have babies. They are infertile, old or homosexuals. Their place in
Gilead is cleaning up the toxic waste, caused by the environmental pollution,
in the Colonies. We do not have much information about this place but one thing
is for sure. Colonies is another word for death. Clearly, homosexuals have no
place in this “post-apocalyptic” world ruled by an oppressive religious regime.
However, Gilead’s hatred for the queer is not limited to homosexual people.

Although the reader cannot have a broad understanding of the situation
through the protagonist’s eye, the conditions of living of the Handmaids’
reveal the homophobic nature of Gilead in a different way. Every Handmaid is
appointed a partner with the purpose of one spying on the other, but they are
prohibited to have any relationship other than a typical one. At first, Ofglen
is suspicious of Offred and vice versa. They behave as pious and faithful to
the regime. Trust is not gained easily between the Handmaids. It is Gilead’s
mission to plant the seeds of mistrust and the mission of the Eyes to secure obedience.
A totalitarian regime discourages any kind of solidarity and affectionate
relationships as this can lead to treason. The Handmaids are not allowed to
talk about personal issues, their past lives or even reveal their true names.
True relationships are discouraged. This is why same sex relationships are not
prosecuted only in fear of homosexuality but also in fear of community and
sisterhood that can lead to a rebellion.

Gilead’s ideas against homosexuality is more apparent in the novel’s TV
adaptation by Hulu. With the consultation of the author herself, the creator
Bruce Miller, tried to modernize the novel, in other words, to reimagine it in
today’s society. How would Gilead be if it happened in Our near future? It was not
surprising that there would be more focus on the LGTB+ community, since in the
21st century this community has a louder voice. They have managed to
establish vital rights for their community and they are not afraid to be vocal
and visible. Hence, attacks and violence against them is one of the greatest
issues of our society. It would be a great mistake to not include this
community in that reimagination. In the TV series there is one character whose
sexual orientation is highlighted, contrasted to the book. Her name is Ofglen
or Emily. Ofglen’s story arc centers on the consequences of her relationship
with a Martha. Her homosexual past was forgiven or at least tolerated (if it
was known at all) because she is fertile but her sinful affair is punishable.
The Martha, as she is infertile hence disposable, is sentenced to death while
Ofglen undergoes a clitoridectomy. Her reproduction system remains intact
but her ability to experience sexual pleasure is surgically cut out of her. We,
the viewers, might not be able to read her thoughts but the cinematography of
the series gives us a great insight into Ofglen’s mind. Director Reed Morano
has filmed the episodes using a shallow lens’ focus. The depth of field is so
narrow that everything, apart from the object in focus, seems blurred.
Throughout the TV series this technique is used systematically and becomes a
motif. It visually connects the viewer with the protagonists’ emotions of the,
to the point of identification with the characters and adds a feeling of lack
of control and haziness. Additionally, the heroines-victims are usually placed
in the corner or the edge of the frame as to add to their powerlessness and
marginalization. In the following frames from episode 3 we can see how the
extreme close-ups capture Emily’s despair in a unique way, with focus on her
eyes and facial expressions, and her feelings of entrapment and how her
placement at the edge of the frame makes her seem unimportant, lost and small
to world she is trapped into.

Picture 1. Alexis Bledel in the role of Ofglen as framed
in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

It is obvious that on the base of Gilead’s tactics lie religious
ideology. It is not surprising that homosexuality is considered a sin, since it
is a concept that prevails in the minds not only of supporters of Christianity
but also of supporters of other or no religions at all. Homosexuality is often considered
to be an anomaly, an abomination. This thinking is often rooted on the idea
that man’s purpose is to procreate, therefore only the duality of man and woman
is acceptable in a relationship. However, when speaking about homosexuality
between women, in The Handmaid’s Tale
as well as in reality lesbianism is condemned by patriarchy for other reasons
as well.  As Cheryl Clarks put it in her
essay Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance “lesbianism
is a recognition, an awakening”. She speaks of the female body as a body colonized
by man and by the heterosexual tyranny. For a woman to be a lesbian, that seems
like an act of revolution as she denies to concede her sexual, reproductive and
creative freedom to the patriarchal male colonizer. She speaks of gender oppression
to describe the mechanisms used by the male-supremacist institution in order to
control women mentally and physically. Adrienne Rich, in her 1980 essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian
Existence, mentions all the ways in which women are abused and terrorized by
men: “prostitution, marital rape, father-daughter and brother-sister incest,
wife beating, purdah and genital mutilation”. She speaks about the denial of
their sexuality, the exploitation of their bodies, of physical confinement and
of obstructing their creativity and progress. All these are examples that validate
The Handmaid’s Tale’s ties to
reality. When Clarke speaks of lesbianism she uses its literal sense but in
Rich’s text the word lesbian has a more expanded meaning. Rich uses the term lesbian existence or lesbian continuum in
an effort to include all woman-to-woman relationships not just sexual ones. The
lesbian existence is truly an act of resistance.
It encourages solidarity, help, affection and bonding between women and it
brings them together against the male tyranny. If we look closer at the novel
we understand that it is not merely homosexuality that Gilead hates not are its
actions a means to an effort, necessary sacrifices for the holy purpose of
human survival. The Sons of Jacob are afraid of what would happen if women started
trusting, helping and caring for each other. It would mean the end of their tyranny.
In the novel it is not clear how Gilead falls but in the TV series female
solidarity is in the center. As Offred quotes in the finale episode of season 1
“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”