Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopia The Handmaids Tale might have first made waves in the 1980s, but it’s back today in a big way. Its gender politics are more relevant than ever in a era of women’s marches and an uncertain future for Planned Parenthood, and a new television adaptation is impending on Hulu.
You probably read the novel in high school english class, but if the details are fuzzy, here’s everything you need to know about the story:
The Handmaids Tale presents a near-future version of America known as Gilead. This new world arises when a totalitarian theocratic group takes over the United States government and suspends the constitution. They’re able to do this by using the threat of Islamic terrorism as their justification — their regime is for everyone’s own protection.
In Gilead, women are not allowed to own property or control their own finances. Because of an infertility epidemic, few can bear children. They’re divided into strict societal categories: Wives who have high status but can’t bear children; Marthas, who function as household servants; Aunts, older women who indoctrinate the Handmaids into the ways of Gilead, Unwomen who refuse to comply with the law and are banished to work with nuclear waste, and Handmaids, whose sole function is to bear children. Handmaids are not allowed to read or have their own names. The main character, who is played by Elizabeth Moss in the new Hulu show, is known as “Offred” because the man she is assigned to is named Fred. Fellow handmaids have names like “Ofglen” and “Ofwarren.”
They wear strict red uniforms with bonnets or “wings” obscuring their faces and partake in sexual ceremonies with the Commander, or head of the household they are assigned to. They aren’t allowed to be alone with the Commander; his wife is always present for the Ceremony. If they wander into town, they must be accompanied by a fellow Handmaid, but it’s hardly for protection or friendly company. Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, who is played by Alexis Bledel in the new show, is there to function as Offred’s spy, just as Offred is hers. If anyone violates the strict rules of Gilead, they’re immediately carted away in a van.
This world is one of paranoia, where neighbor betrays neighbor, and everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing. An underground resistance movement exists, but it’s difficult to tell what side anyone is truly on.
Both the book and the show drop you into the story in medias res, forcing you to acclimate to this world suddenly. Both proceed to double-back to show Offred’s previous ordinary life and track how it turned into this nightmarish new reality. The show is expanding upon side characters like Ofglen and Ofred’s lesbian feminist friend Moira. Offred is still the main character, but the viewer is privy to more corners of this world than they are in the book.
Additionally, LGBTQ+ people are punished for being “gender traitors,” and any doctor shown practicing abortion is put to death — as is any religious figure practicing a religion that Gilead no longer accepts. As a fictional world, Gilead is about as enticing a vacation destination as Panem is in The Hunger Games. But it’s a thought-provoking what-if that isn’t so far off.
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 26 on Hulu.