The first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale all premiered at once on Wednesday. Already the show is being hailed as one of the most gripping, upsetting, and emotional shows in recent memory. The third episode ends with a truly horrific moment involving Alexis Bledel’s character, Ofglen. What happens to Ofglen is monstrous and barbaric — but it isn’t fiction. It happens all over the world.
Spoilers for Season 1, Episode 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale follow.
At the end of the show’s second episode, Ofglen, a Handmaid with a secret rebellious streak who becomes a confidant to Elizabeth Moss’s Offred, is taken away by the secret police, aka the Eyes. Although Offred fears it’s because they found out she was part of the resistance, the real reason is because she’s a lesbian. And, being gay — or a “gender traitor,” as it’s known in the hyper-puritanical Republic of Gilead — is a death sentence.
However, since Ofglen is one of the few women who is still fertile and able to bear children, she’s spared death. Instead, though, she’s forced to undergo an involuntary surgical procedure and wakes up with bloody stitches on her genitals. The scene is horrific.
“You can still have children, of course, but things will be so much easier for you now,” Ann Dowd’s domineering Aunt Lydia tells her. “You can’t want what you cannot have.”
Ofglen has just been subjected to female genital mutilation, which, again, is not Atwood’s invention.
Female genital mutilation, also known as FGM or female circumcision (though that’s a major misnomer), involves cutting off some or all of a woman’s external genitalia, including the clitoris and even labia majora, in some more extreme cases. Sometimes, openings are sewn shut. Typically, this procedure is done when girls are young as part of a ritual. Unlike male circumcision, there are no health benefits — FGM is entirely about controlling women. The goal is to make it so sex isn’t pleasurable for women, thereby curbing their sexuality (which it can’t) and preserving some perverse sense of purity. It’s a painful, dangerous, and degrading procedure.
In 2016, UNICEF estimated that about 200 million women have undergone female genital mutilation, with most of them living in African countries, along with Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Yemen. It happens in the United States too, though. Just this month, three people in Detroit were indicted in the first federal female genital mutilation case in the United States.
The average American Hulu viewer probably doesn’t know too much about FGM, or if they do, it’s probably not something that they think of as happening “here.” Watching it happen to a character played by Alexis Bledel (who is amazing in the scene) is an emotionally effective reminder that women around the world face torture. In other words, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale’s central thesis.
If you’re interested in learning more, there’s an episode of the podcast The Heart, which features a gripping, first-person account of FGM. The audio documentary is by Mariya Karimjee, a Pakistani writer who was raised in the United States but was maimed as a child in adherence with her family’s religious sect.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale premiere on Hulu every Wednesday, though the first three are already out.