Power and Relationships in the Handmaid’s Tale
A short read can not possibly cover all the topics touched in all 3 seasons of the TV series The Handmaids’ tale. The popular dystopian future tv show and the way they explore relationships.
However, it is definitely worth pointing out some of the issues that definitely stand out in the series.
Especially when they have to do with love, sex, power, punishment, and resilience and how they interact with each other in society at large.
Please note that there are spoilers in this article.
Set in the near future, nothing is too far-fetched and many scenes come very close to home. You can not help but notice some of the parallels between past and current events.
The Republic of Gilead, or simply Gilead ”is the totalitarian, theonomic, and neo-Puritanical regime that takes over most of the continental United States of America.”
In season 2 we are introduced to one of the main minds behind the establishment of Gilead’s economy. This gives the viewers a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the creation of Gilead.
The concept of this system seems to have been put together by the concerns of global warming, a fertility crisis, and populist upheavals. The creators (Commanders of the Faithful) wanted to use the impact of religion on the national economy in order to produce a positive ”economic effect”.
They truly seem to want a better world, just not for everyone.
The Gilead world
The ideological establishment and perpetuation of this reality are achieved by the use of specific terms. Words that can form new meanings, on a social and legal level. e.x Homosexual individuals are called, ”gender traitors” and they are sentenced to death.
Initially women, lose the right to work and have their bank accounts confiscated. All kinds of properties are transferred to their male counterparts.
Although there are many female characters in the series, there is a particular focus on two main characters. June (Elisabeth Moss) who is a handmaid* and Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) who is the Commander’s wife*.
June has been turned into a handmaid. The main purpose of her life is to serve the family of the Commander she has been assigned to.
The society of Gilead is founded on what is to be considered a return to traditional values and gender roles. Bible writings are used as the guiding principles for the subjugation of women.
In order to establish authority and maintain it in this system, you see the many forms of power throughout the series, exercised at the level of life.
In sociology, power/knowledge is a term introduced by the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Foucault’s work has been hugely influential in shaping understandings about power.
According to him, ”power is everywhere” and ”comes from anywhere”.
Power is being found in ”every kind of relationship, as a condition of the possibility of any kind of relationship.”
Power is not violence, although violence may be used.
For Foucault power is not direct coercion or suppression, rather a relation.
For example, the first relation of power we come across in life is the relation with our parents. They are definitely the first authoritative figure in life. However, the interaction of this kind of power relation differs for everyone.
According to Foucault, our personality is shaped by all the relations of power that shape one’s life.
A complex relationship of giving and taking.
Handmaid’s tale explores the transformative power of love, in its various forms. Such as romantic love, love that comes through empathy, love that resonates through memory, and the very powerful love of children.
Surprisingly the unconditional love of children is what motivates both Serena (the wife) and June (the handmaid).
Serena is a complicated character. She actively contributed to the creation of the Gilead society. Surrendering her rights as a small sacrifice to better fulfill her biological role. The role of carrying children.
A particularly painful sacrifice considering the fact that she can not physically become a mother herself. A heavyweight to carry especially when she finds herself trapped in the conditions she helped create.
June on the other hand is motivated by her two children, her daughters. It’s the need to remain sane and survive in order to save them escape, that keeps her moving forward.
She did not choose Gilead for herself. The system of Gilead was imposed on her.
Be a good girl
This is a term widely used to encourage positive behaviour among children.
In Gilead being a ”good girl” is what is expected among adult women as well. Since they are no longer in charge of their own life, the term is used to encourage obedience.
Mimicking a relationship between a strict parent and a child. You have to follow the rules in order to be rewarded and refusal to do so means severe punishment.
The only way to survive is to be part of it or at least pretend to. In a war-like environment like Gilead, love is the only power and hope left.
It is also the only common denominator. As all everyone really wants is to be loved. The characters in the series use it strategically as well as altruistically
The handmaids’ sole duty is to become pregnant for their Commanders and the Commander’s Wives. Becoming pregnant is their only source of power.
Sexual coercion is institutionalized and their reproductive capabilities are the property of the state.
”Biopower” according to Foucalt literally means having power over bodies.
Modern western societies have created a set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of humans became the object of a political strategy.
A general strategy of power.
In the Handmaid’s tale, you observe how rape, pedophilia, prostitution, and adultery have been institutionalized in this ingrained patriarchal system.
Although ”unlawful” rape is punishable by death, the handmaids are forced into a rape ritual called ”ceremony”. This is the process required to conceive.
It is apparent that the word ”ceremony” has been chosen strategically, much like a marketing strategy. Especially since Gilead plans to ”export” this ”product/service” worldwide.
A very powerful play of semantics, as the word ceremony implies a religious procedure. Making it easier to be accepted on a social level.
During this procedure, the handmaid is sitting between the wife’s legs while she is holding her hands, and the husband goes on with the intercourse.
Adultery is also punished by the law. However, punishment seems to vary between men and women and among different social classes. The law seems to bend accordingly.
Shockingly, for a society that has enforced such extreme rules to ensure its ”morality”, prostitution is still part of it. It exists in an illegal undercovered environment.
Nevertheless, it is a broadly-known well-kept secret among powerful men. It looks like a secret club of human trafficking. Much like today.
This is like a throwback to the past. As soon as girls get their period it’s countdown time to get married.
They are assigned to a husband by the state and the ”blessing” of their family. They get solely educated on good housekeeping in order to be a good wife.
Their ultimate goal is to produce children. During this infertility crisis, it only makes sense to start as soon as possible. Even if this means as soon as the age of 15 years old.
Michel Foucault: Power is also a major source of social discipline and conformity.*
One way to reassure this power is kept in the hands of the powerful is through different tactics of punishment. Punishment could be mental or physical abuse as well as both.
Combining both makes these tactics of punishment in Gilead particularly intense and brutal. Actions that seem to reflect the need to preserve the control.
Fear and pain is used for redemption and salvaging purposes.
Those who are executed are referred to as having been Salvaged. Whereas punishments like penal mutilation, emotional and physical torture are being used for redemption.
The bodies of those that have been executed are displayed publicly, sending a clear message doubting authority.
The heads are always covered. This is an attempt to disgrace them and create that feeling of ”anyone’‘ can be in that place.
Hostages made complicit in atrocities
This is a punishment technique known to be used by authoritarian regimes and terrorist groups.
Although, the handmaids are prisoners of the same state they are forced to be active participants in public executions. These collective actions aimed to enhance their condition by achieving a common objective.
The last form of punishment for women was being sent to the Colonies. Labour work there meant a slow and painful death. Since the atmosphere was highly polluted and toxic causing fatal physical deterioration.
”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is definitely not an overstatement in June’s case.
The dynamics that come into turn ”the girl next door” into a heroic figure. No superpowers needed in this case. Change doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a slow process.
June seems to be growing in strength with each passing ordeal. Like a soldier training for battle. The difference is that she has not chosen this battle, she finds herself in it and she has to stay afloat. Persevere.
The character definitely takes part in the way someone bounces back from difficulties. In this story, you can easily recognize traits displaced in many woman’s experiences.
Especially since most contemporary societies (if not all) are in practice patriarchal, even if this is not defined by law. Finding these interplays of power sometimes already conceptualised within.
”The Republic of Gilead knows no bounds. Gilead is within you.”Aunt Lydia, Handmaids’ tale
During this time though, June is experiencing difficulty with no distractions. She remains aware and focused. Bringing up real emotions to the audience. Emotions that remain unnoticed a lot of the time.
Having your freedoms being defined through your gender identity is not a new condition. Neither the feeling of powerlessness to change what you think is wrong. Persevering through physical trauma is an experience a woman who has given birth is already familiar with.
Thus, it takes more than breaking the body to break the soul.
Resilence also prevails through the realization that sacrifices are a necessary evil in the living experience.
Memory and knowledge help the protagonist keep moving forward by regulating how desensitized she becomes. The skill of adaptability, a skill essential to surviving.
Overall, there are three ”superpowers” in this story.
1.Despair, a feeling that there is nothing to lose. Therefore, you must give your all.
2.The maternal instinct of putting someone ahead of your own wants and needs.
3.The power of support. Change is possible only through a collective effort.
”But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.”Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
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*Michael Foucault references
Foucault, M. (1998) The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, London, Penguin.
Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: the birth of a prison. London, Penguin.