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East Germany meets Salem in Hulu's 'The Handmaid’s Tale'

Zacharias Szumer
Zacharias Szumer

Writer and musician currently living in Jakarta

Jakarta | Thu, May 4, 2017 | 09:48 am
East Germany meets Salem in Hulu's 'The Handmaid’s Tale'

A still from Hulu’s 'The Handmaid’s Tale'. (Hulu/File)

Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale made its debut last week and it largely lives up to the hype.

In this updated neo-puritan nightmare, an infertility plague caused by a series of ecological catastrophes has swept the US. In its wake, a Christian fundamentalist state, the Republic of Gilead, has seized power and the means of reproduction.

Women are categorized into their respective functions: Wife (companion to Husband), Handmaid (breeding stock), Martha (domestic worker). Queer people, priests of unapproved sects and doctors who perform abortions are publicly hanged.

With her face permanently contorted into an expression of toxic shock, lead actress Elisabeth Moss poignantly conveys the suffering and spiritual nausea carried by Offred, the story’s narrator and protagonist. Her fellow Handmaid and confidante Ofglen is also played with cathartic intensity by Alexis Bledel. They are the first generation of women forced into this servitude; to be identified only by patronyms, to wear white bonnets and have their unapproved desires “corrected” at the hands of austere Taser-wielding Mother Superior figures known as “Aunts.”

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Some of the characters have been changed for the series. Ofglen is now a lesbian who was previously married to a woman and Offred’s “Commander” has been chillingly re-imagined as a dapper misogynist-bro who looks like he has come straight from a hipster-gentleman’s barbershop. But perhaps the major change in the series is the inclusion of people of color, who in the book had all been deported to a “Children of Ham” gulag or killed. The series also has a much more rapid exposition, with some scenes that Atwood left for later chapters moved to the first few episodes.

The show’s creators have also changed the language of the book a little, making some conversations and Offred’s interior monologue more sassy and modern than they are in the original novel (“carpet muncher,” mentions of Uber and Tinder). But the language largely remains faithful to the book’s stilted mix of 17th century religious platitudes (“praise be”, “under His eye”) and the Gilead regime’s version of Orwellian Newspeak (“gender traitor” instead of “gay”).

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While a storm in a teacup is currently raging in the US press about the degree to which the show’s message is relevant in the age of Trump, Indonesian viewers may find some aspects of the show redolent of local realities. To just name a few: an incoming Jakarta governor who boasted about banning LGBT-themed material when he was a university rector, his predecessor’s Newspeak tendencies (“relocation” not “eviction”), a possible second Prabowo “Indonesians are not ready for democracy” Subianto presidential election bid and the proliferation of sexist bylaws in regions. Not to mention the brutal “MARRY! REPRODUCE! MARRY! REPRODUCE! NOW!” phone calls from parents that a huge number of 20-something Indonesians seem to regularly receive.

Obviously the show exaggerates, taking these trends to their extreme logical outcomes, as is the main idea of speculative fiction. But this doesn’t mean we should reject The Handmaid’s Tale as absurd and irrelevant. Rather, it should make us reflect on how our lives continue to be regulated by repressive ancient mores, despite our pride about living in modern, liberal, cosmopolitan cities. We should also take it as a warning that a brutal regression to living under those mores again may be only a cataclysm away.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.