“Ordinary is What You’re Used To”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Episode 1

handmaid's tale frontispiece
photo credit: hulu.com

Rather than a review of the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve decided to take an element and talk about it in the context of our current political climate. I figure hot takes and warm takes and cold takes are all over the internet right now, so it doesn’t need another from me.

[In short, I felt the episode did much of what I remember the book doing: it pulls you into this terrifyingly plausible world by juxtaposing the Handmaids’ recent pre-revolution past with their horrific present, the change documented not just by the clothes worn, the greetings shared, and the wariness of all, but—subtly—by the growth in Offred’s hair. You get a sense of how much time has passed when you see it’s grown six inches.]

[Also: I’m assuming that you have a basic understanding of the story, but if not, here you go. Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is the main character, a woman who is a Handmaid in this post-revolutionary world, living in the Republic of Gilead. The revolution comes when birthrates fall precipitously and many women have become barren, a problem chalked up to the environmental crisis. Women here are entirely the property of men and fall into five categories—Wives, who are generally infertile and married to powerful men; Handmaids, who are fertile women compelled to be breeders; Marthas, women who for reasons I can’t recall are basically the cooks, housekeepers; Aunts, who are the strict, cruel teachers and enforcers of the Handmaids; and Un-women, women who don’t fall into these categories and were sent to have short, brutal lives serving in The Colonies, cleaning up toxic waste. Moira (Samira Wiley), dear friend of Offred, saw her wife sent there in a “dyke roundup.”]

That Said

For this post I’m taking a quote from one of the Aunts—Lydia, head Aunt—who presides over indoctrination at the Red Center, the place Handmaids are taken to be, essentially, broken: “Ordinary is what you are used to.” This phrase serves as her consolation to terrified women sitting in the Center. This concept forms the core of most dictatorships, large and small. People are remarkably adaptable. We can face tremendous, horrible, life-shattering events and find a way to navigate what’s replaces them. Over time, those events lose the sharpness of their edges and what remains simply become the way of things.

handmaid's tale
June, pre-revolution
Photo credit: hulu.com

At the opening of The Handmaid’s Tale, we see Offred trying to escape the revolution by fleeing through the woods of Maine, seeking the Canadian border. She’s on the run with her daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Luke. What had once been their normal has now become illegal; freedom of movement has been suspended, and women deprived of all citizenship and forced into their new roles. Men with machine guns are everywhere to keep them in line, and the Eyes—secret watchers who report infractions to the authorities—make even private conversations impossible. Offred—whose original name, June, is revealed in this episode, in contrast to the book’s silence on the topic—is hunted down by men in full military gear. The new regime forbids her independence, her clothes, her role as mother to her own child. And so they seize her.

It’s a meaningful shift: what was once normal is illegal. Ordinary life ceases. And then, in a fully ordinary way—albeit a deeply repressive one—life goes on.

We can tut-tut that such a shift is the stuff of traditional dystopias.

But we can also look around us right this very minute and see the ways in which our lives are subtly changing, and how we’re beginning to take them as ordinary. We might be horrified, we might protest, but life continues, at least for many of us, more or less as it was prior.

And in a parallel of sorts, we can see the ways in which this shift—the acceptance of a new, dystopian ordinary—revolves around the silencing of women and in our case, people of color.

The large dystopian present has to do with 45 (my synonym for He Who Shall Not be Named): on any given day (see @Amy_Siskind on twitter for a weekly roundup) he engages in any number of acts that would have landed Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in endless investigations, but which only seem to infuriate some of the people, some of the time. That’s how revolutions, however slow, however negative, can happen. Most people don’t care. Change happens, and suddenly our ordinary is different, as a consequence of apathy.

For example, look at the accelerated pace of ICE raids.

The ways agents stalk their prey—and that’s exactly how many treat the people they’re looking for, as prey—at their homes, schools, churches, even in court. Where once law-abiding (albeit undocumented) residents had been widely tolerated as a battle not worth picking, the same people now find their everyday has changed dramatically. Like June, they have to watch their backs, their children, some not even leaving their homes lest an ICE raid bust up their family. We now have stories of families running for Canada, through the woods, to secure their safety. The raids, which often seize parents and put them in detention centers [Red Center, anyone?] essentially force kids into foster care. That, in fact, burdens the system—a system people claim is fraught because of undocumented people. It’s terrible, and it’s becoming ordinary, particularly as many Americans can go on as though it’s not happening.

In the meantime, we watch our government become a source of cash into one man’s personal coffers as he turns the now-widely-understaffed branches into his own nepotistic advantage, leaving our country woefully unable to negotiate diplomacy, nevermind pursue the wars he’s consistently threatening (note, too, the presence of war in The Handmaid’s Tale—also in 1984—both not coincidental). And while many of us wave our signs, call our representatives, white America sees most of its lives undisturbed, and many are unwilling to rock the boat.

In episode one, Moira comments to June, in a flashback to the Red Center, that this nightmare in which they lived couldn’t last long—things would go back to normal. Lest we also see our own “reproductive dystopia” worsen, we shouldn’t make the same mistaken assumption.

J.

The Handmaid’s Tale, episodes 1-3, are currently available on Hulu. “Reproductive Dystopia” is from Moria Weagle, “We Live in the Reproductive Dystopia of the Handmaid’s Tale,” The New Yorker, 4.26.17, http://bit.ly/2plZIru.

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