Elisabeth Moss On Why ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is Indeed A Feminist Story, & A Warning To “Stay Woke”

By now you have either binge-watched the entire first series of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on HULU or are at the very least familiar with the story. It centers around Gilead: a Christian, patriarchal theocracy where fertile women are subjected to ceremonial rape in a society where birth rates have dropped catastrophically. It is a staged “terrorist” attack on US Congress and the subsequent fear-mongering which allows the swift denial of women’s basic rights, including the right to have their own bank account and work outside the home.

If you live in the United States and spend a fair bit of time on social media, you have also no doubt come across numerous activists dressed up as the scarlet-red handmaidens protesting in various state and federal legislatures and outside courthouses since the beginning of the year as we have seen a string of egregious and regressive anti-choice laws being proposed and passed in an attempt to limit women’s reproductive healthcare and autonomy.

It’s not hard to imagine what Gilead would look like in real life and sadly, we don’t have to let our imaginations wander too far from politics to see what the slow descent into the religious authoritarian state would look like. Instead of being considered an entirely fictional view of a dystopian world which would never happen in the most powerful nation on earth, the series (based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood) has become an unintended warning to us.

Not too long ago, the show’s leading actress Elisabeth Moss came under fire for claiming during an interview that the show was not a “feminist story”, despite author Margaret Atwood being adamant it was. Elisabeth, who plays the character Offred (as in: “of Fred”) claimed it was instead a “human story”. More recently, as the show’s cast is doing promotion overseas it is now screening in the UK, Elisabeth clarified those comments and expanded on her views regarding the timeliness of the show.

“What I meant to say was that, for me, feminism is equal rights for men and women. Men and women are both humans, so, for me, that makes my characters and the work that I do human stories. I play a f***ing sexual slave, I play a breeder, a host, a woman for whom all of her rights, and all of her family and friends, have been taken away. She has nothing. So, yes, it is a feminist story,” she told the Guardian.

With that settled, what is most important about the series isn’t the way it is described, but how it has become a scary reflection of the type of culture we never really want to see realized. Having played a number of feminist roles in shows like ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Top Of The Lake’, Elisabeth has a pretty firm grasp on the need for feminist content and says it has emboldened more and more women to be able to speak out against human rights abuses.

“As a woman, now, you have to speak up. You have to own it [feminism] in a way that you never have before. It is different now,” she said.

Right from the first episode, the story shows how society’s apathy plays a key role in the swift demise of women’s rights and the ushering in of a religious patriarchal agenda.

“Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late …” says Offred.

It should be noted that this series had been filmed and commissioned before the results of the 2016 Presidential election were known, although it shouldn’t be a surprise that political life is imitating art right now in America. Margaret Atwood has previously stated that nothing in her book was written that hadn’t happened in the real world somewhere at some point. So the writing has always been on the wall, it’s just that we are more hyper-aware than ever, thanks to the era of Trump and Pence.

“People have to stay awake. And after you wake up, you should get out of bed and start doing things. There is no time later. My worst fear is that people become complacent, and apathetic, again,” said Elisabeth, explaining how it has now sadly becoming “normal” in certain parts of the US to walk down the street past men carrying machine guns.

The actress, who is a proud supporter of Planned Parenthood, says the rolling back of reproductive rights in America is nothing new either. After the 2010 mid-term elections, a wave of extreme right-wing politicians (commonly referred to as the “Tea Party wave”) swept into power in Washington D.C and since then we have seen hundreds of anti-choice bills being passed at both the state and federal level. While this was a shocking set-back for progressives, it is only going to get worse should voters and activists not heed the warning from people such as Vice President Mike Pence who has adamantly claimed he wants to “send Roe v Wade to the ash heap of history”.

“Margaret [Atwood] talks about how a new regime, in order to take over, infiltrates itself into the government, into the existing regime, for quite a while before they make the flip, and the coup happens,” said Elisabeth.

Just an example of the infiltration already happening, look at one of the latest anti-choice bills being proposed in Missouri which would allow employers and landlords to discriminate against women who use birth control or who have had an abortion. No, this is not a joke or a TV series plot line, THAT is actually real.

Bruce Miller, the creator of the HULU series (on which Elisabeth is also a producer) says the TV portrayal, while it included certain artistic adaptations here and there, stayed true to Margaret Atwood’s idea of including scenes and events that were already happening in the real work (such as female genital mutilation).

“If you start inventing cruelties towards women, it becomes pornography, so you should look to the real world, where there are plenty of horrible examples we can use,” he told the Guardian.

“One of the biggest things we changed is the way our show deals with color. In the book, it is an all-white world. It was more interesting to me to have a world where fertility trumps everything, and see how that resonated through society,” he added, pointing to certain aspects of American Christian conservative society which already exhibit Gilead-like traits.

Staying “woke” means speaking up, taking a stand, especially by those who are in a position of privilege and influence, as Elisabeth recognizes she is.

“I’ve lived a relatively fortunate existence as a white woman in America. I think that a lot of women like me have had to recently take ownership of their feminism and become vocal and active in a way that maybe we didn’t feel like we needed to before. We live in a different time,” she told the RadioTimes.com.

Like the saying etched into the closet of the house Offred goes to live in, staying woke really is about “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” in real life in order to prevent further degradation of women’s rights: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. And if we ever do become complacent, we always have ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to remind us what we’re fighting for.

 

 

 

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