The Most Harrowing Scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale Aren’t Fiction

Fact versus fiction

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The television adaption of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, broadcast in the UK last summer, came just at the right time: A shift towards conservatism in US politics sparked worries that hard-won women’s rights would come under threat and made the ongoing struggle for those rights all over the world feel even more urgent. In 2018, this struggle is ongoing and so it seems timely that series two of the The Handmaid’s Tale is released this spring. It picks off where Atwood’s novel ends, and as such covers unknown territory.

You can watch the trailer below – and, by the way, this book was the first in our ‘Book Club’ series, which you can find out more about here.

Although the series is billed as ‘dystopian fiction’, in this post I’d like to revisit some moments of series one and discuss why they feel very close to home and not like ‘fiction’ to me at all…

Atwood’s dystopian novel depicts a world where women lose everything: they are stripped of their rights to earn money, to move freely in society, and to have a family life.

The TV adaption is set in a not-so-distant future: Main character June’s life before the new, ultra-conservative regime takes over largely resembles our own. One day, June and her friend Moira are going for a run and hang out in a coffee shop, the next day their bank accounts are confiscated and they are fired from work. Shortly after, they are separated from their families and June, as one of very few fertile women, is forced to become a handmaid. She is valued solely for her womb, and is raped monthly by the master of her household in the hope that she will bear a child for him and his wife.

But what made the show so gut-wrenching to watch for me was not simply the fear that what was depicted on screen could become reality, but the knowledge that many of the horrible things that take place in the series already happen somewhere, or happened in our recent past.

The third episode centres around Ofglen, a lesbian handmaid, who is branded as a ‘gender traitor’, and it made me think of all the LGBTQIA people in the world who are still heavily punished for loving someone of their own sex, and sometimes have to pay for it with their life, like Ofglen’s unnamed lover has to.

In October 2017, the UN just passed a resolution that condemns the death penalty as a punishment for consensual homosexual acts, a practice that is currently still going on in at least ten countries in the world. Shockingly, the US voted against this resolution.

The same episode also addresses female genital mutilation (FGM), which is Ofglen’s punishment for the lesbian relationship: as a fertile woman she is deemed too valuable to be punished by death, and has instead part of her genitalia cut. This form of torture to control women is widely practiced in real life too.

While FGM has been illegal in the UK since the 1980s, as of 2016 a case of this practice has been either discovered or treated by the NHS once per hour on average, so it is still shockingly common and something many girls and women who live in the UK have the endure.

The close-ups of Ofglen’s face as she wakes up after the surgery are some of the most harrowing scenes in the series and allow the viewer to get a glimpse of the physical and psychological pain that FGM causes.

Other episodes deal with the loss of children: June’s daughter is forcibly adopted by a high-ranking family, while handmaid Ofwarren successfully bears a daughter during the series, but has to give her up and move into a different household once the baby is weaned. I found these scenes extremely difficult to watch and was often left in tears; they made me think of all of the parents who had their children taken away because authorities deemed them unfit as parents, something that still can happen to disabled people all over the world, and has widely happened to indigenous peoples in the US, Canada and Australia a few decades ago.

As a disabled mother, I often have to deal with strangers who openly doubt my parenting capabilities, so in those scenes I saw my worst fears reflected on screen.

Many episodes of the series left me feeling sick to my stomach, and I found it jarring when people commented that they ‘enjoy’ watching the show. I am worried that the series somehow gives the impression that the things in it are fiction, just because they are part of a TV show. Although the characters and the settings are fictional, the injustice, violence and pain depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale are part of the world we live in. The show makes us witness the emotional realities that we are shielded from in news reports; the look on the face of someone who sees their partner tortured or murdered because their love is deemed as ‘indecent’, the screams of a mother who has her child taken away from her. Just because something does not happen to us, at this moment in time, does not mean it doesn’t happen at all.

I’d love to receive your own thoughts below.


Main image via The Radio Times.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

We explore this extraordinary novel in more detail in our inaugural 'Book Club' post. Click this box to find out more.
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  • I couldn’t agree more Nina. I found it an extremely difficult watch and normally binge on a tv series but I couldn’t with this one. Each episode left me feeling so emotionally drained that I had to step back and leave time to process it before watching the next one. The book is sitting on my bookshelf for a time I feel ‘ready’ to read it, it all just feels very close to reality at the moment.

    • Thank you Caoimhe, this was exactly my experience watching it – I usually had to read or watch something uplifting afterwards in order to ‘destress’!!

      The book I read in my teens, over a decade ago, and I think my tolerance for scary TV or books was much higher then than it is now, especially since I’ve become a parent, and in the book especially, many harrowing moments are centered around parenthood and pregnancy (the author Elizabeth Stone wrote that being a parent ‘is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body’, and I agree, it made me feel so much more vulnerable!).
      But I also find it easier to process this kind of material in book form – my brain tends to protect me and tends to make me picture images I can deal with, whereas with TV, I find it difficult to get the images provided out of my head. Maybe we should tackle the book together in the book club? 😉

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