Thirty years of feminism later
In the television series, Elisabeth Moss’s Offred is more feisty from the start, with out-loud sarcastic quips and internal bitchy comments. She still doesn’t fully rebel, but there is definitely something more spiky about her – a sense that she hasn’t given herself over to the regime of Gilead even for the self-protection that it offers: her mind is still her own. She offers comforting conversation to other handmaids, seeks out quiet private moments with the handmaids and Nick, and on several occasions bites back at Serena Joy’s unfair treatment of her. Even the pace and tone of Moss’s delivery bespeaks Offred’s determination to keep something of herself.
Offred’s own voice is sharper, more cutting, more antagonistic. Internal, yes, but still moredirect. In the television series, she’s sarcastically aggressive: “I don’t need oranges, I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun.” “No, Nick, I’m gonna knock back a few at the Oyster House bar, you wanna come along?”, and the simple “Fuck” when the household thinks she’s pregnant. In the novel, the word “fuck” is used almost exclusively to describe the act of sex itself:
“What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.”
Once, she uses it in her before-narrative, speaking to hospital staff almost writing off her pregnancy because she’s in her thirties. Three times, it’s used in dialogue as a n expletive to describe someone else – but none of these times is Offred; they are her mother, her mother’s friend, and Moira. Never is it spoken in Gilead society as anything other than referring to sex.
The adaptation also goes further; in the pre-Gilead scenes Offred goes with Moira on the women’s rights protests. The director has spoken in interviews about the way the adaptation has changed many things, from inclusion of black actors (“what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?… The evangelical movement has gotten a lot more integrated” since the novel was written)
Would an audience now accept a passive version of Offred watching, without sarcastic quips and comments, the world being destroyed around her? Protests and marches have become almost commonplace – in 2016, while the production was being filmed, protests included Black Lives Matter, 150 million Indians in the public sector going on strike, the Dakota pipeline protests, anti-Trump protests including 500,000 women in Washington DC as part of the global Women’s Marches (global estimate 5 million). The heroines mentioned in part one of this blog – Hermione, Katniss, Lyra, whom modern readers have grown up with alongside the television series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, and others – are women just damned determined to do what they can their way and fight the good fight. Even those who have doubts, like Katniss – or Buffy on occasion – are usually only momentarily lapsing in their determination.
Would we accept an Offred who, like novel-Offred, fairly passively accepts what happens to her in the pre-Gilead era? Who lies in bed with Luke wondering if he secretly gets a thrill out of looking after her and doesn’t challenge him about it? Who fails even to imagine doing something more than lying on the floor in her bedroom cupboard and tracing a message with her fingers?
Perhaps that itself is a measure of how far feminism has come, as much as the show reminds us how far there is yet to go. We wouldn’t accept an Offred who accepts the patriarchal destruction of everything she holds dear without attempting to do something about it. We can accept that the struggle is sometimes futile and devastating. We can accept that it is difficult, and demoralising, and exhausting. But we can’t accept someone who sits back and does nothing while all their rights are stripped away.
For those studying the novel at A-Level, this article from the Atlantic has a precise, concise contextual overview of Atwood’s historical realism.