It’s a scene that burns into your brain.
As Alexis Bledel’s character, Ofglen, realizes that her clitoris has been surgically removed without her consent, her face contorts in pain, loss, anguish, and anger. With a bone-chilling scream that closes the third episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Bledel makes one of her only noises, beyond whimpers, in 53 minutes.
During the episode, she has been mutilated. She has watched her lover hung from a crane after officials discovered their illicit affair. She’s been called “an abomination” by a theocratic judge because she's a lesbian. And yet the defiance that makes her the show’s voice of revolution is still there, burning in her eyes, as she unleashes a last war cry before the white walls of a hospital room morph into final credits.
“I was just thinking about her resolve — when to let that out,” Bledel told NBC. “How much of that was left at this point, after all she’s been through. And that’s one of the remarkable things about this character: that there still is some fight for what’s right, underneath her anger — and as part of her anger — but also underneath all her pain. As she’s beaten down by all the things that happened to her, there’s still something there that still allows her, helps her, to keep going.”
The moment is one of many that haunt viewers as they dive into the dystopian world of Gilead. A Hulu original series, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel that, in its day, combated a fundamentalist movement in the United States as Ronald Reagan’s presidency dictated social politics. Now, the authoritarian theocracy that rules over Gilead has sparked comparisons not only to American politicians, but also to right-wing regimes around the globe.
“I think we can put a lot up to your [Trump] administration, and I think that’s good, because there’s huge hypocrisies and deceit from what I’m seeing and reading,” said British actor Joseph Fiennes, who plays Commander Fred Waterford in the series. “But also let’s not forget about the rest of the world. I feel like saying, ‘Please America, don’t be so selfish about “The Handmaid’s Tale.”’ It’s not just your administration. Look around the world.”
Fiennes cited human rights violations against the LGBTQ community in Chechnya and disabled demographics in Latin America as examples of oppression and cruelty beyond U.S. borders.
“For me the book talks, yes, about the female voice and what’s been taken away in terms of rights in America, and that’s completely evident in terms of the autonomy of your body and the legislation that’s coming in to remove your rights and to remove the parental care,” he said. “But I just look at all across the world, and for me, the book is always about this discourse of fundamentalism, and authority, and the corruptive force of that.”
Still, abuse against women is one of the most explicit themes of Atwood’s work, and Bruce Miller's television adaptation three decades later. The plot follows Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, who is kidnapped and forced into sex slavery and reproductive services for the elites of Gilead, a new fundamentalist society that has overtaken what used to be the United States. Offred and her fellow handmaids must participate in “the ceremony” every month when they’re most fertile; their masters sexually assault them while supposedly sterile wives watch and hold them down. In this arrangement, there's no room for the concept of consent — handmaids fulfill their "biological destiny" as breeders and are seldom seen as human beings.
In Offred’s household, Commander Fred is the perpetrator, and Serena Joy is his partner in crime.
“I would always sort of bump on that ceremony, because I thought, what woman would agree to this?” said Yvonne Strahovski, who portrays Serena Joy. “I thought, how does she partake in this willingly? And I kept bumping on the fact that just stripping away everything, how would you feel if you were a woman having to watch your husband who you’re no longer allowed to be intimate with have sex with another woman? So there’s many levels, I think, to what she’s experiencing while being a supporter of this sexual assault.”
But, Strahovski continued, “She’s definitely a partaker in this ritual. She’s definitely someone who is condoning it. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be there.”
Ofglen, Offred’s companion and a handmaid herself, adds nuance to the ceremony because of her sexuality. Considered impure by her society, Bledel’s character is washed clean, in the minds of her oppressors, by her repeated assault by a man.
“It did intensify, I think, my work to know that she is a lesbian and having to go through this,” Bledel said. “Just the level of trauma on a regular basis, having to live with that… I mean they’re all trying to survive, but I think that maybe this is where some of her fight comes from. She’s enraged on some level at what is occurring, and the injustice of it is so palpable, especially for her.”
Fiennes said that on the other end of the act, the Commander does not necessarily enjoy the ceremony, at least at the beginning. The fact that Fred is “not a cardboard cutout, bad character,” he added, “just makes the abuses even more difficult to stomach.”
He likened the sexual assault component in “The Handmaid’s Tale” to recent events in Nigeria, where 82 Chibok schoolgirls were reunited with their families after being kidnapped for three years by terror organization Boko Haram.
“Boko Haram, and the girls just released, and the pain of seeing that — oh my god, there’s your modern day rape culture,” Fiennes said. “It’s just, it’s sickening.”
Sexual assault and abuse are not the only themes where modernity seeps into the “Handmaid” fictional universe — Strahovski said she saw the entire story as a cautionary tale.
The parallels are perhaps at their starkest in Gilead’s definition of femininity. If the dystopian government is ruled by a desire to oppress women, its complicated ethos takes shape in the confused but misogynistic mind of the Commander.
“I think there’s an underlying sense of hatred and fear of the female psyche which makes him cling onto the patriarchal power even more, and sort of enjoy it as it corrupts him,” Fiennes said.
He compared Fred to men around the world who are intimidated by female ingenuity, and who endorse the patriarchy as law despite its inequality because they’ve grown to expect an advantage.
“I think that men feel threatened, or they’ve had such a life-long experience of being conditioned to be made to believe that they are the ones who should be running the company, or driving the car, or holding the bank accounts,” he said. “But as soon as the female psyche shows its extraordinary power, there’s a threat.”
Serena Joy, a former author and spokesperson, represents this threat for Fred as the logical extreme of a right-wing pundit advocating for domesticity. But when her husband takes on a significant role in a government that disenfranchises women, she lets go of her influence and suffers from “a pretty empty shell” of a life, Strahovski said.
“At some point she lost her voice in the construction of Gilead society,” Strahovski added. “As a woman, she got told, ‘No, you’re not allowed to have a voice in this anymore.’ But she still followed through to be in this society while at the same time losing her own rights as a woman.”
In the show, Serena Joy continues to espouse conservative values while they oppress her, and she watches as her books get thrown to the curb (because women aren't allowed to read them) and her husband, who used to follow her advice, loses respect for her. As she relinquishes her policymaking role, she takes out her aggressions on Offred, who is lower on the Gilead food chain than she is.
“I struggled with this character a lot because I don’t agree with anything she does, and I had to turn my judgment off in order to humanize this woman,” Strahovski said. “It’s powerful, but it’s also scary, because… it gives insight into the real world, and what people’s true motivations are when when we don’t agree with what they’re doing, when they’re in authority positions.”
For many viewers, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is almost a parable, forewarning an eerie future at a tumultuous time. That was not necessarily the intent when the cast started filming, but it became more and more pronounced as the series premiere approached.
“I knew that she [Ofglen] was somebody who fights back, but I couldn’t have predicted that she would represent people in the present day, in reality,” Bledel said. “I think this story is a cautionary tale in the sense that it suggests we stay awake, and it couldn’t be more important now.”