Bag Girl Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale (2017)

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I saw a lot of hype for Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood. The production was praised for being timely as well as high quality and the premise sounded interesting, so when I signed up for hulu, I decided to watch it.

In the wake of a series of terrorist attacks, a religious inspired military dictatorship has taken over North America, which is now called The Republic of Gilead. Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a member of a class of women known as “handmaids” who are forced to bear children for barren families, lives with Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes)  and his jealous and vicious wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). She once had a husband, a daughter, and a job but now lives in world where women’s rights have been taken away and she is treated as breeding stock.  Despite being a world where men have all the power, it is the women who steal the show. Elisabeth Moss is brilliant as the relatable everywoman, Offred, who decides that she has had enough (as one of the show’s slogans says “she will bare no more”). Yvonne Strahovski is both frightening and sympathetic as the ice queen Serena Joy.  Alexis Bledel and Madeline Brewer play the small but haunting roles of Ofglen and Janine: a lesbian handmaid who receives a genital mutilation because of her sexual orientation and a mentally unstable handmaid who finally loses it after her child is taken away. Both are two of the shows most resonant scenes.

Part of the reason why the story is so scary is because it taps into fears women have: having their children taken away from them (the reason why Offred and the other handmaids have been chosen is because they have been able to bare children in the past) and being stripped of all their rights and self respect. I agree that this series is timely in a climate of terrorist attacks and conservative backlash. Offred’s “we didn’t wake up” speech is particularly chilling.  It is not a great series but also, perhaps, and important one.

I’ll Never Go Hungry Again: The 1930s

Movie goers in 1939 were horrified to find that they had to pay 75 cents (pretty steep after ten years of economic depression) to see the latest blockbuster, based on a best selling novel which had been published three years before. The movie in question was almost four hours long, filmed in the new technicolor, and starred some of the biggest names of the age such as Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and Leslie Howard.

This movie was of course Gone with the Wind, one of the most famous and successful movies to ever come out of golden age Hollywood.

The golden age of Hollywood occurred from roughly 1927 to 1963, from the invention of “talkies” to the rise of television. Despite the stock market crash of 1929, the movie industry hardly suffered during the Depression due to people wishing to immerse themselves in the glamorous world of Hollywood to forget the hardship and dreariness of everyday life. A woman could admire Greta Garbo’s thin and severely arched eyebrows and Jean Harlow’s slinky, bias-cut evening dresses though she probably could not copy them. A lack of money and a need to support one’s self and your family meant that most people had to make their fashion choices based on practicality and functionality rather than Hollywood glamour. A new dress might have some pretty humble origins. Material from feed and flour sacks was often used to make new clothes, prompting feed and four sellers to make their sacks using material with attractive patterns in order to get people to buy from them.

Scarlet O’Hara, the anti-heroine of Gone with the Wind, finds herself in a similar situation and fashions a new gown from old curtains.

The O’Hara family finds themselves financially ruined after the Civil War and in danger of losing their plantation Tara. Such circumstances would have been all too familiar to the Depression era readers of Gone with the Wind. Scarlet, their feisty eldest daughter, is hell bent on fighting off poverty, crying “I’ll never go hungry again,” and makes some morally questionable choices in order to save herself and her family from ruin.

With many people unable to keep or find jobs, the public had a soft spot for those who were willing to buck the system to get ahead. Which is why some of the most famous people from the period are criminals such as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and John Dillinger.

In the 2013 television movie Bonnie & Clyde, Clyde, played by Emile Hirsch, explains in his posthumous narration “maybe if someone left open a door they should of, maybe if we were living in times of milk and honey stead of grit and piss, Bonnie would have just faded off into obscurity. Maybe if everywhere you looked they weren’t celebrating anyone who dared rise up. Hell, maybe if I hadn’t promised to make all her dreams come true, Bonnie would of forgotten all about me. Lord knows she should of. ”

Hard times bring out the best and worst in people and they can be periods of moral ambiguity. What might be one person’s determination might be another person’s amorality. We all hope that we would rise to the occasion in a time of trouble and we admire people who seem to survive and thrive against the odds, despite the mercenary things they might do get by whether it be making a self serving marriage or robbing a bank. Characters like Scarlet O’Hara do what the reader wishes he or she could do if they were not held back by morality and consequences. But amoral anti heroes often cannot escape the wages of sin. A person in the 1930s may have thought it might be fun to be an outlaw like John Dillinger but they sure would not have wanted to meet the same fate as him. Readers of Gone with the Wind might admire Scarlet O’Hara’s drive and determination but even they have to admit that she gets what she deserves in the end.

Beautiful Little Fools: The 1920s

The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald came up with a name which summed up the spirit of the decade following the First World War, a name which has become synonymous with decade: The Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s most famous work, a short, poetic novella called The Great Gatsby, is perhaps the quintessential story of the era. The Great Gatsby conjures up a world of glittering parties fueled by illegal alcohol and attended by the young, beautiful, and glamorous which is mostly how we remember the 1920s.

The world appeared to have changed beyond all recognition after The Great War, not the least in regards to what the fashionable young women like those at Gatsby’s lavish parties wore.

A dress from 1906, eight years before war, would have looked much different from a dress made in 1916, two years into the war. By 1926, fashion had done a complete 360 degree turn. It had lost interest in exaggerated feminine curves and elaborate hairdos. The opportunities which opened up in the 1910s and 1920s for women meant that women’s clothing had to become more practical and unfortunately, more masculine. Corsets were eventually ditched all together, and long hair, once prized as a woman’s “crowning glory”, were cut off. Legs and arms were more visible than they had ever been. Makeup had become socially acceptable.  Some of the most daring fashionistas even wore pants. Women also became more interested in traditionally masculine pastimes such as sports, drinking, smoking, and casual sex. Girls who took advantage of all of these social changes and enjoyed a good time were known as “flappers.” Interestingly, the corresponding term for “flapper” in French is “garçonne”, the feminine version of the French word for boy which roughly translates into “tomboy.” So radical was the flapper and all she stood for that we even get stories of parents filing lawsuits against their daughters for dressing and behaving in ways which they disapproved of and some conservative states in the American Bible Belt banned women over fourteen from wearing short skirts.

The flapper features greatly in The Great Gatsby. It’s two main female characters, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, are beautiful and glamourous young women who move in the highest circles of society and dress in the height of 1920s fashion. Stylish and fun loving girls show up at Gatsby’s parties. But Fitzgerald paints the flapper in decidedly dark colors. Jordan is cynical and dishonest. Daisy is flighty and shallow and ultimately fickle and careless. Though Daisy loved Gatsby she ended up marrying a wealthier and more socially acceptable husband. When Gatsby wants her to leave her husband Tom, she is unable to give up her comfortable lifestyle and lets Gatsby take the blame for her when she accidently kills Tom’s mistress in a car crash. Perhaps the reason why Daisy’s behavior is so disappointing is because Gatsby so idealized her and saw her as an ideal of perfection rather than a person.

The Great Gatsby shows how little society had actually changed. Despite the fact that they could now work and vote, a woman’s life’s work was to catch the wealthiest husband they could. Men still held women up on a pedestal instead of seeing them for what they are, flawed and all too human individuals.

Daisy famously says that she wishes her daughter will be a fool because “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Intelligence and seriousness was at best unattractive and at worst undesirable. While the previous generation expected women to be demure and submissive, the generation Daisy came from valued giddiness and carelessness in girls. A woman was still expected to look pretty, smile, and ignore all that was unpleasant regardless of whether or not she was trussed up in a corset. Even with all the outward trappings of emancipation women had gained, they still could not expect to be taken seriously.

Two Headed Kings and Headless Queens: The Late Nineteenth Century and The Early Twentieth Century

In 1891, German playwright Frank Wedekind wrote his best know work Spring Awakening: A Children’s Tragedy, a play which was considered so shocking that it was not performed until 1906 and even then the production was condemned as “pornographic.” Wedekind can claim to have invented the teen drama we recognize today. All of it’s elements, young love, parents who do not understand, comically strict teachers, characters dealing with burgeoning adulthood and sexuality, and plenty of angst, feature in Spring Awakening. The play also deals with subject matter which is sensitive even today let alone in 1890s Germany, such as youthful rebellion, child abuse, censorship, suicide, teen pregnancy, and abortion.

Frank Wedekind touched a nerve in an era characterized by tight corsets, high collars, long skirts, and sexual repression. The clothing worn by the Victorian/Edwardian lady is used to symbolize the subjugation of her mind and body. It is an eye rolling cliché of period fiction to have the “spirited young lady” heroine complain about having to wear a corset. But corsets may not have been as bad we have been lead to believe. The medical diagrams often used to show the dangerous effects of corsets were intended to show that lacing your corset very tightly is harmful but wearing a corset in itself is not. A lot of these were put out by men who never had and never would have to wear on of the things. Clothing which survives shows that most women did not have the tiny waists you see in the fashion plates even with a corset. Like today, women with the ideal body type were hired to model clothing. It would be like people a hundred plus years from now looking at our fashion magazines and believing all women today had a thigh gap.

Clothing throughout the Victorian era accentuated the hips and bust and made the waist seem smaller by comparison. The Edwardian lady sought to tease rather than please. She covered herself in layers of clothing which gave a tantalizing hint of the shape of her body. Men particularly found the “froufrou” sound of a lady’s petticoats particularly sexy. To say that our forebears were prudish is problematic: women dressed to tempt men and men were tempted.

Clothing plays a part in Spring Awakening. The play opens with the fourteen year old heroine, Wendla, being given her first long dress for her birthday. Her mother, Frau Bergmann, feels that since her daughter is blossoming into womanhood, she must no longer wear her childish dresses because they have become indecently short. Wendla is confused as to why she can no longer wear her favorite dress and complains that this new dress is too long and baggy. Frau Bergmann is not too eager to have her daughter grow up, so she allows Wendla to continue wearing her old dress. Wendla then makes the unintentionally racy comment “Would you rather I was too hot? Be thankful that your precious doesn’t cut off the sleeves and walk around without shoes and stockings! When it’s time for me to wear the sackcloth, I’m going to dress like a fairy queen underneath…” By dressing “like a fairy queen underneath”, Wendla means going without underwear which has implications which the sexually innocent fourteen year old does not understand. Similarly, Wendla’s friend Martha is punished by her strict parents for sprucing up her nightgown with ribbons, the implication, in their minds, being that she would like someone to see her in it.

While most interpretations of Spring Awakening tend to focus on the male characters Melchior and Moritz, Wendla is more interesting than she may appear at first. At the surface her story shows the importance of sex education for girls but there is more to it than that.

Wendla is more sassy and irreverent than your typical ingenue and shows signs of a social conscience, often making charitable visits to the poor. Her love interest, Melchior, cynically asks whether these act of charity really make a difference and does not understand how she could enjoy doing it when it is unpleasant and the people sometimes resent her for being more privileged than them.

“Melchior: So you visit the poor because it gives you pleasure?

“Wendla: I visit them because they’re poor.”

Wendla’s response is that enjoyment is not the point. In 2007 musical adaptation of the play, Melchior is impressed by her plucky defense of her views and says “Wendla Bergmann, I’ve known you all these years and we’ve never really talked.”

Wendla’s charitable visits reflect the large roles which women played in the reform movements of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century such as the temperance movement and labor unions. The campaign for women to have the right to vote began in earnest in the early twentieth century with a new generation of more radical suffragettes. Many of these women such as Christabel Pankhurst and  Alice Paul were college educated, something which would have been unthinkable a generation earlier. Some of the more radical female reformers even went as far as to demand access to birth control and the right to decide when and if they wanted to have children. Reform minded women often supported the war effort during the first world war by becoming things such as nurses and munitions workers.

With women talking a more active role in the world, fashions changed to reflect this. Hemlines went up and corsets loosened and then disappeared all together, and silhouettes became straighter and looser until we got the boyish look of the 1920s.

In act two, scene one of Spring Awakening, Moritz tells Melchior a fairy tale about a headless queen and a king with two heads which argue all the time during a conversation about how he’s overwhelmed by school work and expectations to succeed academically. Perhaps a bit too emphasise is put on the education of boys like Moritz, while the educations of girls like Wendla is almost neglected. Interestingly, the story of the headless queen and the two headed king ends with the queen being given the king’s entra head and the two living happily ever after in peace and harmony.

Spring Awakening‘s subtitle is not “a children’s tragedy” for nothing. The naive curiosity of its main characters has serious consequences. Moritz is unable to deal with society’s expectations and is driven to suicide while Melchior and Wendla are separated when he is sent away to a reformatory. A brief hope spot appears for the young lovers when it is revealed that Wendla is pregnant with Melchior’s child and he escapes from the reformatory to return to her.  The final tragedy is when he returns to find that she has died from the effects of an abortion she was unwittingly taken to have.

The play leaves the heartbroken Melchior, and the audience/reader, with the hope that there is a world outside of his stuffy little German town and that more enlightened times are coming. Indeed, the fin de siècle saw a shift from the conservative, middle class values of the nineteenth century towards the more liberal and populist values of the twentieth century. When the nineteenth century came to a close, real life Wendlas perhaps dared to dream that they would enjoy more freedom than their mamas ever had.

We Must Cultivate Our Garden: The Eighteenth Century

Enlightenment philosopher François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, wrote a short, satirical novel called Candide in 1759, which is among his best known works. It is the tale of Candide, the illegitimate nephew of a German baron, who is banished from his home for flirting with the baron’s daughter and suffers through countless, absurd misadventures before finding happiness in honest work and simple pleasures. Voltaire’s dark humor skewers every area of  eighteenth life: social class, war, religion, politics, and colonialism. What is interesting is that Voltaire presents a world that is just as hard for women as it is for men, perhaps more so. Candide’s love interest, Cunégonde, is repeatedly raped, exploited, and forced in servitude and prostitution while he longs for her as a paragon of female perfection. The irony that the world expects female purity while making it almost impossible does not escape Voltaire, “A modest woman may be once violated, but her virtue is greatly strengthened as a result.”

The world of the eighteenth century is hardly the place for a weak or foolish woman. When looking for a wife, a gentleman would hardly ever choose a lady who was just silly and decretive. The ideal wife was supposed to be strong, capable, and smart enough to run a household. A woman could use her beauty and sexuality to get by; becoming a respectable and well-off wife at best, a man’s plaything at worst. The later often happening to poor Cunégonde.

Marriage and domesticity had an attraction for men and women that it has lost today. While today we tend to see married life as confining, stifling even, people in the eighteenth century looked forward to marriage as a way of gaining property, status, and companionship. Candide’s longing for marriage with Cunégonde must have been a common feeling.

Voltaire lived in a world of extremes. Life in ancien régime France could be drastically different whether you were rich or poor. The poorest and lowliest lived in the most miserable poverty while the richest and highest born lived in unimaginable luxury. Those at the top of society lived in the opulent court of Versailles. While most women tended to wear simple dresses or bodices and skirts, the ladies at Versailles wore elaborate gowns and wigs and heavy makeup, which was usually considered degenerate because it was associated with prostitutes and women whose complexions were ruined by things such as acne or smallpox. These ladies followed an elaborate system of etiquette which your average housewife probably would have found ridiculous.

Life at Versailles was epitomized by the hated queen, Marie Antoinette, whose elaborate fashion choices attracted ridicule and came to symbolize all that was wrong with the world she lived in and how out of touch she was with the real world.

The eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment and the ideas of philosophers such as Voltaire inspired both the American and French Revolutions. What you wore often reflected your political views. Daughters of Liberty, the female counterpart to the Sons of Liberty, boycotted British imported goods and wore clothes made from homespun cloth and their hair in thirteen curls to show their support for the thirteen American Colonies in their fight for independence. French revolutionaries wore red liberty caps and tri-colored cockades to show their political sympathies. Women revolutionaries often favored a classical inspired look featuring loose, white, chemise-like dresses, ironically taken from the chemise de la reine favored by the hated Marie Antoinette.

Women held a special hatred for the pampered queen, who flaunted herself in dresses that looked like underwear while their children went hungry. When an angry mob of poor Parisian women marched on Versailles to threaten the royal family into coming back to Paris with them, most of their anger was focused on Marie Antoinette, whom they quite literally wished to tear apart.

Candide ends with the once plump and sexy Cunégonde, having lost all of her allure after being constantly used, abused, and worn out. The similarly plump and sexy Marie Antoinette met a similar fate. A sketch by the artist Jacques Louis David of Marie Antoinette prior to her execution shows a prematurely aged crone with her shock whitened hair cropped off. But Candide ends on a happier note with Candide marrying Cunégonde anyway and the all of the characters finding contentment in a simple, hardworking existence, an idea which is summed up in the phrase “We must cultivate our garden.”

The point Voltaire makes in Candide is that instead of philosophizing about the meaning of life, we should try to give our lives meaning. Candide and his companions realize the eighteenth century dream of having a home of their own and a little plot of land to cultivate. This dream was perhaps more of a cause of the revolutions and political turmoil that the century saw than the enlightenment.