I saw this movie when it was initially released in 1990 at an independent movie theater called “The Odeon” in East Lansing, Michigan. I had read the book by Margaret Atwood prior to watching the movie. Both are disturbing and intriguing in their content, and actually quite prescient given the propensity for those who are well off and financially comfortable to now pay other women (surrogates) to carry their children rather than gestate them the old fashioned way.
“You’re going to be handmaids. You are going to serve God and your country.”
Women in this “dystopia” are categorized and valued according to their ability to give birth for other financially well-off society members – of course, their value increases based on their youth and their race. Good ovaries + attractive white girl=breeder. Women of color are excised from the whole process. Particularly disturbing is the scene where the rejected females are corralled into cattle cars, the word livestock is crossed out, replaced by the number of women forced into the cattle car.
The demand for these handmaids arises because environmental factors render the majority of women sterile. The conservative pundits and their patriarchal allies – the church and the media – rail against the Women’s Rights Movement and its use of contraception and abortion – they claim that the environmental issues and its aftermath are the result of God’s wrath against this female empowerment rather than man’s lack of respect for the Earth.
The handmaids are initially forced to wear white frocks, symbolizing their virginity and innocence, and live in a home which looks like a school gymnasium until they are assigned to work for a particular couple for their fertility servitude. When a handmaid at this home relates her past story of being gang raped by 6 boys at a party, she is called a “whore,” accused of leading the boys on, and then blamed for her own rape.
Handmaids who don’t obey, who refuse to carry their rape pregnancies to term, are hung unceremoniously from the outside of the handmaids’ home. Handmaids can also be hung for having sex with other males. Like any good patriarchal culture, they have public hanging ceremonies called Women’s Salvaging. Male political enemies are also killed in public – in order to justify the execution of the males, they accuse them of raping pregnant handmaids who then lose the babies.
Upon graduation from their fertility boot camp, the handmaids are clothed in red over their white frocks and have red handkerchiefs on their heads. Everyone says “Blessed be the fruit” in their company.
The late Natasha Richardson plays Kate (renamed Offred by Serena Joy), who is assigned to gestate a baby for the Commander (played by Robert Duvall) and his wife, Serena Joy (played by Faye Dunaway). Both Duvall and Dunaway are perfect as the rigid, cold, demanding religious-right couple. They epitomize the hypocrisy of those conservative-right types who insist upon moral turpitude codes for everyone to follow except themselves. They quote the Bible to justify their rape of Kate. The scary thing is that these types of people always believe they are morally correct in their dominance, in their use the Bible as their rationale, and that their privileges and abuse of power in life are ordained by God.
The conception/rape scenes are outrageous, as instead of artificial insemination, the Couple From Hell requires that they do it the old fashioned way with a twist: Serena Joy is present at each copulation. Both Kate and Serena Joy wear ridiculous veils to symbols their vows to each other and to the Commander. Serena Joy does not want to see Kate as a real person, perhaps due to the fact that she is threatened by Kate’s existence in the home, but the Commander attempts to get to know her as a person – he plays Scrabble with her, recognizes that she had been a librarian and takes her to a seedy nightspot known as “Jezebel”
If a handmaid cannot get pregnant, it is her fault. She is given the blame, even if the man is sterile (as they don’t test the men for sterility). Women are used as the enforcers of this Patriarchal Nightmare, just as they were used to bind girl’s feet in China and to enact female circumcision in Africa. When a handmaid gives birth, she does so in public at a huge cotillion attended by the Wives and the other handmaids. The handmaids have no right to their bodies, their lives or their babies. They are merely breeding objects.
Aiden Quinn plays Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur and right-hand man. Elizabeth McGovern plays Moira, a lesbian who is close to Kate throughout the movie – I love Moira as she never loses her sense of self or her drive to fight the powers that be.
A must see!
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