The military viewer’s guide to Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
(Photo: Collage, pictures from Hulu)

By J.G. Noll

Warning: This post contains spoilers about the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, that could potentially be spoilers about the upcoming TV show.

Imagine an America where Christian fundamentalists have executed a coup, taking over the military and government after decades of culture wars, environmental catastrophes, and declining birth rates among fertile women. Margaret Atwood, the author of the dystopic 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, did. On April 26, Hulu will release the first two episodes of the highly anticipated adaptation.

A staple among high school English classrooms and freshman college courses, The Handmaid’s Tale offers a frightening vision of what happens when totalitarian theocrats take control of a democracy. The novel follows Offred, a woman who has been separated from her husband and young daughter, who now must be chattel–a Handmaid–to a high-ranking military officer whose wife is unable to have children.

While the story is completely fictional, some of the themes and details resonate with the military community for a variety of reasons:

Power and control through uniforms

Gilead (formerly the United States) is a cult-like theocracy that carefully delineates exactly who has power and who does not. In the book — as in the new mini-series — power is denoted by the specific costumes that the citizens of Gilead wear. Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for The Handmaid’s Tale, took inspiration from insular religious groups as well as military organizations–including the Nazis–to create a world where everyone’s place is recognized instantly.

Crabtree dressed the Commanders–who are military officers–in black business suits. This choice is a departure from other dystopic movies and TV shows that feature hyper-militarized societies with hyper-militarized uniforms, like The Hunger Games and the Divergent series. Crabtree told Vanity Fair that the costuming choice was made because black is “the most powerful and mystical hue on the color spectrum.” Alternatively, the Handmaids, who are essentially sex slaves to the Commanders, wear flowing, shapeless red dresses. The women wearing red are direct, visual foils to men wearing black.

Self-loathing and misogyny

In the country of Gilead, women hate themselves and, by extension, each other. Suddenly unable to have jobs, have their own bank accounts, or make decisions for themselves and prized only if they are able to have children, women turn their own anger and frustrations onto each other. They are separated into categories — Marthas, Handmaids, Wives, Daughters, Aunts, and Econowives — based on their reproductive purposes. Those categories denote their responsibilities and roles in the culture; however, all of the women are powerless and subordinate at all times–a wife cannot hold even the same amount of power as her husband.

For all these things, women in Gilead are frighteningly vicious to each other. In one scene, a group of Handmaids kill one of their own . . . with their bare hands. They turn on each other and spy on each other, to devastating ends. Even Serena Joy–the seemingly powerful wife of the Commander Offred shares–torments Offred and does nothing to ease her suffering, even when they are so clearly victims, trapped in a system that demeans and subjugates both of them.

While this is obviously an extreme situation (hear the frantic typings of “Well, actually…” already?), there are echoes of this kind of behavior throughout the military community (and of course, our greater society), especially online. Whether it’s the sly photo of a heavy spouse running at the gym and spread across Facebook, the pillorying of “dependas”, or blaming women who were victimized through the Marines United scandal for the crimes of men, we are often short-sighted in our vision, choosing to criticize rather than lift up each other.

Ideology before democracy

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead is created when a military coup, powered by religious ideology, overthrows the democratic government. It begins institutionalizing fundamentalist rules that are strictly taken from or adapted from the Bible. These rules particularly harm those who are not white, straight men in the military. (In fact, genocide is committed against those who are Jewish or black.) Every facet of society is revised to incorporate the fundamentalist values–even the names of vehicles are chosen from Biblical allusions. Those in charge are indifferent to the pain and suffering their policies and ideology cause–that which rips apart families and condones systemic rape. After all, according to the Commander, “Better never means better for everyone . . . It always means worse, for some.”

Does religious ideology creep into the military community? Mark Green, current nominee for Army Secretary, is quoted saying this regarding Syrian refugees and transgender individuals:

The government exists to honor those people who live honorably, who do good things – to reward people who behave well and to crush evil. So that means as a state senator, my responsibility — very clearly in Romans 13 — is to create an environment where people who do right are rewarded and the people who do wrong are crushed. Evil is crushed.

Sexual violence and inequality

At its center, The Handmaid’s Tale is all about female bodily autonomy. Women in Gilead are unable to do what or go where they want without permission from the male in their household. Their entire existence is to support a culture that not only sees–but legislates–them as less-than. Because of this, sexual violence is also in the center of the novel. It is uncomfortable and disturbing how normalized it is in Gilead.

Sexual violence and gender inequality are pervasive in our culture, and our military community is not immune. This year has already seen a variety of sexual crimes perpetrated by service members, not to mention the uncovering of the Marines United scandal–which has now also become a national security issue. Sexual harassment and assault statistics for the military continue to be concerning.

Many women in the military community continue to fight for true gender equality. Women’s roles in the military have been a point of debate–one that has heated up against since the election. Women who are in the military community–whether spouses or service member –only have health care and rights as good as what is protected where they’re stationed. For some, that may be as simple as using a bathroom or more complex–like wanting to get away from their abusive husband. For others, it may mean that they cannot access needed reproductive health care easily (or at all) or that their child is not protected at school.

So what?

The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction. It’s not history and it’s not a foretelling of the future. Still, it’s also a reminder that democracy is only as strong as it’s defenders and protectors. It’s a reminder that power corrupts and that fanaticism and fundamentalism are anathemas to a functioning democracy that protects the rights of individuals. It’s as important a reminder today as it was 32 years ago and that, as members of the military community, we should listen carefully.