“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
This was one of the only messages that an unknown woman in The Handmaid’s Tale was able to voice — before she killed herself. The only message of hers that remains, literally etched into a wall. A statement of hope so desperately needed.
It’s difficult to explain the powerless feeling that many women (and other marginalized groups) have felt over the past year.
The quick tumble of bad news that gives you that sinking feeling in your stomach. The exhaustion of just existing in a time where resistance is your constant objective.
Wake up. Resist. Sleep. Resist.
As a writer, my voice is one of the only comforts I have. The ability to fight back using words is something that can’t be taken from me. Whether it’s on social media or an opinion piece on a website — words are my weapon. Calling, emailing, physically mailing a postcard — these are tools of our resistance. Our words are weapons against those who would seek to take rights away from us.
Many people have discussed why Hulu’s recent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale often feels too real. There are the protests, the control over women’s reproductive rights, the understanding of women as simply being a means to procreate. There’s violence and extreme religious views. And all of these things are terrifying.
But as someone who uses her voice not only as a career — but as her primary source of resistance — perhaps the most terrifying part of the show is the lack of voice these women have.
In the fictional land of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, women aren’t allowed to read. They can’t write. And they can’t speak freely either. From the very first episode, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is afraid to voice her real feelings and opinions to Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) — so instead they stick to “blessed be the fruit” and “may the Lord open.” They’ve been conditioned to not only distrust one another, but everyone around them. When the Mexican Ambassador visits Gilead, she asks Offred if she’s happy. The answer is yes, even though she isn’t. Handmaids are forced to use the appropriate responses in every situation: when Janine confesses her gang rape, the other handmaid’s are forced to tell her it’s her fault.
When you can’t trust the words that those around you speak, what power can words have?
And then there are the wives. They, too, are unable to express their true feelings. The most obvious occurrence of this is in episode 6, “A Woman’s Place,” when we finally get more insight into Serena Joy, an intelligent woman with a dangerous perspective — but a perspective nonetheless. She had the ability to speak her beliefs, and lead those who might agree with her — until her voice was taken from her as well. It’s not about dissent — it’s about the power of words. And because they saw the power Serena’s words could bring, they were stolen away — even though they were the words of a woman who agreed with them. Serena Joy is forced to watch her husband go through The Ceremony with Offred, yet she remains silent, unable to voice her anger.
Serena feels powerless to the actions happening around her — like so many of us do these days. The women in The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t able to freely express themselves.
When they speak, they’re unable to say what they truly mean — so their words become almost meaningless, losing all their power.
This, to me, is one of the most painful parts of the series to watch.
In the final scene of episode 8, “Jezebels” — the episode where Offred has more physical freedom — Offred is given a music box by Serena Joy. It is a reminder that she is in fact trapped, with no way to escape. But her voice is still powerful. It is the only weapon she could possibly still use, after everything else has been taken. It’s time to etch a message of her own, to use what little voice she has to make an impact.
Her words still have the power to make a difference — and so do mine.