The Handmaid’s Tale has a serious fertility problem—and I’m not referring to the mass infertility that plagues its setting, Gilead. Instead, I’m talking about the show’s retrograde representation of women who can’t conceive.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of feminist dystopian fiction so plausible, it feels uncomfortably close to fact. Since its debut, critics have heralded the television adaptation as the defining story of our times. But for all the feminist show gets right, its monolithically villainous portrayal of women with fertility problems is a disappointment—and plays into medieval tropes of women’s “barrenness” as a divine punishment for immorality and sin.
There isn’t a single sympathetic Aunt or wife
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, a) start watching, and b) The Handmaid’s Tale chronicles an America that was replaced by The Republic of Gilead. The people of Gilead live under a theocratic, military government, where women’s rights have been rolled so far back, female characters are forbidden from reading, and queer people are deported to work camps. In the first season, we meet our protagonist, the titular handmaid, Offred (nee June, played by Elisabeth Moss). In a world where environmental devastation has resulted in mass infertility, fertile young women have been rounded up and forced into service bearing children for the wives of Gilead’s elite. The word “handmaid” is Gileadian doublespeak for “sex slave.”
The handmaids are a racially and professionally diverse group of women, including former research scientists and publishing executives, who overwhelmingly support each other through the stress of constant rape, forced pregnancies and childbirth; at one point, they risk their lives to protect another handmaid from government-ordered execution by stoning. They’re the definition of Strong Female Characters: mostly good, yet relatably flawed enough so as to not be unbearable. But despite any imperfections, the handmaids are heroic and loyal when it matters. By contrast, the reproductively-challenged women we met in season 1 are all abusive monsters, and continue to be horrible in season 2.
Aunt Lydia’s foreshadowing
In the pilot, a character known as Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) lectures a class of handmaids on the “plague” of infertility. A religious zealot and agent of the regime, she argues infertility is a punishment from God—a belief that harkens back to biblical times.
These days, we know that relating a person’s virtue with their reproductive capabilities is wackdoodle BS, but the way the show is written actually supports Aunt Lydia’s thesis by failing to provide a single sympathetic representation of female infertility. The primary example? Serena Joy, Offred’s mistress.
Serena is a young, traditionally beautiful alt-right activist, who became famous for pushing her anti-feminist views on Twitter. In fact, Serena was one of the architects of the war that birthed Gilead—only to realize later that she doesn’t enjoy the reality of living in Gilead.
Infertile Serena as the ultimate she-devil
To be fair, life in Gilead is difficult for all women. Serena is no longer permitted to advise her husband, Commander Fred Waterford, on policy matters and her work is reduced to knitting and gardening. When she disobeys the Commander, he is legally entitled to beat her black and blue. Plus, Serena is not insulated from Gilead’s rape culture. She and her fellow “wives” are required to participate in the ritualistic conception “Ceremony” that was designed by the regime’s male leaders. She is mandated to hold Offred down and watch her husband rape her. One could see Serena as a sympathetic character, someone who miscalculated the ramifications for women in the anti-feminist society she envisioned. However, any humanizing qualities the character may have are outweighed by the horrific abuse she voluntarily inflicts on Offred. At various points, Serena orders Offred into solitary confinement, hits her, strangles her and explicitly threatens the life of Offred’s daughter, Hannah. And when—during a trip to Canada—she is offered the opportunity to defect from Gilead in season 2, she refuses. Upon her return to the Republic, Serena doubles down on her abuse of other women, convincing the Commander to rape the pregnant Offred in the hopes of inducing labour. She’s undeniably complicit with the human rights abuses of Gilead’s regime.
Even in Serena’s most flattering moments—like when she confidently issues orders under her husband’s name while Commander Waterford recovers from an accident—Serena is at best a character the audience loves to hate. What little screen time the other infertile wives receive portrays them as tyrants, too. They bark orders at their gestational carriers and casually refer to them as “whores.” The show provides a range of fertile women to root for, from Offglen (Alexis Bledel), a former professor turned fearless handmaiden who secretly works for the resistance, to Moira (Samira Wiley), Offred’s protective best friend from before the war; however, infertile women are reduced to a class of interchangeable she-devils, whose role in the narrative is solely to terrorize their fecund counterparts.
Biological mothers as angels on earth
When handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer) gives birth to baby Angela in season 1, the show portrays the commander’s wife who receives the child as an unnurturing, begrudging caregiver. By contrast, the series suggests Angela’s biological mother has a healing touch. By cuddling with the baby, Janine miraculously cures the child of an illness the world’s top neonatologist was unable to ease.
It’s unclear if it was show creator Bruce Miller’s intention, but the symbolism feels clear: biological mothers are angels on earth. And infertile women are reduced to a class of subhuman shrews. In the end, The Handmaid’s Tale takes medieval tropes of infertile women as lesser, and enforces them—which, for a so-called feminist series set in the not too distant future, seems seriously outdated.