Thursday 14 September 2017

Heroine Fix: Trapped In A Nightmare: Offred from The Handmaid's Tale

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at characters I admire and influence my own writing.  (Warning: this article contains spoilers.)

Normally, Heroine Fix focuses on the kick-ass, take no names kind of heroines.  But those aren't the only kind of strong heroines to look up to.  So this month, I'm sharing a heroine who is an ordinary woman trapped in a horrific nightmare and finding the strength to both survive and carry on: Offred from The Handmaid's Tale.

To be clear on my biases right up front, although the concept intrigued me, I didn't enjoy the book or the 1990 movie of The Handmaid's Tale.  I found it difficult to connect to Offred and understand how a society could end up so wrong.  I thought it was unrealistic that Offred hadn't tried to escape before the rule of Gilead cracked down or that the collective women, Marthas, Handmaids and Wives, didn't revolt against the Commanders.  When the new television series came out, I initially wasn't planning to watch it.  But a number of people whose opinion I respect kept telling me that it was different and I needed to see it.

When I gave it a try, I was surprised by how quickly I became involved in the story.  Maybe it's because I'm older and know more about how both people and societies can find themselves trapped.  But I also think the story-telling method that the show chose made a big difference.  The first big change was using more flashbacks, not just for Offred but for other characters.  It made her story one among many and helped to cement the reality of the dystopian Gilead.  It also helped me to understand who she was before she became Offred, the depth of society's panic over the fertility crisis, and how the theocratic elite achieved a surprise coup.

When Offred was June, she was an ordinary woman.  She had a best friend, Moira, and they jogged and laughed together.  She had work that she enjoyed.  From the flashbacks, I get the impression that she wasn't particularly political or focused on the big world stage.  Instead, like most people, she was more concerned with the drama of her own life.  She'd fallen in love with a married man, began having an affair with him, eventually breaking up the marriage so that June and Luke could marry.  She was only vaguely aware when the theocratic cabal faked a terrorist attack that took out most of the government, allowing them to take over and establish martial law.  She was caught by surprise when the government stripped away her right to work and own property, transferring her bank account to her husband.  By the time she decided things were too bad, it was too late to run.

That's when June had to make a difficult decision.  After her capture, she could decide to fight, bringing down swift and harsh punishments that included physical maiming, or she could decide to submit, ensuring her survival.  It's a difficult decision, and one that no one quite knows which side they'd fall on until the situation arises.  June is clearly in shock and numb compliance is the easier and less immediately frightening option.  But as she gets deeper into the role of Handmaiden, she learns that she can expect physical and sexual abuse, constant monitoring, and that she's still under threat of maiming if she does anything that offends the theocracy, like reading, making eye contact or doing anything but act submissive and pious.

I don't think that June made a conscious choice to assume the expected mask of a Handmaiden, with the hope of escaping later.  I think she was scared and not thinking.  But gradually, she does start thinking again.  She can't ignore the injustice any more and she can't live with herself if she does nothing.  She recognizes that hiding and hoping that the lash doesn't fall isn't any kind of life.

The character of Offred speaks more to me now because I understand how women can find themselves in bad situations.  How the idea of fighting back can seem like assisted suicide.  How they can tell themselves that it's not as bad as it could be.  I understand how a person can become accustomed to the horrific, a situation blindness that allows them to survive.

Through the eleven episodes of the first season, we watch as Offred takes the first steps of rebellion.  She clings to her own name and history, refusing to become a faceless automaton.  She takes the risk of speaking to a fellow Handmaiden to share information with the resistance movement.  She carves "You are not alone" in the inside of her closet as a message to the Handmaid who will replace her.  And ultimately, she refuses to participate in the system, even though she knows her open defiance will earn harsh punishment.

Watching her transform back into a woman taking charge of her own life is both satisfying and inspiring.  She's not a Katniss Everdeen, serving as the face of a revolution.  She's one woman who is standing up and saying No.  She's refusing to be complicit any longer, regardless of what it costs her.

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines like me?  Sign up for my Heroine Fix mailing list and you can join our ranks, never missing your next Heroine Fix.

Next month, I'll be looking at Wonder Woman, one of the first strong female characters in pop culture.

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