Even In The Handmaid's Tale's Post-Apocalypse, Sisterhood Can Still Be Powerful
Not very, and not for long, but it's something.
In the opening scene of The Handmaid's Tale's series premiere, we meet both the woman who will become Offred and her daughter, Hannah, which impresses upon us that Offred has a reason to survive her new, horrific circumstances: the hope of recovering Hannah from whichever powerful family has had Hannah bestowed upon it. The second episode, focusing on one of Offred's fellow Handmaids, reminds us that there is another reason: Offred has seen what happens to Handmaids who resist.
In the first episode, as the former June is loaded into the Rachel & Leah Center to start her Handmaid training, she's seated next to Janine. We don't know what the circumstances were for Janine's capture, but whatever they were, she hasn't been sufficiently terrorized to be cowed: when Aunt Lydia, their instructor, tells them they're special girls whose fertility is a gift from God, Janine still has enough bravado left to snicker.
Lydia excitedly goes on to tell the "girls" how "lucky" they are to bear children for government officials' "barren wives," at which Janine actually cracks up and mutters, "Welcome to the loony bin, right?"
Before long, Aunt Lydia's telling Janine to get up. "Fuck you," says Janine, but unlike Aunt Lydia, Janine doesn't have a cattle prod: one shot to the neck and Janine is on the ground, soon to dragged off screaming. When she returns, she's not the same.
"'If thy right eye offends thee, pluck it out,'" Moira tells June.
Following her mutilation, Janine continues to be such a perfect cautionary tale for the Aunts that you almost wonder if she was a plant.
A workshop involves Janine sitting in the middle of a circle of her sisters, telling the story of her own gang rape, and having them all -- at Aunt Lydia's direction -- tell her it was her fault. She wakes up Moira and June in the middle of the night, naked and confused about where she is and on autopilot from her old life as a waitress. When Moira slaps a small amount of sense into her, she gives June strict orders: "She does this again and I'm not around, you slap her. Hard. I'm serious. Hey -- that shit is contagious. You want to see your baby girl again, you need to keep your fucking shit together." Evidently Janine's been slapped a bunch since her placement out of the Rachel & Leah Center, though -- or, at least, hasn't lost it enough that her head cancels out the value of her viable womb. By the end of the first episode...
...we see she's gotten pregnant. And in "Birth Day," we see how childbirth works in Gilead, as Janine -- now Ofwarren -- goes into labour. The Birthmobile rolls through the neighbourhood to collect all the Handmaids and bring them to Janine's Commander's house, where two different parties are underway.
In the living room, Mrs. Putnam, Wife of Janine's Commander, is attended by the district's other teal-clad Wives as she performs a grotesque pantomime of labour -- the logical extension given the staging of intercourse as it occurs in a Wife/Handmaid household. Also: there are snacks.
(Offred comments to one of her fellow Handmaids that there's real coffee, and the fact that this is a rare commodity in Gilead seems to confirm my theory that one of the two remaining stars on the flag of the United States in its new capital, Anchorage, belongs to Hawaii. It does take a long time to get here from the mainland -- besides which, maybe it's common for religious fundamentalists in this reality to reject its statehood much as it is in ours.)
The real action is happening in Mrs. Putnam's bedroom upstairs: under the direction of Aunt Lydia, the Handmaids gather around Janine, chanting instructions: "Breathe, breathe, breathe! Hold, hold, hold!"
Offred makes her way around the edge of the crowd to give Janine some quiet encouragement: "Hey. You're doing great." Even though Aunt Lydia is right next to Janine, she doesn't scold Offred for saying something that would have passed for a normal greeting in the time before, as opposed to the Handmaids' mandated "Blessed be the fruit." ("May the Lord open" is the response, in case you want to get it trending with your friends.)
Aunt Lydia is, obviously, not what any of us would think of as a good person, but even she seems to recognize that some of the trappings of Gilead's new order can be abandoned for the very special occasion of a pregnancy that's actually made it to term. On the ride over, Offred's interior monologue had listed some of the bad outcomes she may be on her way to assist: "An Unbaby with a pinhead? Or a snout like a dog's? No heart? Chances for a healthy birth are one in five, if you can get pregnant at all." Offred knows this day may end in tragedy. And Janine has hardly been a good friend to Offred in the time they've known each other: at the end of the last episode, she cheerfully told Offred that Moira had been shipped to the Colonies and is probably dead by now. But at Mrs. Putnam's bedside, none of that matters: Offred knows what Janine is going through because June had a baby, and at a time when her hopes for a good outcome were scarcely better than Janine's are now. (We cut back and forth between Janine's labour and Offred's memories of Hannah's birth, including a prayer vigil outside the hospital, an empty nursery in the maternity ward -- "Two went to the Intensive Care Unit, and the others are with God," a nurse tells June -- and Hannah's brief kidnapping by a deranged woman who didn't make it out of the hospital.) In this moment, Offred's not there for "batshit crazy Janine"; she's there for a sister Handmaid, a fellow mother, a woman, like herself. For just a few seconds, a "hey" takes them out of the hell they're living in, instead situating them symbolically in a realm of essential womanhood on which Gilead's theocratic leadership, for all its violations, cannot intrude.
When Offred takes a break and goes back downstairs, the mood is very different. The Wives are getting restless, and Mrs. Waterford calls Offred to the snack table to update them on Janine's progress. Carefully avoiding eye contact in deference to her superiors, Offred says Janine's contractions are getting closer together. "Is it breech, dear?" asks one of the Wives. "Did you hear that word?" It's not entirely clear how much time has passed from when June lived an independent life in a recognizable America and when she was sentenced to be a Handmaid -- we know the Waterford household isn't her first assignment -- so you'd think this Wife would...you know, remember a time when she'd treat another woman in her thirties as a peer and not a simple child. But what we see throughout this scene is how easy it seems to have been for all these Wives to have adapted to their privilege, for good and ill. The Wife who asks Offred about whether Janine's baby is breech clearly enjoys being in a position to grant indulgences, offering Offred a macaron and calling her "dear." "You shouldn't spoil them, sugar is bad for them," snaps the scene's other unnamed Wife, as if Offred is from another species. Forced into participating in the proposed transaction, Mrs. Waterford tightly asks whether Offred would like a cookie. "Yes please," Offred breathes. "Thank you." Mrs. Waterford deliberately picks a macaron off its tree and hands it to her. "Awwww, isn't she well-behaved!" exclaims Nice Wife, apparently downgrading Offred from child to pet. Offred practically trembles as she bites into her special gift; Mrs. Waterford dismisses her before she's even had a chance to start chewing it, and as she leaves, Mean Wife doesn't even bother lowering her voice before issuing her judgment: "Ugh -- little whores, all of them." "But still, you can't be choosy," says Mrs. Waterford. "You have to take what they hand out." Suddenly the cookie's not so sweet.
This is the first time we've seen any Wives other than Mrs. Waterford, and it shows us they're in their own hell. We've already seen this from Mrs. Waterford's perspective: after watching her husband clean his penis with a handkerchief after copulating with Offred in the series premiere, he leaves, and Mrs. Waterford orders Offred to leave, ignoring Offred's attempts to tell her that the chances of conception will improve if she lies there for ten minutes with her knees up. But even though getting Offred pregnant with the Commander's baby is supposed to be the whole point of Offred's existence, Mrs. Waterford still has human emotions; even though she is complicit in the goals of Gilead's theocratic leaders (Ivanka), being forced to be present while her husband pounds away at the strange girl the government installed in her house is painful; even though she wants a baby, it's grotesque trying to get one like this. The Wives can't raise their objections to anyone who might change their situation, so shit rolls downhill to the Handmaids, the only people who both have less power than they do, and who have one gift they don't. Offred forgot all this for the moment it took her to desire a macaron. (Whom among us, etc.) But Mean Wife's reminder turned it to ashes. Offred isn't in their sisterhood, and rejects them the only way she can: in secret.
Eventually, Janine starts crowning, and Mrs. Putnam is brought up to sit above her in a special birthing chair to pretend she's the one delivering it. But not even Aunt Lydia -- whose job it is to indoctrinate Handmaids into the new world order -- can deny Janine the rightful victory of bringing a precious, rare, healthy baby into the world. Specifically, it's a baby girl. Aunt Lydia celebrates: "It is a time for rejoicing, my love! This is our happy, happy moment! Think of what's to come for you!" Though everyone in the room -- Wife and Handmaid alike -- is emotional about the baby's birth, it's less certain any of them is that hopeful about what's to come for her; raised in privilege as a Commander's daughter, her best hope, unless society radically changes (back), is to be a Wife like the adoptive mother to whom she is immediately handed, which in this episode does not seem so great. Mrs. Waterford's happiness for her friend lasts about ten seconds before giving way to a look of reproach at Offred for not making Mrs. Waterford the current Wife among Wives.
One senses that the miserable Wives' envy will soon have them turning on each other -- or at least sniping behind each other's backs, as they have both license and leisure to do. The Handmaids, who have neither, use the last moments of their time with Janine to surround her with love.
Which community will end up triumphing in the long run? My money's on the "little whores" who know how to stick together.