'The Handmaid's Tale' Wants You To Feel Like 'This Could Happen Here'

Apr 26, 2017
Originally published on April 28, 2017 9:07 am

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is one of a handful of dystopian novels that have seen a boost in sales since the 2016 election. The book tells the story of what happens when a theocratic dictatorship takes over the government and gets rid of women's rights.

In 2016, Atwood told us that the idea started as a question: "If you want women to go back into the home, how do you make them do that? And the method I proposed in 1985 was, now that we have credit cards, it's very easy to just cut off people's access to credit. And that's what happens in the book."

That's also the premise of the TV adaptation of the book, now streaming on Hulu. In the imaginary Republic of Gilead, women are not allowed to own property or have bank accounts, and because of widespread infertility, those who have successfully had children are assigned to be Handmaids — bearing children for the rich and powerful.

"It was very important to us from the very beginning to make sure that people understood that this is present in a 'this could happen here' idea," says Elisabeth Moss, who stars as Offred.

Samira Wiley plays Moira, Offred's best friend from "before Gilead." She describes her character as a feminist in "every way, shape or form."


Interview Highlights

On Moira's reaction to her husband reassuring her that he will take care of her, after her bank account has been taken away

Samira Wiley: It's not supposed to be an insult. ... It comes from a place of love, it comes from a place of wanting his wife to feel safe, but Moira is very, very sensitive to that language. ... She feels like she is standing up 100 percent for what she believes in and where women should be in the present. And if anyone comes even close to jeopardizing that, it is her responsibility to nip that in the bud.

Elisabeth Moss: That scene, it's directly from the book and it really sets up this complexity of what is my husband supposed to say? The women now don't have access to any of their money and of course my husband loves me and just says what comes naturally which is: I'm going to take care of you. And of course that brings up the sensitive issue of, oh great, now I have to be taken care of.

On women becoming a part of systems that hurt other women — for example, Aunt Lydia's character, who tells the Handmaids they are "so lucky" to serve powerful men and their barren wives

Moss: It's another interesting thing raised by Margaret and by the show, which is: A really good way to control women is by using other women. And we also play the opposite, which is women, when they stand together, can be incredibly powerful.

Ann Dowd plays Aunt Lydia and when she speaks about the character, from her perspective, she loves these girls. She believes she's actually doing a good deed and good service by protecting these women. And that's one of the things about the show is, we provide these different points of view and make these characters complex and not black and white.

On the costumes — rich, married women wear green; barren aunt servants wear gray; Handmaids who are reproductive surrogates wear scarlet red and white bonnets

Wiley: It highlights the differences between who I am and who the other is. It shows immediately how I am supposed to relate to someone. If I see a Handmaid who is of the same caste as I am, I know that we are equal. But ... if I see immediately that you are a wife, then I know how I am supposed to react. And that is just another way to have the oppression right on top of these women.

On whether it feels weird to have real-life protesters donning Handmaid's Tale robes

Moss: Not weird. Awesome. So, so, cool. This costume, this color, the bonnets — they're so iconic. And they stand immediately for feminism and women's rights. You take one look at that costume and you know what that girl is doing. You know why she's wearing it. And so, for me, seeing something like that is so incredibly moving.

On the show underscoring the idea that there are different kinds of resistance

Moss: I think that's one of the great things about it. There are many different ways of resistance, and all of them should be used. Marching, talking, conversation. Margaret has a quote that I love, which is: "A word after a word after a word is power." And she also says: "You can mean more than one. You can mean thousands."

Wiley: I think that they are all valid. ... A television show, at the end of the day, can be art, and it can elicit real change. ... I just feel so blessed to be able to be a part of something that can elicit real change.

Radio producer Christina Cala, radio editor Mallory Yu and Web producer Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood is one of a handful of dystopian novels like George Orwell's "1984" that's seen a boost in sales since the 2016 election. The book tells a story of what happens when a theocratic dictatorship takes over the government and gets rid of women's rights. Atwood told us last year that the idea started as a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARGARET ATWOOD: If you want women to go back into the home, how do you make them do that? And the method I proposed in 1985 was now that we have credit cards it's very easy to just cut off people's access to credit. And that's what happens in the book.

CORNISH: And what happens in the TV adaptation now streaming on Hulu.

ELISABETH MOSS: It was very important to us from the very beginning to make sure that people understood that this is present in a sort of this could happen here idea.

CORNISH: That's Elisabeth Moss. She plays Offred, the main character. In this imaginary country called Gilead, women don't even have the right to their own names. Samira Wiley plays Moira, Offred's best friend from before Gilead. In flashbacks, their world seems normal. They go for jogs, talk about Uber and Tinder and organize protests. So when the government suspends all women's bank accounts both Offred and Moira react with disbelief.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

MOSS: (As Offred) They can't just do this. They can't.

CORNISH: In fact, Offred's husband at the time, Luke, assures her that he'll take care of her, and she and Moira call him out on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

MOSS: (As Offred) It sounds a little patronizing.

SAMIRA WILEY: (As Moira) He's so patronizing.

O-T FAGBENLE: (As Luke) Go on, bring it on. I want to hear why I shouldn't take care of my wife.

WILEY: (As Moira) My wife?

FAGBENLE: (As Luke) Yeah.

WILEY: (As Moira) She doesn't belong to you.

MOSS: (As Offred) That's right.

WILEY: (As Moira) No, no, no, she isn't your property, and she doesn't need you to take care of her.

CORNISH: Samira Wiley, as you were going through this scene - I mean, it's interesting. This is language that we hear all the time. We hear it today. And this is a character - like, he loves his wife, right? This is not supposed to be an insult.

WILEY: Absolutely. It's not supposed to be an insult. It's supposed to be, I believe, reassuring to his wife that everything is going to be OK. It comes from a place of love. But Moira is very, very sensitive to that language. She is in every way, shape or form a feminist. She feels like she's standing up 100 percent for what she believes in and where women should be in the present. And if anyone comes even close to jeopardizing that, it is her responsibility to nip that in the bud.

CORNISH: You know, it's one thing when you hear this language laughing over the kitchen table. It's another thing when someone is wielding it against you with a cattle prod.

WILEY: Absolutely.

MOSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that scene, you know, it's directly from the book. And it really sets up this complexity that Margaret Atwood is so good at of, well, what is my husband supposed to say? The women now don't have access to any of their money. And, of course, my husband loves me. And he just says what comes naturally, which is, I'm going to take care of you. And, of course, that brings up a sensitive issue of, oh, great, now I have to be taken care of.

CORNISH: The rest of the story is about these women living in this period under this repressive regime. Because of widespread infertility, women are essentially commodities literally reduced to their fertility. And it's interesting. Other women are expected to police, train (laughter) and punish them. I mean, they are the enforcers in this process. There are some characters known as Aunts will do this training. And one in particular, Aunt Lydia, we have a little sound of her in indoctrination mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

ANN DOWD: (As Aunt Lydia) You girls will serve the leaders of the faithful and their barren wives. You will bear children for them. Oh, you are so lucky.

CORNISH: That, oh, you are so lucky at the end is just so chilling. Like, in my living room I was like, oh, I don't know. I don't know if I can do this.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: How did you think about, like, how women become a part of systems sometimes that hurt other women?

MOSS: I mean, I think that, you know, it's - this is Elisabeth, by the way - it's another interesting thing raised by Margaret and by the show, which is a really good way to control women is by using other women. And we also play the opposite, which is women when they stand together can be incredibly powerful. Ann Dowd plays Aunt Lydia, and when she speaks about the character she says from her perspective she loves these girls. She believes she's actually doing a good deed and good service by protecting these women. And that's one of the things about this show, is we provide these different points of view and make these characters complex and not black and white.

CORNISH: Costuming plays such an enormous role here. You have the rich married women of privilege wearing blue, the barren Aunts wearing gray and the Handmaids, who are basically both sexual and birth surrogates, wear scarlet red and this white bonnet that restricts their vision. What kind of effect did the costuming have on you?

WILEY: I think - this is Samira, by the way - it highlights the differences between who I am and who the other is. It shows immediately how I am supposed to relate to someone. If I see a Handmaid who is of the same caste as I am I know that we are equal. But if I see that you are a Martha, if I see immediately that you are a wife, then I know how I am supposed to react. And that is just another way to have the oppression right on top of these women.

CORNISH: The Handmaid's costume has appeared in real life in recent times. Silent protesters wore similar costumes in a demonstration against the passage of abortion restrictions in Texas. Have you guys seen these photos? And how weird was that?

MOSS: Oh, not weird, awesome. I mean, so, so cool. This costume, this color, the bonnets, they're so iconic. And they stand immediately for feminism and women's rights. And you just take one look at that costume and you know what that girl is doing. You know why she's wearing it. So for me, seeing something like that, it's a very moving thing.

CORNISH: It also reminds me, or sort of drew something in relief I think the television show does different from the book, is underscored the idea of different kinds of resistance, that it's not - not everyone does it the same way. And how have you been thinking about that more? Because along this tour I feel like everybody has asked you guys about the new administration, about Trump, about feminism. It's like they're kind of asking a lot of a television adaptation.

MOSS: (Laughter) Yeah. This is Elisabeth. I mean, I think that's one of the great things about it, is there are many different ways of resistance and all of them should be used.

WILEY: Yeah, exactly.

MOSS: You know, I mean, marching, talking, conversation. Margaret has a quote that I love, which is a word after a word after a word is power. And you can mean more than one. You can mean thousands.

WILEY: Exactly. I think that they are all valid. And the costumes and the world of Gilead strips people of their identities. And a television show at the end of the day can be art. And it can elicit real change. It can elicit real thought and real conversations for people who maybe necessarily wouldn't even be having these conversations. And I just feel so blessed to be able to be a part of something that can elicit real change.

CORNISH: Well, Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILEY: Oh, thank you so much for having us.

MOSS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

LESLEY GORE: (Singing) You don't own me.

CORNISH: Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. Don't say I can't go with other boys. And don't tell me what to do. Don't tell me what to say. And please, when I go out with you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.