The Handmaid's Tale: Transmedia storytelling and Activism

10 minutes to read
Iva Konstantinova

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale arguably exits as a transmedia storytelling that bears a central idea of women's concerns across multiple media for a wider audience and reception. In this regard, this article presents a background overview of the novel's plot, followed by an analysis of the similarities and differences in the TV series made by the streaming platform, Hulu, to portray its transmedia evolution towards political activism, regarding women’s rights in the 21st century.

Background on The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

The fictional Republic of Gilead is represented in this novel as being characterized by pain emanating from dystopian environments which replicate continuous real-life problems affecting women even before Atwood’s time. In her world, the United States of America is depicted to have fallen under attack from a rebellious group of troops, who kill the president and Congress members to establish a new country named Gilead. As a consequence, the rebels issue new laws which put the destiny of both fertile and infertile women in the hands of white men, who separate them into groups - The Handmaids, Marthas, Aunts, and Unwomen.

The story is narrated by one of many unfortunate women - Offred, who is married to a previously-divorced man, which is sinful in the country of Gilead. She is a mother of a little girl, and most importantly, a fertile individual, perfect for the newly established state, which guides its principles based on biblical stories. In this horrific space, women’s rights to education, freedom as well as independence, are gifted to the wealthy families responsible for the fall of America. The ruling class fosters the children of Handmaids, apart from trying to have their own through ritualistic rape. This dystopian novel touches on Offred's previous life, describing flashbacks of sweet memories leading to the day she failed to escape to Canada. Furthermore, it focuses on her situation as a Handmaid, and how her character develops in a totalitarian society. 

The Birth of the Gileadverse

The Handmaid's Tale has had a fair share of adaptations, some of which include theatrical performances, a film, and a relatively new book called The Testaments, which follows the legacy of the protagonist in the first book. Because of this, the term Gileadverse (Becce, 2020), stemming from the words "universe" and the biblical name "Gilead," has been born to represent the vast social and political influence that Atwood's fiction has had on society.  

Looking at the early stages of the Gileadverse, it is witnessed that this 1985 novel regained its popularity after the 2016 US elections and the inauguration of Donald Trump. This is due to the various anti-feminist statements of the now-former US president, who has been called out on multiple accounts for being hateful towards women. Additionally, during his tenure, Trump issued a regulatory agenda that threatens women’s fundamental rights by regulating abortion coverage by health insurance and undermining benefits for contraception (Ahmed et al., 2020). Since then, the signature of the red and white uniform of a Handmaid has become a symbol of feminism (Carrola, 2021, p.89) and additionally amplified its significance after the airing of the first season of the adaptation made by Hulu in 2017.

It seems that the awkward consequence of the two events - the inauguration of Trump and the breakthrough of the TV series, happening simultaneously encouraged the extension of the text beyond its original practice (Howell, 2019, p.217). Hulu’s take on the story reveals a mixture between old and new. It vividly represents what Atwood might wish to provoke with her writing and an opening of a space for new ideas and narratives. The transmedial woven into the plot of this symbol of feminism is a clear example of how media has evolved.

According to Jenkins (2007), transmedia storytelling represents a process where essential aspects of fiction are distributed across multiple platforms and structures to deliver a unified and coordinated experience. Additionally, each recreation of a story has its distinct characteristics which are equally important to the overall narrative.  

The first season of the show follows closely the plot of the novel, however, it also makes use of introducing new details, which call for the attention of the audience and shift the intention of the story. According to Atwood’s writings, the life of Offred is not the life of a heroine (Becce, 2020, p.121), her story is revolutionary, yet it is far from the rebellious tone that the show offers. Contrary to the book, where the previous names of Handmaids are forbidden, here already in episode 1, Offred reveals her real name - June, reassuring herself and the audience that this is not the end of her.  Moreover, in the series, June/Offred is looked at as a carrier of two personalities, she is navigating through the totalitarian regime as Offred, while also making sense of it through the eyes of June. The scenes showing flashbacks of the days before she failed to escape suggest a shift in the layout of the novel, where we first encounter the torturous reality followed by the memories of the protagonist. The first seasonal episode is based on an introductory tool that reveals the general principles of the Republic of Gilead. It involves a fast-paced development, which hints at the attempts to extend the narrative from the beginning, as it displays a large portion of the content of the book. 

Considering her relationship with Commander Waterford and his wife, Serena, in the show; June/Offred is portrayed as a riskier figure that leads conversations with her forceful guardians. Contrary to the novel, where Offred is getting closer to the Commander slowly, in Hulu’s production, June is already walking towards the path of trouble after questioning her first encounter with him. This situation is again, an additional change in the narrative of the novel, which presents the contemporary urge to resist and highlights the political approach of the producers of the show. 

Building upon the idea that “transmedia texts in all forms are layered and each extension adds something we did not know before to deepen our connection to the narrative” (Jenkins, 2007), we can situate the TV show at the top of the adaptations of the Gileadverse. This is not only because of its massive breakthrough but also because it has resulted in an extension of the novel. The following seasons (2,3, and 4) are entirely inspired by the idea to popularise the 1980’s story and transform it into a contemporary act of rebellion. The seasons indulge in many different perspectives, following the stories of characters that are somewhat neglected in the original story, and going after the difficult aim of freedom and fairness. 

In the middle of season 2 (Miller, 2018), there is June's struggles to flee Gilead, while pregnant, and her return to the home of the Waterfords. Further, there is the formation of a community of Handmaids who risk everything but succeed in saving and bringing more than a dozen children to Canada by the end of the season. A similar situation appears in season 3 (Miller, 2019) when again people are successfully transferred away from Gilead, under Offred’s commands. However, she chooses to stay and serve as the guidance that women need. Also, this allows the continuation of the narrative further.  

Gileadverse: Real-life Handmaids and Activism

As mentioned previously, the narrative of The Handmaid's Tale has had a significant impact on society ever since the elections in 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency. Then because of his previous controversial remarks about reproductive rights, females felt compromised by policies that support pro-life principles. "The signature of the red cloaks and white bonnets have served as a silent symbol for the resistance of many women, who see parallels between the conditions in the fictional Republic of Gilead and The United States" (Carrola, 2021,  p.89).

Inspired by a promotional event made by Hulu just before launching the TV show in 2016, multiple feminist demonstrations have introduced the portrayal of Handmaids, which has proven to contribute to empowering women to protest (Liptak, 2017). Since 2016, the movement has grown enormously, resulting in protests and marches inside America and all over the world. Performance activism here serves as a concept that is helpful to understand why the costumes of the forced surrogates, birthed by Atwood and visually presented by the series’ producer, Bruce Miller, are treated as a symbol of feminism. Through this type of activism, different forms of media and art are used to encourage engagement and produce meaningful messages (Carrola, 2021, p. 92). In addition, performance activism uses different strategies to gain attention.

The Handmaids Coalition, a group of women that has been organizing demonstrations, where women dressed as Handmaids since 2017, uses silent marches to send powerful messages about abortion rights. They copy the manners of the Handmaids in the show - coordinating their movements and walking in pairs to capture the attention of spectators (Carrola, 2021, p. 97). In this way, people everywhere know what the protesters stand for. The modest and faceless identity that the uniform entails is used as the perfect metaphor for the representation of the dystopian reality that Atwood speculated. Moreover, activists have brought details from the show to social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, where they use a popular remark from the series “#Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” as a slogan for support and motivation, just as Offred did. In this way, one can witness the transmedia impact of both the book and the show on political issues involving feminism. 

Recent events have resulted in similar preaching. At the beginning of May 2022, a draft overruling the Roe v Wade rule about nationwide abortions in the US was leaked and resulted in massive outrage among women in the US, who feel threatened and stripped from their rights.

Ever since then, activists have been preaching for the prevention of fiction from becoming reality, fearing that the Gileadverse is slowly occurring in the real world.

Again, groups such as The Boston Red Cloaks, who support the political portrayal of The Handmaid's Tale, were seen donned in red and white (Crimaldi & Stoico, 2022). The novel's narrative has become a political prophecy in the eyes of feminists (Howell, 2019, p. 224), while also maintaining effective and entertaining imagery, which brings a two-way exposure for activism and media. Through this extension into the political sphere, protesters have capitalized on the message that the costume presents. Moreover, because of the visual representation of Atwood’s novel, people have had the opportunity to see the parallels between Hulu's production and real-life events, concerning the pro-life and pro-choice debate and thus become influenced to act resistantly. Although this may not have been the original plan of the producers of the show, it is safe to say that since the Roe v Wade rule was overturned, it is inevitable to recall  "The Handmaid's Tale."

In short, The Handmaid's Tale has evolved from a novel with many adaptations into a truly transmedia property, with its knowledge and emotive value spread across multiple platforms and media all because of the social relevancy it holds about recent issues with abortion rights (Howell, 2019, p. 227). First, Atwood’s fictional world serves as a starting point for the creation of raw and frightening, yet possible reality. Second, Hulu’s adaptation of the plot provides a visual representation of the author’s world, provoking an inevitable connection between fictional happenings and political events. This leads to the utilization of the Gileadverse for marches about feminism and reproductive rights in the USA. Finally, it shows how literature and art evolve through different perspectives and inspire political activism through transmedia storytelling. The plot of this touching series has given us a straight example of what could be just around the corner. However, it has also brought encouragement to fight and build a better, non-dystopian future. 


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