Hall (1997: 15) defines representation as “using language to say something meaningful about or to represent, the world meaningfully, to other people”. Throughout the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, created by Bruce Miller as an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, women are subjugated and represented as homogenous commodities. This representation is a hyperbolised version of reality, as it takes inspiration from the treatment of women in real life events, with allusions to historical events that took place in the 1980s, such as the far right wing Conservative government and the counter attacks against feminism, making the TV Series a ‘cautionary tale’ about the future. The indoctrinating theocracy that is depicted throughout the series, while being a patriarchal society, hinges on the reliance of women supressing other women, therefore representing women as power hungry and desperate.
Through the frequent use of low-angle shots and low-key lighting on the protagonist Offred, her low status and powerlessness is signified. This representation follows the typical normative view of women in traditional television where the stereotype “subordinates women to male power over them” (Pickering, 2007: 7). Miller’s choice of costume for the Handmaids intensifies this stereotype as they wear “crimson capes and gowns” which are described by Fraser (2017) “the uniform of every handmaiden in Gilead and sign of the oppressed”. Through this ‘uniform’ the Handmaids are stripped of their identity and forced to be homogenous, representing their subjugation. Additionally, through the encoding of the colour red, the audience can decode that the Handmaids are reduced to being sexual objects through it’s colour connotations of sex and passion. It could alternatively represent their strength and power, as although they are dehumanised and infantilised through the series, they are the fundamental part of the regime, as they are the few remaining fertile women. However, the core way in which their uniforms represent them, along with the loss of their names, is homogenous and having a lack of identity; “the ritual, borrowed from the biblical story of Bilhah and Rachel, emphasises that Offred is nothing more than a womb” (Poniewozik, 2017).
The polysemy, of the Handmaid’s being oppressed but also vital, is ultimately anchored buy ‘The Ceremony’; this event synthesises the degradation and humiliation of the Handmaids. In this event, Handmaids are victims of state sanctioned rape, and although this does demonstrate how necessary they are, the level of oppression and dehumanisation is overriding as they are represented as empty vessels with no humaneness. ‘The Ceremony’ effectively acts as a warning about the oppressiveness of totalitarian theocracies as with just slight changes to the real world, extreme situations like this could become a reality, making the TV series just as relevant and as much of a cautionary tale as in 1985 when Atwood wrote the novel. The director of the series, Morano (2017), states “we don’t think about how women are treated in other countries are treated as much as we should and I guess I though the show would raise awareness. Unfortunately, since Trump’s election, its about how its relating to us”. Here it is evident that although the TV show is fictional, the powerless representation of women is not far from how they are treated in some parts of the world.
Through the use of an anachronic narrative structure, it is clear that the narrating protagonist, Offred, feels imprisoned and confined within her role in the regime, as her only escape is through memories and flashbacks of the ‘time before’. This is representative of the powerlessness and weakness of women within patriarchal theocracies, confirming the idea that woman in Hollywood are always “someone else’s other” (Gentile, 1985: 7). Through memories of her daughter, she is able to escape the confinements of her life within the regime where her contact with other people is restricted. This maternal aspect of her adheres to stereotypes of women which suggest that they are motherly and nurturing, as she uses these thought to distract her. However, these memories are distressing as she often remembers her daughter being taken away from her, which reiterates her identity loss and the way she is represented as defenceless.
Not all women, however, are represented as completely powerless as the theocracy hinges on the reliance of women suppressing other women, representing them as hungry for power, but alternatively she could be seen as desperate. Serena Joy, Offred’s Commander’s wife, is a perfect example of a power hungry woman as her dominance and lack of sympathy towards Offred make the perfect tool for Gilead’s social order.