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Infertility and the Handmaid’s Tale

No spoilers unless you haven’t read the book.  In which case, sure, there are spoilers.  But really, you haven’t read the book AND you’re worried about Handmaid’s Tale spoilers?

We’re making our way through Hulu’s new Handmaid’s Tale series.  There have been small changes from the book to the screen, the most notable being the age of the wives.

The wives in the book are middle-aged to older women.  Serena Joy walks with a cane.  Offred grows up seeing her on television.  The commander is an older man, grey-haired.

But in the series, both are still in prime, baby-making years.  The wife is blond.  The commander young.  Their handmaid is their peer; not a much younger woman.  Offred is considered fertile because she had a child at one point.  Their places could have been reversed if the wife had been capable of bearing children.  If she had married a different man.

Which is what makes the theme of infertility that much more heartbreaking.

Infertility was part of the book, but it was always with the thought that the wives were past the age of possible fertility.  The sting of their inability to reproduce was still there, but it was muted from living with it for years.

On the screen, infertility becomes part of the current moment.  The wife is infertile, her handmaid is not.

The first episode contains the familiar Ceremony Day scene; Offred lying between the wife’s legs.  In the book, Serena Joy comes off as crotchety, kicking Offred out of the bedroom, almost as if she’s annoyed by the drama, a woman who was okay being child-free who now needs to participate in this government-sanctioned charade.  Whereas on the screen, it is a heartbreaking moment.  The wife is fighting back tears as she snarls at Offred to leave, and it is clear that jealousy — not indignation — is driving the words to come out of her mouth.

It made me side with the wife.

Because her tears felt so familiar, even if my own (and your own) tears have come from different situations.  No, I’ve never had to lie on a bed with another woman between my legs, but I have had to lie on a table while a doctor completed the task.  I know how family building feels when it doesn’t look anything like the family building fantasies of a childhood mind.

I identified more with the wife than with Offred.  Don’t get me wrong; I felt gutted for Offred, but my allegiance was with the wife who had to endure the monthly reminder — like all of us — that she couldn’t reproduce on her own.

I wonder if the shift in age is due to some horrible Hollywood bias against older women or something more heartfelt. Perhaps Margaret Atwood absorbed stories of infertility — knowingly or unknowingly — over the years, she tweaked this detail from page to screen to convey the emotional side of infertility for everyone who watched.


1 Delenn { 04.30.17 at 10:21 am }

I thought the whole bedroom scene was well done. The whole otherworldly-mess. The coldness and bitterness in the room from all of them permeated the room. And the last bit…a perfect moment to show how much the wives are as much broken and hurt brings as their handmaids.

2 Working mom of 2 { 04.30.17 at 10:57 am }

Not my kind of genre so I haven’t read the book/ won’t watch (actually never heard of it until hearing about the series).

But. Glad I didn’t. Based on what you wrote it seems the book has the familiar “oh you’re old you should be ok with infertility” that’s out there. Being on the older side when I finally found message boards (40, although I started trying at 36) I could definitely sense this sentiment amongst younger infertile women. Like it’s much worse for them bc they’re somehow in the “right” child bearing year spread so it hurts more.

3 Tigger { 04.30.17 at 11:13 am }

I understand where Serena Joy is coming from…but I also hurt for Offred so much. The wives’ treaten of essentially their surrogates is atrocious…and the Handmaid’s don’t even have a choice. They aren’t doing this willingly. The latest episode, I wanted to punch Serena Joy for her actions. Like I said, I understand her position, but it’s not Offred’s fault. She’s doing her best, just like the rest of us.

They’ve made cosiderable changes from the book but honestly, so far I life them. They’ve updated it for the modern world, made it more relevant to us, without losing anything. Ofglen dies, or so we are told, in the book…instead, they’ve taken her story and fleshed it out. They did things with Ofwarren as well, and she just breaks my heart.

4 A. { 04.30.17 at 3:48 pm }

The Handmaid’s Tale is probably my favorite dystopia, and I have often thought of it along the way. Thanks for the peek into the series; I’ve been eyeballing it.

5 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.30.17 at 10:32 pm }

I wonder if I’m up for this…

I am. I’m sure I am.

6 Jodi S Schulz { 05.01.17 at 9:43 am }

I finally watched the first episode last night and I was expecting to feel some kind of empathy for her, but nope, still hate her. Maybe because I read the book and I don’t want to put too many spoilers in this but I know her role in things, but I also feel like she is so cold I can’t not hate her.

7 Jodi S Schulz { 05.01.17 at 11:21 am }

To clarify “her” is the wife. Sorry.

8 loribeth { 05.01.17 at 3:56 pm }

I got to see the first two episodes last night (on Bravo here in Canada). It’s been a while since I read the book, and I didn’t see the earlier movie version — and I’m not sure I can say I identify with Serena Joy more than Offred — but you’re right, it was a bit of an “ah ha” moment to watch SJ’s face as she held Offred’s wrists in the bedroom scene, and told her to “get out” afterwards. You can understand why she might feel that way — even if it’s certainly not Offred’s choice/fault that she’s there.

I thought it was very well done. Chilling, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. And oh, the music!! I couldn’t believe it when they started playing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” over the closing credits of the first episode!! Perfect!!

Did you catch Margaret Atwood’s cameo scene?

9 fifi { 05.01.17 at 4:52 pm }

Wasn’t there an implication in the book that the husband was infertile (none of his other handmaids had conceived with him) but nobody could publicly admit that? The infertility epidemic had likely hit men as much as women, but the “blame” was placed entirely on women.

10 Caliking { 05.22.17 at 5:16 pm }

Why aren’t these couples using IVF??? It would seem like that would be easier than this whole Handmaid business.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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