The Handmaid's Tale TV series, based on the acclaimed novel by Margaret Atwood, is a dystopian story in which Gilead, formerly the United States, has totalitarian control. Failure to comply with Gilead's draconian rules results in death or, if you're lucky, unspeakable torture. Several scenes are visceral, stomach-churning, and difficult to watch.
But The Handmaid's Tale isn't exploitative torture porn. Protagonist June's sheer perseverance is a lighthouse surrounded by turbulent, treacherous waters. She reminds the viewer what can happen if we don't resist evil and corruption, or worse, if we turn a blind eye to it. This message is more important than ever, considering the "dystopian" elements of the show bear an eerie resemblance to current events. Here are 10 quotes from The Handmaid’s Tale that will terrify and inspire you.
10 "...I will not be that girl in the box." - June
"A perfect gift. A girl trapped in a box. She only dances when someone opens the lid, when someone else winds her up. If this is a story I'm telling, I must be telling it to someone. There's always someone, even when there's no one. I will not be that girl in the box."
This is June's internal monologue after Serena gives her a children's ballerina music box in an attempt to make peace. Although June is used to a society that rules through fear, she's savvy to Serena's sneaky attempts to control her with kindness. The latter tactic is much more insidious because it can be harder to detect. If, like Serena, a person's treatment of others resembles a pendulum—toxic one moment, syrupy sweet the next—every kindness should be questioned and every abuse should be shared. By not becoming the girl in the box, we may just help someone else escape a box of their own.
9 "Even the righteous need a little show business." - Serena
From the handmaids to the Marthas, many a Gilead resident (prisoner) asks themselves, "How did this happen?" The simplest answer? Good PR. In a flashback, we see the Sons of Jacob use fear via terrorism to slowly take control over the United States. Their strategy is as disturbing as it is effective: convince the people and the government that there is a greater threat out there and by the time everybody realizes they've been had, it's too late.
While everyone's watching the world burn, the Sons of Jacob are creating their depraved new world. It's an ingenious sleight of hand, one in which the disappearing rabbit is people's basic human rights.
8 "Now I'm awake to the world. I was asleep before." - June
As whip-smart as she is, June was blind as to what was happening around her, the same as everyone else. June, like many of us, lived in a free, privileged society. Questioning government and policy used to be riveting cocktail party conversation; now that such talk is forbidden in Gilead, it's needed more than ever.
No matter what becomes of June, her eyes have forever been opened. When the Sons of Jacob began their rise to power, June and her family only took action when they were directly threatened. Even though she may be kicking herself for not responding to the red flags sooner, June will never make that mistake again. The Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary one.
7 "I can do anything I want." - Janine
It's harder to find anyone more smiley in Gilead than Janine. Some of her bounciness can be chocked up to a general positive demeanor, but the hard truth is that Janine is delusional about her situation. She believes that after giving birth, she's made it to the handmaid's promised land, full of ice cream and freedom. Her response to her new good fortune is the opposite of June's to the music box.
After being subjected to all sorts of torture, Janine's mental faculties will never be the same. Though hopefully we never have to endure what Janine has, this is a valuable lesson to toe the line between optimism and naïveté.
6 "This will become ordinary." - Aunt Lydia
"I know this must feel so strange, but ordinary is just what you're used to. This may not be ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary."
People take comfort in the familiar. Even if we're in a negative situation, so many of us would rather stay than risk the big, scary unknown. Complacency can be our worst enemy. As extreme as Gilead is, Aunt Lydia is speaking the truth. Fraught though their circumstances may be, on paper, the easiest thing for June and the other handmaids is to do as they're told.
That's what makes the resistance groups like Mayday so important. They are risking life and limb to ensure that the Gilead regime will never be ordinary.
5 "There was an Offred before me. She helped me find my way out. She's dead. She's alive. She is me." - June
It's not a platitude to say that what we do during our time on this earth is important. To Gilead society, the original Offred is a repugnant sinner who disgraced herself by committing suicide. But even in death, she has an impact. In her bedroom, now June's, Offred carved an inspirational message into the wall of her closet. June takes this not just as a rallying battle cry, but a reminder of who she's fighting for.
When we fight for what we believe in, it's worthwhile dedicating our efforts not just to those we'll be helping, but those who have helped us. June means what she says: she and original Offred are one and the same—and they're a force to be reckoned with.
4 "Better never means better for everyone. It means better for some." - Fred
Given Fred's position of power, what he says has little consequence to him, but he points out exactly what is wrong with a totalitarian society. Fred and his cronies may present themselves as men of faith, but this is just a sick show. In reality, they just want control over everything, from their government to their women. Gilead isn't even "better for some" -- it's better for a select few.
Even in a democratic society, every law and policy will have winners and losers. But those who are affected negatively have the power and the right to speak up about it. And having that right is truly better for everyone.
3 "The world can be quite an ugly place. But we cannot wish that ugliness away. We cannot hide from that ugliness." - Aunt Lydia
Aunt Lydia may seem off her rocker, but warped as she is, she's just as wise. The ugliness she's referring to is the society of sinners formerly known as the United States of America. Ironically, her words bear more resemblance to Gilead.
Though we're fortunate enough to have the liberties we do, there are those who, if they had their druthers, would make Gilead a reality. Certain laws, particularly those surrounding women's bodies, are strikingly close. Burying our heads in the sand is not going to make the ugliness disappear; it's only going to allow it to fester.
2 "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down." - Offred
Bullies don't go away after we graduate high school. Some go on to become spouses, bosses, even world leaders. Gilead is an extreme form of, "give me your lunch money or I'll beat you up." Being under the thumb of such a bully can weaken a person's spirit. And the weaker we are, the easier it is for a bully to continue their reign of terror.
Offred's message kickstarts June's evolution from victim to warrior. Season 2's finale had viewers screaming at the TV for June to go to the safe haven of Canada, but she chose to stay. There are still bullies who need to pay back that lunch money.
1 "They should never have given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army." - June
Herein lies the problem of that select few having supreme power over the masses; a large group of people are united with one common goal—take down their oppressors. Gilead is a tightly run ship but there are holes in the deck. The handmaids' shared trauma only brings them closer together. When ordered to stone Janine to death, they defy Aunt Lydia en masse and refuse.
They pay for it dearly, but in the moment, they won their power play. One rebellious handmaid can be easily dispensed with, but certainly not all of them. As a united front, the handmaids aren't just an army; they're superheroes.