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19 dark real-life stories that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale

Did you think Channel 4’s The Handmaid’s Tale was fictional? Think again.

The Handmaid’s Tale first roared onto UK television screens in May 2017 to critical acclaim. And, as promised, the star-studded dystopian drama has proven to be incredibly vocal about the current political climate and what it means for individuals, especially women; no wonder, then, that we’re all counting down the days until season four drops later this month.

Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, the show (in which Elisabeth Moss plays titular ‘Handmaid,’ June Osborne) takes place in Gilead, a near-future version of North America in which the Constitution has been overthrown. As a result of this, women’s rights and identities have been stripped away, with fertile women being rounded up, red tagged, and forced into a life of sexual servitude and surrogacy.

It paints a picture of a dark and thought-provoking dystopia – and, in doing so, it challenges us to take a look at our own society and speak out against lawmakers who seem keen to strip away human rights in order to make the world a ‘better place.’ After all, as the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) so rightly points out, “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some”.

Yet, despite all of this, The Handmaid’s Tale is so much more than a fictional drama – because, as Atwood has pointed out time and time again, every aspect of Gilead’s culture has really happened at some point in history, somewhere in the world.

Speaking to The Guardian when the series first launched, the award-winning author explained: “When it first came out it was viewed as being far-fetched. However, when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.”

So what are the real life events, laws, and issues that inspired this work of speculative fiction? And how can it be that the events seen in The Handmaid’s Tale are still holding up a dark mirror to the real world? 

Here, we examine significant historical moments and legislations from around the globe and find that, as ever, truth is often far stranger – and more horrible – than fiction.

The criminalisation of homosexuality

In The Handmaid’s Tale, to be homosexual is to be a “gender traitor” – a perceived crime which results in execution (unless, of course, you’re a fertile woman; in this instance, you are red-tagged and forced into the rank of Handmaid).

It is all too easy to forget that homosexuality was not legal in the UK until The Sexual Offences Act was published in 1967. Marriage equality just recently passed in 2014. And, sadly, we are considered to be ahead of the curve; as per the BBC’s recent report, there are an overwhelming 69 countries that still have laws criminalising homosexuality, even in 2021.

Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaids of New Jersey

Speaking to Penguin about her research for The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood shared the news clippings she had gathered ahead of writing the book, and highlighted a “good headline that highlights religious tensions: ‘Catholics say cult taking over.’”

“It’s about a cult called the People of Hope that ‘subordinates its women, discourages social contact with non-members, arranges marriages, moves teenage disciples to households for indoctrination,” she said, noting that their treatment of women is “a form of brainwashing.”

The People Of Hope, for those who are interested, was started in 1975 by a New York stockbroker and ordained Catholic priest named Robert Gallic. They called the women “The Handmaidens of God” – but, unlike the Handmaids in Atwood’s dystopia, the real Handmaidens were similar to the Wives of Gilead. Indeed, it was their responsibility to set a good example for other women, and police one another to make sure they were following the rules of being subservient to their husbands. 

Fertile women are rounded up in The Handmaid’s Tale and forced into a life of surrogacy.

“Make a baby for Canada”

Pulling out another choice headline during the aforementioned Penguin interview, Atwood recalled feeling unsettled by one paper’s demanding of its readers: “Make a baby for Christmas, MP tells Canadians.”

“A progressive conservative MP has suggested that Canadians start with renewed vigour over the holidays to increase the country’s population,” she explained. “Dave Nickerson, Western Arctic, based his proposal in the House of Commons on Statistic Canada figures that show Canada’s fertility rate dropping to an all-time low. ‘It ought to be public policy to encourage families to have more children,’ said Nickerson, ‘in that the process involved is not unduly distasteful. Might I suggest that we could all start with renewed vigour this Christmas.’

“Which leads nicely into this one, I think: ‘Artificial birth methods are attacked by some feminists fearing male control. There is concern that we are moving toward methods that are not always in the best interests of individual women,’ says a sociologist. No kidding.”

Prisoners in the Soviet Union

In The Handmaid’s Tale, we saw Emily (Alexis Bledel) sent to clean up radioactive waste in the Colonies after stealing a car and using it to run over and kill a Guardian.

There, she made it her business to help ease the suffering of those poor souls dealing with radiation sickness – unless, of course, she saw them as an enemy to women everywhere. It was a lesson which Mrs O’Conner, a commander’s wife who had been sent to the Colonies, learned the hard way. Emily poisoned Marisa Tomei’s terrified character, then stood over her and watched as she slowly expired on the bathroom floor.

Of course, Atwood’s depiction of women being sent totoxic dumping grounds and locations of radiation spills as a form of punishment is based on those prisoners in the Soviet Union, who, during the 70s, were forced to do manual labour in uranium mines to gather enough material for their arsenal of atomic bombs. As such, they were exposed to extremely high levels of radiation, and so the average lifespan of a prisoner in these mines was just two years. 

Enforced dress codes

The red robes of the Handmaids take inspiration from a number of places, including the 17th century garb of puritanical women and the habits of Catholic nuns.

More pertinent, however, is the fact that this religious clothing can and still is forced upon women by authorities in other, more conservative, communities; the Amish, for example, insist that women wear long dresses made of dark fabrics, and head coverings every single day. And the FLDS Church, which is a very strict sect of Mormon, only allows women to wear loose-fitting (and modest) skirts, trousers or dresses in various shades of blue – and they all wear their hair in the same sort of ponytail, as well.

Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh

Showrunner Bruce Miller described his vision for the third season with a four-word phrase: “Blessed be the fight.” And executive producer Warren Littlefield echoed that sentiment in a new interview, saying this fight is one that aligns with the modern political moment.

Specifically referencing President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court as an example of the need for resistance, he said: “I think it is about the fight, and I think that [fight] takes many, many forms, as does citizenship and the privilege of citizenship.

“I think we’re thematically very much on track. And I think the journey has been earned, and I think we’re ready to hit the next dimension — and that’s one where I think there’s a sense of June as a warrior and rising.”

Kavanaugh was named Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 2019, just months after Dr Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexual assault. The university professor appeared in front of a panel of senators to give her account of the attack, which she says happened when she and Kavanaugh were at high school in the 80s.

Trump, of course, was elected after more than 15 women accused him of sexual harassment and/or assault, and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent.

Abortion laws

The Handmaid’s Tale offers up a bleak world in which women’s ability to control their own reproduction, and particularly to access safe abortion, is non-existent. This idea is introduced gradually over time: in the book, for example, Offred sees the bodies of hanged doctors who have carried out abortions and comments that “in the time before… such things were legal.” She also, in chapter eight, witnesses the funeral procession of a miscarried foetus – and, towards the end of the book, notes that there are no ultrasounds or scans carried out in Gilead.

“What would be the point of knowing, anyway?” she tells us. “You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term.”

However, while this may feel incredibly removed from our own lives, it’s worth noting that more than 40% of women around the world aged 15-44 live in a country where abortion is highly restricted, according to research by the Guttmacher Institute.El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic do not allow abortion under any circumstances, with doctors who find evidence of abortion forced to report patients to the police, even if the women are in need of medical attention after desperately self-inducing a termination. And a recent change in Polish law, too, has similarly forbidden women from terminating pregnancies, even in cases of severe and irreversible foetal defects.

It is also worth noting that, on 20 May 2021, Texas’ Republican governor Greg Abbott signed the draconian ’heartbeat bill’ into law, which has banned abortions after a foetal heartbeat is detected; this can occur as early as six weeks, often before a woman knows she is pregnant, and includes cases where a woman becomes pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

Signing the bill into law, which comes into effect in September if it is not stopped in court, Abbott said: “Our creator endowed us with the right to life, and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. 

“In Texas we work to save those lives, and that’s exactly what the Texas legislature did this session.”

Enforced surrogacy and adoption

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred and her fellow handmaids are forced to bear children for the families they are ‘owned’ by. Any healthy babies that are born are then raised by the wives of the men that the handmaids are systematically raped by.

It’s an abhorrent concept – but it’s worth remembering that similar practices occurred in multiple Western nations just a few decades ago, with the effects continuing to the present day.  

In Australia as recently as the 70s, indigenous children were lawfully stolen from their homes and placed in religious institutions or fostered out to white families. From the end of World War II up until the late 70s, similar programs were carried out in the USA and Canada: this systematic stealing of Native American children is referred to as the Adoption era and residential school system, depending upon which country’s dark past you’re speaking about.

And, of course, let’s not forget the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, which saw young girls punished for their “immorality” by being forced into slave-like conditions. The babies they bore were taken away from them and placed with adoptive families all over the world – with 2,000 alone being shipped across to the USA.

Speaking in a 2017 interview with the La Times, Atwood explained: “Totalitarianism always has views on who shall be allowed to have babies and what shall be done with the babies.”

The author went on to point out that “the generals in Argentina were dumping people out of airplanes. But if it was a pregnant woman, they would wait until she had the baby and then they gave the baby to somebody in their command system. And then they dumped the woman out of the airplane.

“Hitler stole his children, blonde ones, hoping that he could turn them into blonde Germans. It’s been going on for really a long time.”

Madeline Brewer as Ofwarren/Janine in The Handmaid’s Tale.

FGM (female genital mutilation)

In The Handmaid’s Tale, we see women punished for their ‘immoral behaviour’ by having their bodies mutilated – and it is made all too clear, on numerous occasions, that the Aunts also use FGM as a “corrective” punishment on anyone deemed an “un-woman”.

Tragically, the concept of female genital mutilation is not confined to the pages of Atwood’s book: 140 million women and young girls all over the world are believed to have undergone the procedure, which sees their outer labia, inner labia, and clitoris removed, often without anaesthesia or pain relief.

And it is estimated that some 23,000 girls living in the UK are at risk of FGM, too, despite the fact that the act was criminalised in the UK in 1985.

Nimco Ali, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation that aims to empower and protect people from FGM-affected communities, tells Stylist: “They say it makes you a woman; it’s a rite of passage. But as you start to grow up and learn about feminism, you start to realise this is about control and fear.

“I look at my three-year-old niece and she’s free and fearless. That is what FGM is there to stop. Break the girl and then mould her into an image of what men want.”

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Attitudes to rape

In The Handmaid’s Tale, June tells us about the deliberate humiliation at the Red Centre of Janine, whose dreadful experience of gang-rape was made to seem her own fault by Aunt Lydia, telling the others that Janine must have “led them on”.

“But whose fault was it?” she asks them.

“Her fault,” they chant in unison, pointing their fingers at the frightened woman.

Such attitudes are not, however, confined to Gilead. At the time of this article’s publication, the UK criminal justice system does not adequately support or protect female survivors of male violence; indeed, just one in 70 reports of rape in England and Wales currently results in a charge, let alone a conviction. 

17th century American-Puritan theocracy

In Gilead, the government rules in the name of God (or a god), which is why they continuously reference the fact that they are “under His eye”.

Nowadays, of course, the United States of America is founded on the idea of democracy – with the public electing officials to make laws and government decisions on their behalf, and according to the rules of the Constitution. But this was not always the case.

As Atwood explained to The Guardian in 2016: “America was not initially founded as an 18th-century enlightenment republic. It was initially a 17th-century theocracy.

“That tendency keeps bubbling up in America from time to time.”

A ceremony in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Phyllis Schlafly

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) is a major character in The Handmaid’s Tale – and, as those who have read the book will know, she played a major role in the shaping of Gilead’s regime.

That’s right: before the Republic was formed, Serena made headlines with her powerful lectures and essays on the subject of “a women’s place”. She repeatedly argued that traditional gender roles should be upheld at all costs, that women should remain in the home, and that ‘wicked’ and ‘immoral’ females be punished for their ‘sins’. And, as we all know, her dreams of a misogynist future have come true – although she, like so many others of her gender, has been forced to pay for it with her freedom.

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale.

While Serena is undeniably fictional, it is fair to speculate that she was inspired by the real-life Phyllis Schlafly, who was a similarly paradoxically public advocate for domestic women. She began her political career as an anti-feminist in 1964 when she published her first pro-family book, and led the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment, insisting that women should stop focusing on politics and instead tend to their families and work inside the home.

It wasn’t long, however, before Schlafly’s words came back to bite her in the ass.

In 1967, she ran for president of the National Federation of Republican Women. However, her critics argued that, as a mother of six children, she couldn’t fully devote herself to a political post – and, after an ugly fight, Schlafly lost.

The yellow bands of Nazi Germany

As demonstrated in The Handmaid’s Tale, the women of Gilead are forced to wear outfits which identify their roles and rights (or lack thereof) in society. The Marthas (household domestics) don identical green ensembles, the wives of the Commanders always wear blue. Handmaids, meanwhile, wear heavy red dresses and white wings on the sides of their heads.

Atwood has told Penguin that many of the horrors witnessed in The Handmaid’s Tale are inspired by the history of Nazi Germanys, and the parallels are all too clear here; just as the Handmaids are identified by the colour of their habits, the Jews were forced to wear a yellow band around their arm, which sported a star of David. This was used to separate the Jewish from those who were not Jewish. It also served as a reminder to the Jews that they had no rights under German law.

Kristalnacht

The women of The Handmaid’s Tale are not allowed to own property, run businesses, or hold jobs. It is a law which is implemented without warning: soldiers march into offices all over the country, the women are ordered to leave, and their bank accounts are frozen. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t just an act of discrimination: it’s a form of control, and it renders the women vulnerable to the new regime.

Again, this is very similar to how the Jews were treated in Nazi Germany (a comparison which is frequently made by Offred in the original novel The Handmaid’s Tale). On the night of 9 November 1938 (Kristalnacht), over 250 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were trashed and looted, Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted, and dozens of Jewish people were killed – all while police and fire brigades stood by.

The morning after this ‘Night of Broken Glass’, Jewish people found that they were no longer considered autonomous human beings – let alone citizens of Germany. Curfews were instated, limiting the hours in which they could leave their homes. They were barred from entering public spaces, expelled from schools, and almost entirely segregated from society. And, in less than 24 hours, some 30,000 German Jews had been arrested for the “crime” of being Jewish and sent to the concentration camps, where millions of them perished.

The assassination of Ernst vom Rath

Gilead’s laws are undeniably extreme – so how did they come to pass? Well, there was a terrorist attack, Congress was slaughtered, and in the interest of protecting the people, the Constitution was suspended. As each of these events happened, “we didn’t wake up,” says Offred, and women’s rights were eroded before their very eyes.

Again, it calls to mind the events leading up to the Holocaust: on 7 November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Polish Jew living in Paris, shot Ernst vom Rath, a diplomat attached to the German embassy in Paris.

Ignoring the fact that Grynzpan acted out of desperation for his parents (still trapped in the No Man’s Land between Poland and Germany), the Nazis used the shooting to fan anti-semitic fervour. They claimed that Grynszpan did not act alone, but was part of a wider Jewish conspiracy against Germany – and, two days later, they ordered SA officers to attack the Jews.

The Holocaust

There are so many parallels that can be drawn between The Handmaid’s Tale and the Holocaust. Large groups of people are sent to work in concentration camps where they will almost certainly die, for example, and neighbours are encouraged to inform upon their friends. Just as the Jews were reduced to numbers, handmaids lose their names and are known only as the property of their Commanders. Literacy is forbidden, property rights are terminated, and soldiers uphold totalitarian laws. And, of course, the Commanders of the Faithful order the executions of LGBTQ people, intellectuals, and others deemed ‘subversive’.

On a more subtle level, The Handmaid’s Tale also sees women rounded up and subjected to invasive tests and scans to determine whether or not they are fertile – much as the Jews were sorted into two groups: those who could work and those who could not. Those who could were sent to work in the ghettos. Those who could not were sent to their deaths in the concentration camps. And, again, this is similar to the women of Gilead: if they are fertile, then they are given the duty of producing a healthy baby for the state. If they are not, then they are declared an “un-woman” and sent to the colonies, where they, too, will be worked to death.

A Scene from The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Salem witch trials

Atwood has made no secret of the fact that the events of The Handmaid’s Tale are, in part, inspired by the 17th century Salem witch trials, in which women were systematically demonised, informed on, and violently punished for being ‘different’ to puritanical norms.

Speaking to Bill Moyers in 2017, the author said: “The Salem witchcraft trial is in my opinion one of the foundation events of American history. And it was an event where you can call it a clash between mythology and politics if you like. Because it depended very much on a belief in the invisible world. Cotton Mather, who was a very prominent divine at the time, wrote a book called The Wonders of the Invisible World, which was all about the behaviour of witches. And the devil. And this is what people believed.

“They weren’t being hypocrites when they did these things. They were actually scared of witchcraft and the devil. And they believed that the devil could work his way into their community through witches, so it was serious business. But it was also a hysteria.”

Insisting that Americans under Trump’s rule were behaving in much the same way, Atwood added: “The surprise to me has been all of the stuff I learned long ago. I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to be interested in this again. You know what good is knowing 17th century theology ever going to be to me? Or anybody else. Surely nobody’s interested.’ And now suddenly it’s all come back. Because things do go around in cycles.”

Everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened IRL, says Margaret Atwood.

The Romanian ban on birth control

In The Handmaid’s Tale, we quickly learn that fertility rates have plummeted – and, in an act of desperation, the government has rendered abortion and birth control illegal. Every fertile woman has a duty to bear children, and those who don’t… well, they’re either sent to work (and die) in the Colonies, or they’re hanged as an example to all other handmaids.

The idea of a birth control ban may be frightening, but it is not a new one: in 1966, President Ceausescu, in a desperate attempt to increase the population of Romania, banned birth control and abortion, and ordered Romanian women of child-bearing age to have five children each.

To enforce Decree 770, secret police were instated at hospitals, women were subjected to monthly tests by gynaecologists, sex education in schools was refocused on the benefits of motherhood, and people were taxed for being childless. Women, of course, found themselves heavily criminalised if they did not comply with Ceausescu’s reproductive policies.

In some ways, the abortion and birth control ban worked: the Romanian population steadily increased, and the glorification of childbirth led to a huge baby boom – but the consequences were tragic and long-reaching. Childbirth mortality rate became the highest of Europe, and more than 9,000 women died as a result of complications arising from illegal terminations. Countless others were left permanently maimed.

Those who did have children found themselves unable to afford their upkeep. As a result, around 100,000 unwanted babies were abandoned to dire conditions in communist orphanages: those who lived until the age of 12 (and not many did) were reclaimed by their parents and put to work.

Decree 770 was reversed in 1990, after the Romanian Revolution, and, since that time, abortion has been legal on request in Romania.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred/June in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Women’s March

In the third episode of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, we watch as June (Moss) and Moira (Samira Wiley) grab hold of placards, take to the streets, and march for their rights.

While the original novel was penned as a response to Ronald Reagan, one can’t help but think of the Women’s March in January 2017, which saw millions of women all around the world rise up together to defend women’s rights and the sisterhood.

Armed with signs protesting President Trump, mocking both Trump’s past treatment of women and controversial statements he made on the campaign trail, it was a spectacular show of force on the first full day of his presidency: the Washington rally alone attracted over 500,000 people according to city officials, making it easily one of the biggest demonstrations in the city’s history.  

Thankfully these demonstrations ended very differently to those seen in The Handmaid’s Tale – but the fight remains the same. Because, while the novel is based on past events, life is now mirroring June’s tale. 

Speaking with The Guardian in 2016, Atwood explained that, when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, many began to wonder how long they had until the events described by her main character, Offred, would come to pass.

 “Apparently, not as long as I thought,” she said, adding: “The Handmaid’s Tale [is] unfolding in front of your very eyes.

“With any cultural change there is a push and a pushback. Trump has brought out a huge pushback that was originally against immigrants.

“Now it has shifted to being very misogynistic… you have not seen anything like this since the 17th century witch hunts, quite frankly.”

The Handmaid’s Tale

Essentially, then, the show offers a timely reminder that erosion of a fair society can happen shockingly quickly – and it is definitely worth a watch, for any and all who value their human rights.

The Handmaid’s Tale will be back under your eye – along with all of the original cast members (think Moss, Wiley, Strahovski, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd, Madeline Brewer, Amanda Brugel, O. T. Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Joseph Fiennes and more) – via Channel 4 later this June.

Please note that this article was originally written in 2017 but has been updated throughout.

If you would like more information or support, visit Rape Crisis UK – or, alternatively, call 0808 802 9999 (usual opening times are noon – 2.30pm and 7 – 9.30pm any day of the year and also between 3 – 5.30pm on weekdays).

Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline, meanwhile, is free to call and available 24/7 on 0808 2000 247.

Images: George Kraychyk / Hulu

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