Women in The Handmaid’s Tale: A Comprehensive Taxonomy (2023)

Women in The Handmaid’s Tale: A Comprehensive Taxonomy (1)
(Video) Women in The Handmaid’s Tale: A Comprehensive Taxonomy

The Handmaid’s Tale — an even darker timeline than real-life 2018 — returns with its second season tomorrow. As we prepare to reacquaint ourselves with TV’s foremost patriarchal dystopia, the Cut has created a handy taxonomy of all the possible roles for women in the totalitarian state of Gilead, based on source material from Margaret Atwood’s book and what we’ve seen so far in the show. All the options are bad, some are worse, yet each is uniquely awful in its own special way. Take a look:

The Wives

Women in The Handmaid’s Tale: A Comprehensive Taxonomy (2)

The Kellyannes and Ivankas of The Handmaid’s Tale, the blue-and-green-clad wives have it the best of all the women in Gilead, which is to say … still not great. They’re still completely subjugated by the patriarchy, and the ones who are infertile — not all are — are forced to watch their husbands have weekly sex with their Handmaids in hopes of bearing a child. As we learn in the series, the wives are women who are considered virtuous and pure by the standards of the regime; indeed, many of the wives were instrumental in bringing Gilead to fruition, such as Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who was a Phyllis Schafly–esque conservative activist before being pushed out of the regime.

The Aunts

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Another high-ranking group of women in Gilead, the aunts are true-believers tasked with indoctrinating the Handmaids into their new roles. Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), for example, is a Trunchbull-esque fundamentalist schoolmarm who presides over everything from Bible classes and births to amputations and stonings. (Dowd has said she based the role on her Catholic nun teachers). The Handmaids first meet the aunts at a place called The Red Center, a nightmare Bible Camp where questioning the Lord’s teachings can get one of your eyes plucked out in punishment. As Atwood explains in her book, though Gilead is a patriarchal society, it has some matriarchal enclaves, such as the “female control agency” run by the Aunts:

In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called ‘traditional values’ or for the benefits they might thereby acquire. When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting. There was, too, a negative inducement: childless or infertile or older women could take service in the Aunts and thereby escape redundancy, and consequent shipment to the infamous colonies.

The Econowives

Not yet seen in the show — but perhaps this season! — the Econowives are the wives of poorer and less powerful men, who wear multicolor striped robes to show that they don’t have specific functions: “they have to do everything; if they can.”

The Marthas

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The Marthas serve as domestic servants to the Wives, and are clad in dull grayish green. They are low-ranking, infertile women who cook, clean, and help take care of the ruling class’s offspring. As the costume designer told Vulture, the aesthetic she created for them is “domestic Russian communist meets Liz Taylor in the ’60s.”

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The Handmaids

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Essentially red-robed and bonnet-clad sex slaves, the Handmaids are fertile women who are assigned to high-ranking men in order to bear children for them. Handmaids are the property of their commanders and are given new names accordingly; June (Elisabeth Moss) belongs to commander Fred, hence the name Offred. Various environmental crises have left much of the population sterile, so these women occupy a special place in society, and their fertility makes them both special and uniquely degraded. They are raped by their commanders in regular ‘Ceremonies’ in order to bear children for the commanders and their wives to raise. If Handmaids fail to bear children, they are shipped off to do slave labor in the colonies.

The Unwomen

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While all of the above seem pretty dehumanizing, they are still considered “women” by Gilead’s strict gender laws. Below them are the “Unwomen,” women who cannot perform any of the female roles mandated by the patriarchy, so they are deemed less than human and sent off to the colonies — essentially a forced-labor camp — where they do tasks like burning dead bodies and cleaning toxic waste. (The “lucky” ones get to do agricultural work).

As summarized in Atwood’s book, the regime expects an Unwoman to survive “three years maximum” in the toxic radiation of the Colonies; after that, “your nose falls off and your skin pulls away like rubber gloves. They don’t bother to feed you much, or give you protective clothing or anything, it’s cheaper not to. Anyway, they’re mostly people they want to get rid of.” Nuns, lesbians, feminists, political dissidents, old women, and unsuccessful Handmaids are all deemed Unwomen. This season, we’ll follow the trials faced by Emily (Alexis Bledel, in the role she was born to play), who has been sent to the colonies after being an insubordinate Handmaid.

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The Jezebels

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These are sterile women who work as prostitutes serving Gilead’s high-ranking men in unofficially sanctioned brothels (the one in the show is located in an old hotel). They wear what are essentially the slutty Halloween costumes you wore in college, from retro cheerleader outfits to Playboy Bunny lingerie to vintage exercise gear. Frankly, this seems like Gilead’s least-bad situation for women: the Aunts have given up on them so they’re largely left to their own devices, and they get to drink and do drugs and have sex with each other. They also get face cream, because even totalitarian autocracies know the importance of skin care.

It’s not totally clear how you become a Jezebel, but in the book Offred’s commander suggests that these were women who couldn’t be “assimilated” into the regime but were still deemed fuckable, and thus receive the option of sex work instead of being sent to the colonies. Some were former prostitutes, others were sociologists and lawyers and business executives. Moira (Samira Wiley) is given the choice to become a Jezebel after her escape attempt. “You should figure out some way of getting in here,” she encourages Offred in the book. “You’d have three or four good years before your snatch wears out and they send you to the boneyard.”

But the best option by far? Escaping to Canada.

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Women in The Handmaid’s Tale: A Comprehensive Taxonomy


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