By: Kate Lechtenberg
When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale at 17, I saw Offred’s story as a tragedy about what was taken from her: work, friends, family, love and books. It was about her lack of freedom and choice, and her small but profound efforts to choose and to act. I didn’t know at the time that readers’ freedom to read Margaret Atwood’s book had been challenged or banned since its publication, but it is ironically unsurprising that a book about freedom and choice would inspire some to want to limit readers’ freedom to choose to read it.
Atwood didn’t let me look away from the quiet horror of Offred’s life in Gilead. I was captivated by her memories and shocked but somehow steadied by Atwood’s precise, clear-eyed depiction of the most dystopian scenes: the Ceremony, the Salvaging. She made me face life’s challenges with eyes wide open: freedom, choice, faith, love. As I re-read the book and shared it with friends, family and students, I began to read Offred’s story as a challenge, not a tragedy.
Watching the Hulu adaptation 20 years later, I didn’t expect a second Gileadan woman’s story of freedom and choice to capture my thinking. But while watching season one (yes, season two is coming), it was Serena Joy, the commander’s wife, who challenged my thinking about the necessary dangers of freedom and choice.
A woman’s voice
The series revises and expands Serena’s backstory, giving her a history as a writer and one of the philosophical architects of Gilead’s theocracy. This Serena has written a book called A Woman’s Place, a conservative treatise that advocated traditional roles for women and men, featuring quotables like “never mistake a woman’s meekness for her weakness.”
Though Serena’s book and early ideas contributed to Gilead’s foundation, eventually male leaders — including her own husband — cut her off from the vehicles for expression that defined her: women are forbidden to read or write. When a visiting female Mexican ambassador asks Serena if she ever imagined a world in which women wouldn’t be able to read her book, Serena looks strained and says no, but then follows up with a pious response about the necessity of sacrifice.
Serena helped make the world that now keeps her and her fellow women prisoner. Or has she given away her freedom? Once a leader in the movement, at what point did she make the choice to submit her freedom of expression and her freedom to read? Was it a choice, or was it theft?
More than one kind of freedom?
“There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia muses in both the book and the series. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
But watching this Handmaid’s Tale made me think that any freedom given and not chosen is not real freedom. Yes, Serena birthed some of the foundational ideas of Gilead, but she did not choose the particular brand of freedom that the men who have shut her out of leadership have decided to give her and the other women in Gilead.
We are a society dying of choice, Atwood’s Aunt Lydia says. And maybe she has a point: Sometimes the sheer number of choices I have to make each day overwhelms me and I want someone to just tell me what to do. But that’s a trap: Giving into the censor’s choice to embrace the philosophy of “freedom from” means eliminating others’ choices and eliminating true freedom. Whether it’s shades of lipstick, pants or skirt, whether or whom to marry, or which book to read, freedom means confronting the necessary dangers of voice and choice. Freedom is not being silenced or protected.
All this is something Offred has taught me for 20 years, but hearing Serena’s story in Hulu’s adaptation made me glad that I chose to watch The Handmaid’s Tale. If you chose it too, I’d love to hear your reactions in the comments below.
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral student in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She is also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.