Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode Two: Birth Day

In case you weren't horrified enough by Offred, Birth Day opens with the commander once again raping Offred. Offred looks at the ceiling which reminds her of a car that she bought off of Craigslist. It all has a veneer of banality now because rape is now so much a part of Offred's life that it's scheduled.  Serena Joy is not pleased by how long the whole thing is taking to happen while for his part, the commander is clearly trying to concentrate enough to blow a nut. It's clearly not an erotic situation. 

What we still don't know is exactly how free the Commander is to refuse to participate in this ritualistic rape. If he isn't actually free, in some ways he is also a victim of the system. We do however learn that the Commander is free to break some rules when he invites Offred to his office one evening to play scrabble of all things.  This is absolutely thwarting the rules because a handmaiden is not allowed to be alone with her commander, nor is a woman allowed to enter his office. It seems a big risk to take just to engage in a game of scrabble.  Could it be that for all of the power he wields in part thanks to patriarchy, that he's just a lonely man searching for some meaning and some companionship? Offred plays the game well and learns that the Commander will be traveling in the next week as a payoff for being forced to entertain him and lose at scrabble. 

Offred and Offglen continue to establish their relationship. We learn that Offglen used to be a university professor and that the only reason she wasn't sent to the colonies is because she still has two functional ovaries. It seems that the government is willing to overlook her sinful life because of that.  It's a highlight of just how desperate the rulers of Gilead are for babies.  It's also telling that anything that takes a woman away from being a baby incubator is sinful.  A woman's so-called natural role is not to be educated or productive but to reproduce. 

Gilead now encompasses all but two of the former states, although they are still battling with the rebels to solidify their rule in some areas.  Offred and Offglen stop at the remains of a church. It seems that the government is busy tearing down Catholic cathedrals.  At this point we aren't informed if Catholicism is the only Christian denomination under attack; however, I cannot imagine any religion other than their twisted fundamentalist version being allowed. 

Offglen and Offred watch as a man is dragged away by the police.  Offglen suggests it's not bad for Offred to be relieved that it wasn't her that was snatched off the street. Given that Gilead publicly displays the bodies of those who they deem unfit, Offred's relief doesn't make her a coward. The handmaids are most certainly surviving in a state of fear with good reason. Everyone is being watched and there's simply no way to know for sure if anyone can be trusted. Nick warns Offred not to trust Offglen and in turn Offglen warns Offred not to trust Nick.  It does however seem that Nick's warning may have had more merit because one morning, Offglen is simply replaced with a new handmaiden. When Offred asks about Offglen, the handmaiden simply identifies as Offglen.  It seems that handmaidens are easily replaceable because they have no identity of their own. Because Handmaidens are possessions, no one cares if they've developed relationships which makes the drudgery and often times torturous lives easier to bare.  

The most chilling scenes of Birth Day involve Offwarren's labour.  Offred is informed that the birthmobile (yes, they used the term birthmobile) is there to pick her up. Given that getting pregnant is difficult and that only 1 and 5 children survive, labour and delivery have become huge community events. When Offred arrives, the first thing she notices is that there's a huge spread of food to celebrate the big event; the food however is not for the handmaidens. Offred comments internally on the ridiculousness of the food being for the wives when the handmaidens are the ones doing the actual work.  The wives actually have the nerve to surround the wife in charge of the labouring Offwarren, as she pretends to be in labour.  PRETENDS TO BE IN LABOUR. The woman pants and moans as though she is in pain and rubs her ever so flat stomach. At best, it's a simulacra of labour. Throughout the process, Serena Joy and Offred make eye contact many times and it's clear that Serena is filled with envy and rage.

Serena feelings are established a lot through flashback.  We are taken to see June in labour and when she arrives at the hospital with Luke, it's surrounded by praying people.  Clearly this is the start of the Gilead and their obsession with babies. Not long after June gives birth to Hannah, she visits the nursery to find that Hannah is the only baby which was born healthy, there are two others in ICU and the rest died.  One of those grieving mothers is Serena Joy and she is arrested after she tries to kidnap Hannah, claiming all the while that Hannah is her baby. I don't think it's an accident that June is now assigned as Serena Joy's handmaiden.

The wives of the commanders cannot reproduce for themselves and have status only through their marriage but that doesn't stop them from viewing the handmaidens as nothing incubators for their babies and somehow less than human, though they are capable of doing something that the wives cannot - get pregnant and give birth.  When Offred enters the room with the wives, they question her about why Offwarren's labour is taking so damn long and offer her a macaroon.  The wives debate whether she should have a cookie because "sugar isn't good for them". Serena finally hands Offred a cookie of which she takes the smallest bite, as the wives comment about how well mannered and well behaved Offred is. The wives speak about Offred as though they are talking about a dog.

Even as Offwarren is giving birth the Aunty speaks to her like she's a dog telling her what a good girl she is.  When the labour finally progresses to the point where it's time for Offwarren to push, Offwarren is placed in the birthing chair and the wife slips in behind her. Not even the moment of giving birth belongs to the Handmaiden.  As Offwarren struggles to push the child out of her womb, the wife moans, yells, and makes faces as though it's her body that's trying to push out a child. It's disgusting. When the baby girl is born healthy, the wife gets into bed and the baby is handed to her as a crying Offwarren is embraced by the other handmaidens.

To be clear, this is a child conceived from rape. Handmaidens aren't allowed to say no when it comes to the so-called ceremony.  When they do get pregnant, they struggle to give birth and not even that struggle is acknowledged because every step of the way the wives co-opt it and center themselves to somehow justify the regressive anti-woman structure that they are embracing for their own benefit. The wife names the baby Angel. Offwarren is only important in as far as she can deliver a healthy child. It's a stark reminder of the ways in which oppressive powers must convince members of marginalised groups to participate in their own oppression.  I don't even have the words for what they stole from Offwarren. I remember when I gave birth to my first child and my desperation for the doctors and nurses to hand me my baby. It was only minutes but it felt like hours.  I remember vividly the emotions that swept over me when he was finally in my arms.  In that moment, I felt Offwarren's pain and like her I wanted to cry. There are no words to describe the depth of what they took from Offwarren during her labour and delivery.

Offwarren doesn't actually see her daughter until the baby is brought to her to be fed. Despite all of the pretense of the wives, they are not mothers. Offwarren takes the time alone to tell Angel about her older brother Caleb and sing her Three Little Bird.

"Don't worry about a thing
'Cause every little thing gonna be alright
Singing' don't worry about a thing
'Cause every little thing gonna be alright
Rise up this mornin'
Smiled with the risin' sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin' sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Saying', (this is my message to you)
Singing' don't worry 'bout a thing
'Cause every little thing gonna be alright
Singing' don't worry (don't worry) 'bout a thing
'Cause every little thing gonna be alright"
It's a touching but sad moment because neither Offwarren or Angel are free because they are trapped in a system in which women are second class citizens. They are trapped by virtue of being born female in this world. This is the final lesson of this episode - there's no freedom for anyone.