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What Makes a Dystopia

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According to Terri Chung’s Dystopian Literature Primer, we learn that a dystopia is a “futuristic, imagined universe in which oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control.” If we acknowledge, Hulu’s original series, The Handmaid’s Tale, we can come to conclusion that the type of dystopia being displayed is religious and bureaucratic control. Everyone in this society lives on by the standards within the bible. Men are superior and make every decision whereas women are objects, slaves, or housewives.

At the beginning of the first episode, we see the main character, June later named Offred, being separated from her daughter after attempting to flee from armed men. (“Offred” 00:01:15-00:04:30) In a different scene, we are introduced to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Waterford. We learn that there has been a plague of infertility where childbirth has decreased tremendously since the 1960s. This explains the idea of Handmaids. Handmaids are women who are fertile and trained by Aunts that it is their responsibility to make up for the plague of infertility. All underneath the word of God. They are taught bible scriptures almost as if to explain the brutal actions. This also explains the reason for the ceremonies involving the Commander, his mistress and the Handmaid of the house. Women dressed in blue, known as wives, are infertile and in order to have children, Commanders have sexual intercourse with their assigned Handmaid linked through the wife. Before the ceremony begins, the Commander reads a scripture from Genesis. (“Offred” 00:29:44 – 00:31:09) “And she said, behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” (King James Version, Genesis. 30.1).

Like many dystopias, Gilead uses violence and fear to keep its people in place. A characteristic of this dystopian world is the abidance of conformity. When the new group of women are seen walking into the Red Center, Janine is the only girl that misbehaves and acts out while Aunt Lydia speaks. As a result of this action, she is taken away and later at night brought back with her right eye plucked out. Moira quotes a verse from the bible and explains its meaning. (King James Version, Matthew. 5-29) “If my right eye offends thee, pluck it out.” (“Offred” 00:21:55-00:21:60) This verse could be used as it is and even taken literally as afterwards, Janine no longer misbehaves or acts out again, and fear is brought upon the other girls. Violence is primarily shown here to make other fear of rebelling against authorities or even disrespecting them in the slightest bit.

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Every person the audience is introduced to has a certain place in this society determined by the colors they wear. In our world, our social status is not shown by the colors we wear. We are judged by what we wear. For example, a homeless person in the city of Atlanta for the most part is seen in dirty, ripped clothing; mostly assumed to be at its lowest point and unstable. A person who wears designer clothing, looks clean and presentable can be judged as someone who is financially stable. A similar case relates to the people of Gilead. Wives wear blue and are known to be higher in society, married to high commanders whereas handmaids wear red and are treated less than others at times.

Another characteristic in this dystopia is dehumanization. This characteristic ranged from the Handmaids at the ceremonies to the bodies that hung in public by the wall. Women who are not Aunts or Wives are dehumanized by the regulations and rules they must follow. A Martha serves as a housekeeper. Although they do not seem to be treated as harsh as the Handmaids, they are still under Commanders. The Handmaids have their ears tagged like how cows are. The red tags could be in case they ever run away or pass up as anyone else other than a Handmaid, they are easily identified. Doctors, priests, and gay women no longer have a right to be as they are. In the first episode as the Handmaids go back home from shopping, they walk alongside the river home. Offred notices the buzzing of flies which mean something decaying is near in sight. We see the bodies of a doctor, a priest, and a ‘gender traitor” hang from beside the wall. (“Offred” 00:15:50-00:16:04) Dead bodies that are publicly displayed are signs of consequences and show what can be done to others if committed of a crime. This dehumanizes the men who are not commanders by taking away their right to practice. Citizens are constantly under surveillance. While out in public, we see various men who always carry weapons. Inside of the house, we know there is always an “Eye”, but no one identifies who it is or if there is one. If someone were to say anything, it would get reported before you know it and are brought upon a court of Commanders. This shows the constant surveillance within Gilead.

In conclusion, the types of control portrayed in The Handmaids Tale are religious and bureaucratic. Through the characteristics of conformity, surveillance, and dehumanization we see how this society associates itself with Terri Chung’s definition of a dystopia.

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What Makes a Dystopia. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 27, 2022, from
“What Makes a Dystopia.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
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