Originally published on TeenVogue.com
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She never meant to become a symbol of the feminist movement. But throughout her career, which began at the age of eight, Elisabeth Moss has repeatedly taken on iconic and inspiring female characters.
After roles in projects like Lucky Chances and The West Wing, the actress was cast as Peggy Olson, the ambitious advertising employee who rose from secretary to copy chief in the hit series Mad Men, and her face became synonymous with a certain feminist agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. Off-screen, the character was immortalized in quotes and GIFs as young-adult viewers of the series celebrated Peggy’s rise in advertising.
Elisabeth’s career path continued its feminist trajectory with her second appearance on Broadway, headlining the revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. Her performance as the titular unmarried career woman navigating turbulent times in a changing America while struggling to find her place in society was praised as “softy radiant” by the New York Times, and earned her a Tony nomination.
Two years later, Elisabeth is bringing another feminist icon to life: Offred, the narrator and heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale, the new Hulu series that premieres April 26. Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s classic novel of the same name, the show depicts a near-future dystopia in which totalitarian rule has been established in the United States — now called the Republic of Gilead — and euphemistically described as a “return to traditional values.” But these values have resulted in an almost complete loss of freedom and in women being treated as property that is “issued” to men.
Offred has been stripped of her name, job, husband, and child and now serves as a handmaid to a Commander — meaning her purpose is to bear a child that he and his wife will then raise as their own. The Biblical precedent Atwood once wrote, is the story of Jacob, his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their respective handmaids. Her protagonist’s issued name, Atwood explained, describes a man’s possession of her: Of-Fred. Outside of the monthly ceremony in which the Commander attempts to impregnate her, Offred’s life consists of walking to the market, visiting the doctor and sitting, alone. She is not permitted to chose her own food, clothing, or social interactions, and any personal, political, or academic stimulation is punishable by being sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste. If she does not produce a baby within the requisite amount of time, she will be declared an “Unwoman.”
First published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a film, opera, play, radio play, and a ballet, and the book’s sales skyrocketed following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. The series was written, green-lit, and in production before the 2016 election, but it has only grown more timely and relevant since November 8, with the news that the next president was a man who had bragged that he could “grab [women] by the pussy,” had been accused of harassment and sexual assault by more than 10 women, said women who have abortions should face “some form of punishment”, and reportedly referred to a female lawyer as “disgusting” when she asked for a break to pump breast milk.
“It was very weighted,” Elisabeth recalls of the day after the election, comparing the feeling to that of a funeral. “I was working with Joe [Joseph Fiennes] all day, who plays the Commander. We had to do a couple of really meaningful [scenes] — they would have been meaningful scenes regardless — and I can’t ignore the fact that they became more resonant and more meaningful on that particular day because of my personal feelings.”
In one such scene, the Commander explains to Offred the meaning of “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” “That was undeniably slightly more resonant and I definitely took it more personally that day for obvious reasons,” Elizabeth says.
Since Trump’s election, many have referred to The Handmaid’s Tale as a portrait of America’s future rather than a work of fiction, and at the Women’s March on Washington some protestors carried signs reading “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction again” and “The Handmaid’s Tale is NOT an Instruction Manual!” The story’s relevance has only increased since, with Trump’s reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule, an Oklahoma lawmaker’s description of pregnant women as “hosts,” and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, a man whose record on women’s issues was described by Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards as “disturbing.”
Despite the weight that The Handmaid’s Tale possesses in the current culture, and the impact of both Mad Men and The Heidi Chronicles, Elisabeth insists she does not deliberately seek out political or feminist works. What she does pursue, she said, is “great writing” and “complicated characters.” She had no idea that Peggy Olson would come to symbolize what she did, especially the now infamous image from the final season of Peggy triumphantly striding down the hallway toward her new office.
“It’s more the industry itself and the climate itself that I think is leaning toward shows or films that have female leads and strong female leads,” Elisabeth said. “I think when you have a strong female lead people naturally think ‘feminism.’ When really you’re just playing a woman who can be strong and badass and complicated. I think that’s kind of circumstantial for me. I just like playing women who have true-to-life characteristics. I think women can be both strong and vulnerable.”
Her performance in The Handmaid’s Tale clearly portrays Offred’s strength and vulnerability. Through flashbacks the viewers see the heroine attempt to flee the country with her daughter and watch her be dragged away by government officials. Her heartbreak, shown onscreen and narrated in voiceover that accompanies flashbacks of her life with her husband and child, is palpable.
After the regime’s rise, fertile women in Gilead are trapped in a facility where they are programmed for their new role producing children and repopulating a society where, thanks to environmental disasters, miscarriages and stillbirths are multiplying, if women are able to get pregnant at all. Group think and slut-shaming are drilled into their minds as the women are ordered to turn on each other. Stripped of their identities, they are forced to wear matching red gowns and white bonnets with wide wings that hide their faces. Interaction and even eye contact with members of the opposite sex is forbidden, and any sign of rebellion could result in the Eyes of the government throwing them in the back of a van and driving away. As the virtues of motherhood are extolled, the women are told, “You are so lucky. So privileged,” and assured, chillingly, “This will become ordinary.”
But it never does become ordinary for Offred, who, underneath her appearance of obedience, harbors rebellious thoughts, glimpses of which are visible in the jut of her chin or a momentary glare. Her thoughts are communicated in voiceover, as she informs the audience of her determination to survive as well as her longing for rebellion. A moment at the market inspires the thought, I don’t need oranges. I need to scream. I need to grab the nearest machine gun. And, in a moment of despair, she says, “I want to know what I did to deserve this.”
Knowledge and its value is emphasized in the trailer for the series, which opens with the statement, “I was asleep before.” Elisabeth enthusiastically notes that The Handmaid’s Tale could inspire people to wake up and be politically active.
“The fact that The Handmaid’s Tale is something people are finding relevant right now is great because for me it’s not so much about going on either side of the line,” she says. “It’s about speaking up about what you believe in. And it’s about waking up to your surroundings and waking up to what’s going on around you. That was something I really connected to when I read the script and when I re-read the book and when we were making the show, before anything happened in America. Before Trump won. Before all of that.”
“The idea of not sleeping, not being so glued to your phone that you never wake up and look around you and see what’s going on — that’s something I really connected to and I think is really important regardless,” she adds. “For me, that’s one of the messages of the show and I think that’s something that’s really important. I think what’s happening in the country right now as far as women speaking up and having a voice and rallying together and marching and voting and all of this fantastic stuff is exactly what we need to be doing.”
While Atwood’s book is certainly relevant for women, Elisabeth emphasized that its story applies to all humans. The first few episodes depict acts of violence against LGBTQ people and those who do not practice the Christian faith. It’s hard not to think of some of the headlines in the month since Trump took office.
“So many people think The Handmaid’s Tale is about women’s rights, and I sort of constantly am feeling the need to correct people because it’s about human rights. Nobody gets off easy in this world of Gilead unless you are part of a very, very specific, very small group of fundamentalists who have sort of taken the Bible and twisted it to their own needs, and it’s not even correct. It’s not even what it actually should be. [If you’re not a part of that group] then you’re out. And that includes gay people, that includes Jewish people, that includes women. There are very few people who are safe in Gilead. It’s very important people understand this is about human rights, not just women’s.”