Warning: this article contains spoilers for episode three.
The Handmaid’s Tale is, without a doubt, one of the most heart-breaking, gripping and important shows on television at the moment – not least of all because the extreme scenes it depicts are inspired by horrifying real-life events from around the world.
The star-studded dystopian drama, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, tackles increasingly relevant and complex subjects, such as slut-shaming, abortion rights and rape. The show’s core message, however, is incredibly simple: women are autonomous human beings who deserve full control over their own bodies.
Which is why the third episode – and a blood-stained pair of knickers – resonated so deeply with audiences around the world.
Again, we’d like to stress that the rest of this article contains spoilers.
As we all know, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a near-future version of North America in which the Constitution has been overthrown. As a result of this, women’s rights and identities have been stripped away. As healthy birth rates have dropped sharply, women are placed into societal roles based on their fertility: fertile women not fortunate enough to be a member of the upper classes are forced into a life of surrogacy for those who are. These women are the handmaids of Gilead.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is one such handmaid – and her prescribed task, her only task, is to become pregnant and provide the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) with a healthy baby. And so, when everyone notices that she hasn’t requested any sanitary towels in the aptly-titled episode, Late, the entire household’s attitude towards her changes.
Offred is offered the chance to pay a visit to her friend and fellow Handmaid, Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer). She’s deemed capable enough to hold a newborn baby – one of the most precious commodities in Gilead. She’s fed a gorgeous breakfast, complete with a flower to gaze at as she eats. Serena Joy speaks to her pleasantly, gently coaxing her into having her say on household matters. Domestic servant Rita (Amanda Brugel) loses her gruff demeanour and smiles at her all morning long.
In short, she’s finally treated like what she is: an autonomous human being, with thoughts, and feelings and opinions of her own.
But then, towards the end of the episode, we see Offred sitting alone in her bare little bedroom, clutching a scrap of material in her hands.
“No ice cream for me this time,” she says lightly, as the camera zooms in on her blood-stained underwear.
The significance of the episode’s title is obvious: Offred’s period has arrived just a few days late. She’s not pregnant. And now, because Gilead’s regime has made her period everyone’s business, she has to sit down and explain to Serena Joy that her monthly cycle has come... and face her wrath.
It’s a pivotal moment for the story, but is also important for the world of TV because menstruation is so rarely shown on screen – and even in a series such as this, tackling the topics it does, this scene very nearly didn’t make it.
Speaking to Elite Daily, showrunner Bruce Miller explained: “You know, anything that we all do – farting, going to the bathroom and eating – you never see. And all the things like blowing off people’s heads and space travel you see all the time.
“Normalcy is always difficult.”
Miller continued: “It doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But it was. Almost exclusively, the executives were like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to see that.’ But we did, and I was happy with the response that we got.
“It was exactly the things we needed to do. She’s not pregnant, she would never say, ‘Oh, I’m not pregnant.’ That’s what you would see.”
Exactly – and why shouldn’t we see them on screen?
In showing Offred’s daintily bloodied ‘period panties’ - a far cry from the messy realities experienced by women all over the world, granted - the show has struck a blow for women everywhere.
Because, while we've occasionally seen period blood on screen before (we're looking at you, Broad City), this is so much more than breaking with taboo: it’s reminding us how, when we allow men to dictate what we do with our bodies, our bodies can become everybody’s business. And, more importantly, this tiny red flag has helped The Handmaid’s Tale to reclaim menstruation as part of a woman’s story – and underline the fact that we are valuable and deserving of respect whether we’re pregnant or not.
As women’s rights activists Emily Kron and Kate Hopkins said: “We are bound by our bodies and by nature. When one of us bleeds, we all bleed. And so, we embrace our union and fight for our oneness.”
That spot of blood isn’t a surrender – not really. For Offred, it’s a small victory in a place where she has no power: this is the one thing about her body that nobody else can control.
She hates the way the Wives simper falsely over their pregnant handmaids, she knows full well that having a child only serves to further empower the Gileadean Commanders, and she isn’t prepared to surrender her womb or her body to them any further.
There’s also no denying that showing blood-stained underwear on screen is a fiery response to the likes of President Donald Trump, who – despite smiling as he signed an anti-abortion edict that bans women from even talking about their reproductive rights – can’t bring himself to say the word ‘period’, ‘tampon’, or ‘vagina’.
If he can’t deal with the realities of a woman’s reproductive system when it is, to coin a Gileadean phrase, ‘under his eye’, why should he have any say over it whatsoever?
Images: Hulu/Channel 4