The Handmaid’s Tale and the Aesthetics of Law.

Last month saw the return of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s haunting novel of the same name. The show reflects on life in Gilead, a dystopian society, where fertile women (‘the handmaids’) are forced into sexual and childbearing servitude as a response to a fertility crisis. Arguably the television series somewhat departs from the novel in a number of ways; for example it claims that Gilead is formerly part of the United States of America, and it provides flashbacks showing the former lives of the main characters. While some may argue that this further information, which has not been alluded to in the novel, ruins the isolating atmosphere which the novel creates, as the story is explicitly told from the main protagonist’s point of view, what it does do is offer extremely interesting context as to how the power of a totalitarian regime can take hold.


During the second episode of season 2, we see a flashback to a handmaid’s former life. We see Emily (known now as Oflgen in Gilead) attempt to flee to Canada with her wife, and their young son. Both her wife and son have Canadian passports, but Emily, an America, is told that she’ll now need a Canadian visa, despite the couple’s married status. When questioning this, Emily presents her marriage certificate, but she is told it’s not valid: “The document is no longer recognized, you are not married…it’s forbidden…forbidden by the law.” Emily responds by asking what law, to which the airport security agent replies “The law.”


When hearing this blunt response, I couldn’t help but think of Peter Goodrich’s pertinent article: “Specula Law: Image, Aesthetic and Common Law.” Within his article, Goodrich explores the ways in which the law attaches itself to individuals. He argues that the law’s use of images, as embedded within the text is key. These images are sealed within ‘the memory of law’, passed down through custom and tradition: “My point is that in the development of tradition, the text circulates as an image and the point of its effect is largely resident in that aesthetic quality rather than in its supposed rational content, for few ever read the law, none ever read all of it.” Essentially Goodrich is making the case that through law’s use of image as embedded in its very text, certain aesthetic qualities and feelings are left imprinted on law’s subjects. The law attaches itself to the subject’s soul, thus invoking general feelings and reaction to the very concept at law.


Within the example to hand, the security agent referred to ‘The law’- no specific legislation, or provision- he just alluded to certain pre-existing feelings society may have about what law represents. In my opinion, by uttering ‘The law’ in this way, he has conjured images of a powerful source of authority that cannot or must not be questioned. He conjured images relating to the violent side of law, as an institution which lays down rules which must be followed, even if this impedes on personal liberty. These pre-existing images of the law, which are wrapped up in its tradition can be seen as one source of law’s power and authority. These sentiments are felt throughout law’s subjects, and get carried forward through the rituals of the legal institution.


This wonderful example in popular culture only highlights the important work that studies into the aesthetic dimension of law does; it enables us to truly reflect on not only how we imagine the law, but also how the law imagines itself.


2 thoughts on “The Handmaid’s Tale and the Aesthetics of Law.

  1. rca22 says:

    Thank you for your comment- I absolutely agree that when looking at the law, it maintains its power through society deciding that it *has* power. This is what I was trying to convey (perhaps not as successfully as I wanted to) in my post.

    The security guard didn’t need to tell Emily specific provisions of the law, it was enough to say the law in general, because of the feelings of authority and force that are embedded within the abstract concept of law.

    I really appreciate your comment re: the marriage certificate- I hadn’t made the connections between an abstract idea, solidified through an object in this way- so thank you for that!

  2. ert6 says:

    This is most certainly a very interesting example in popular culture of the view of the law as a unified body as we discussed in the module. I also think it is an example of a man trying to belittle and outsmart a woman – he quite easily could have said “I don’t know” or quoted a particular statute, but instead of damaging his own ego opted to give a non-answer to the question and make the woman feel stupid.

    I also think that within the aesthetics of law comes a concept of the law being embodied within certain physical objects – in this case it would be the marriage certificate. The law is a representation of the very abstract and metaphysical concepts of right and wrong, yet somehow from this abstract body of rules we can imbue objects with legitimacy through those rules themselves. What makes this concept even more interesting is that a document can be legal in one place but not in another, yet all law can be thought of as acting from the same place of describing right and wrong, or verified and unverified. What exactly makes it more legitimate than if I were to say my hairbrush allows me access to Buckingham Palace? If everyone agreed to such a statement then it would, essentially have the same function as a law.

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