The Sweetness of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale: Sugar Is Not Salvation
When sugar is wielded as a tool of faux-compassion to oppress.
“Truly amazing, what people can get used to, as long as there are a few compensations.” – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Sugar. It’s a want, not a need, not as fundamental as the bread and fruits of the totalitarian faith-enforced Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a privilege to have and to give it.
It can be a treat of oppression when you feed it to a Handmaid.
In “Birth Day”, the Handmaids glance in envy at the colorful decorum of pastries primed for the consumption of the high-ranking Wives (“They pig out while we do all the work,” remarks one Handmaid). It would be easy to assume that Handmaids would covet a taste of that luxury.
At the urgings of her fellow Wives, Serena Joy passes the titular Handmaid, Offred/June, a macaron. After all, as Proverb 21:26 would say, “the righteous gives and does not hold back.”
In a theocracy that doesn’t take no for an answer, June accepts—complies—to Serena Joy’s benevolence and bites into the shell of the macaron. The Wives toss out condescending compliments, treating June like a trained puppy (“Aw, isn’t she well behaved!”) who had to earn that cookie. Then as June exits, the Wives’ reversion to nasty gossip is within her earshot.
In privacy, June spits out the ornamental cookie. By purging out the pink mashed-up vile, June has refused to swallow the Wives’ counterfeited piety.
In the domain of Gilead, these cookies are a status symbol laid out before the Handmaid’s eyes. Sugar is wielded by the higher powers, the hand that gives them momentary dog treats as a convenient bribery for subordinate behavior and fabricated evidence of the higher power’s benevolence in the faith-fevered Gilead. When they allotted that cookie, the Wives were not nourishing a Handmaid with morale or pleasures, but instead were feeding their own ego by dispensing one measly token of kindness. Talk about the inversion of the adage, “You don’t get a cookie for basic human decency.” I gave you a cookie, so it scores ME points for human decency (under his Eye).
Juxtaposed with June’s spit-out, the traumatized mentally-unstable Janine is a more enthusiastic receiver to the “givers” of Gilead. Janine is happy to get spoiled with ice cream as a reward for her successful childbirth, though it’s treated as a consolation comfort food with the knowledge that Janine’s newborn daughter had been stolen and claimed by the Wife. Janine’s sweet tooth would eventually be re-invoked by the authoritative Aunt Lydia to further sugarcoat Janine’s situation.
Despite their contrasts in class status, what the upper-ranked Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia share in common is their brandishing of sugar to conciliate the lower-ranking Handmaids and placate their own conscience. Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia are not devoid of compassion or empathy. Serena Joy slips smidges of empathy for her Handmaid’s suffering and utters encouragements to June about her station in life. But like the cookie she bestowed, Serena Joy’s inspiration is obsolete in the face of June’s monthly ceremonial rape by Commander Waterford—which transpires in the Wife’s own lap—as well as her physical and emotional abuse of June.
In the recent “A Woman’s Place” episode, Aunt Lydia is dismayed when Serena Joy barred the disfigured Handmaids from participating in the elegant dinner with the Mexico trade ambassador. With insane Gilead moral logic, she even vouches for the eliminated Handmaids to Serena Joy, proclaiming, “Whatever punishment these girls had to endure was for the greater good. They deserve to be honored like everyone else.” Yeah, because you sanctioned these scar-inducing corporal punishments and extractions of their body parts in the first place, yet you managed to convince yourself that these “sacrifices” were voluntary on the victims’ part.
Realizing she has been booted out of the party due to her one eye, Janine cries out, “No fair!”
Aunt Lydia finds the shunning of Janine unfair, yet she preaches, “Sometimes we have to do what is best for everyone, not what is fair.” So she “compensates.”
Aunt Lydia then commits her most shocking act (No, not with her literally electrifying taser.): She promises to save Janine a tray of dessert and kisses the Handmaid on the forehead, the motion of an affectionate aunt. Actress Ann Dowd exerts such straight-faced sincerity that we don’t doubt Aunt Lydia will make good in that promise, 100% cross-my-heart-hope-to-die genuine in her grace. It’s the sweetest thing this taser-wielding, baton-beating Aunt has ever done and it assuages Janine enough to smile and walk away.
It’s also Aunt Lydia’s most bloodless yet gruesome deed. When Janine accepts the Aunt’s barter of dessert, she concedes her exclusion, making way for injustice to win the day and perpetuate in Gilead. Once again, Aunt Lydia has restored order to the land of her God.
By the end of “A Woman’s Place”, sugar resurfaces, planted visually between the helpless June and yet another unhelpful powerful woman who also possesses sugar. The ambassador passes June a can of Mexican chocolates to commend her for her work of bearing children, only to learn from June’s mouth, no, despite her answers in the Commander’s room, June is not happy in Gilead and her station was not voluntary. The ambassador listens somberly, pity materializing in her façade at this exposed tale, before replying that she cannot help June, a major letdown considering the ambassador’s powerful position.
By rebuking “What you going to trade us for? Fucking chocolate?” June deliberately draws a connection between the “gift” of sweets and its role in the systematic reductive dehumanization around Gilead. The chocolate epitomizes the ambassador’s contemptible inaction co-existing with her authentic—yet unserviceable—sympathy. While it is difficult to parse the ambassador’s miscalculated facts-versus-rumor assessment of Gilead as a merry functional society throughout the episode, a fair interpretation would be that the ambassador only wanted to hear “I have found happiness” from a living-breathing Handmaid’s mouth to assuage her own culpability over trafficking Handmaids. So a Handmaid deserves chocolate but not be saved?
The gratification of sugar is short-term and ephemeral on the taste buds. Handmaids do not need sweets. They need solutions. The battered Janine receives sweets because it’s one of the few existing alleviations still within reach. The dosage by the higher-ups, be it ice cream or a tray full of desserts, keeps Janine satiated and sedated into enough docility to not disrupt Gilead’s order. June has the aptitude to disregard sweets in the name of Janine, the other Handmaids, and herself—because fleeting sweetness from their oppressors’ hands does not deliver salvation for the enslaved Handmaids.
Caroline Cao is a Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of Texas. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she enjoys acting in cheesy improv performances for BETA Theater, experimenting with ramen noodles, and hollering vocal flash fics on Instagram. She runs a blog with writing and scripting services and lends her voice to Birth.Movies.Death and The Script Lab. She’s also lurking in the shadows waiting for you to follow her on Twitter or Tumblr and read her Star Wars fanfiction.
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