9 Things You Need to Know Before Your Teen Watches The Handmaid's Tale

If you thought 13 Reasons Why was the only show you'd have to carefully discuss with your child, you might want to cancel your family's Hulu subscription.

While the hit Netflix show covered such dark topics as bullying, sexual assault, depression, and suicide, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is quickly becoming the new series to worry parents. The show — which forecasts a dystopian future plagued with infertility in which women who can bear children are stripped of their rights and enslaved — might not seem like teen fare, but it's actually based on a 1985 book by Margaret Atwood that has been a prominent fixture on many high school reading lists . . . and which has seen a resurgence in readership since the presidential election.

If your kid has shown an interest in seeing the book brought to life on the small screen, there are several things you should know first.

  1. The show hits on the current political climate of our nation. In both the book and TV adaptation, the US is overthrown by a group of religious fundamentalists, who form a theocracy called the Republic of Gilead. In this new nation, fears of terrorism are stoked and the rights of certain classes of people — namely women and gay people — are stripped. They aren't allowed to work, vote, or even read. To many liberal critics, it's a cautionary tale for America in 2017. In early episodes, there are flashback scenes to women's rights marches and protests that feel almost documentary-like in tone. Still, when the trailer for the Hulu series first aired, conservative groups commented that they thought it was an anti-Donald Trump show. Depending on the political leanings of your household, certain plot points (for instance, those surrounding reproductive rights) will likely bring up questions from your child about what's right and wrong.
  2. Biblical references abound. It's fair to say that those running Gilead impose an extreme interpretation of the Bible on its society, and while some might deem the show anti-Christian, it's generally interpreted as being antifundamentalism. Still, if you follow a Christian faith, you'll certainly notice familiar references and jargon that you might have to put in context. A benign example? Domestic servants in The Handmaid's Tale are called Marthas, a word which comes from scripture about a woman named Martha who helped her sister Mary following the birth of Jesus. Also: the Old Testament story about Jacob and his barren wife, Rachel, is taken quite literally, and the spy-like military "Eyes" are akin to the eyes of God, always watching.
  3. There's explicit violence and suicide. In addition to implicit references (blood-stained walls), sweeping scenes show hangings, beatings, and torture.
  1. There are complicated rape scenes. What might make rape scenes in The Handmaid's Tale particularly confusing for younger viewers is that they don't fall in line with what many teens understand about rape and sexual assault today. Because the handmaids — women forced into a cult-like group who, every month, participate in a government-sanctioned procreation "ceremony" to eventually give birth to a healthy baby for their designated family — don't fight back or say "no" when they are engaging in sex, it might seem consensual. But they are still prisoners held against their will, and it's worth explaining the distinctions.
  2. In an early episode, there is also the implication of female genital mutilation. It's a deeply disturbing yet subtle reference which most teens might not pick up on. Use your discretion on whether it's something they are ready to discuss.
  3. There's strong language. Profanity might be the least of your concerns at this point, but it's worth noting that R-rated words are used repeatedly throughout the series.
  4. It opens the door to conversations about women's equality and what's at stake. Whether or not you have sons or daughters, it's worth reminding your kids that this is a work of fiction and that gender roles, while they exist, do not mandate what they are able to achieve. Certain plot points can offer easy segues into discussions about the history of the civil rights movement and women's suffrage. It might be worthwhile to discuss that while The Handmaid's Tale isn't reality, there was a time when similar restrictions were enforced and how important it is to continue to fight for what is right.
  1. The series is going to veer from the book. If you're clutching a copy of the book as a reference or if your child was a devoted reader, prepare for some surprises. Although the tone and scope of this fictional universe is accurately brought to life, the story is evolving in new ways each week. The series has already breezed through certain events in the novel (there's an early scene in which the handmaids kill a rapist that actually doesn't appear until the final chapters of the book), and a lot of the characters' former lives are depicted in ways the book doesn't detail. The show is also renewed for an additional season, which means the story may continue on past where the book ends.
  2. It might become part of your child's curriculum. In the 1990s, the book became a popular inclusion on many an English syllabus, and backlash inevitably followed with parents and advocacy groups challenging its merits. In fact, it's now considered one of the most banned books in American high schools. With the timing of the series alongside tense national discourse, it's worth finding out if your kid's school plans to discuss the work, and how.