Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, The Handmaid’s Tale is hands down one of the most difficult shows to watch right now. It’s unapologetically dark, violent, and unflinching. Dystopia at its best. Or worst. However, as heart-wrenching and shocking as it can get, there is something so thrilling in its depiction of a world that’s not too out of reach if you ask me. In fact, many of the show’s painful moments are reminiscent of real events. So whether you’ve seen it or not, here are some of the most shocking moments on the show inspired by history.

Religious Extremists in Politics

Sons of Jacob

The entire premise of the show comes from the rise of religious extremists called the Sons of Jacob into power. They believe that cleansing the world from sin would restore the world back to God’s grace and solve the declining birth rate. This idea, according to Atwood, comes from the 17th century Puritans. In fact, many of the practices and attitudes towards women in Gilead come from Puritan beliefs, making women the inferior sex.

The Use of Handmaids


The rising fertility problems pushed the Sons of Jacob to use the few remaining fertile women as baby-making machines (against their will, obviously). This concept comes from a passage in the Old Testament, specifically the story of Rachel and Leah – two sisters married to Jacob. On the show, the handmaids get their training from a place called “The Rachel and Leah Center”.

Naming of Handmaids


In Gilead, Handmaids don’t even have their own names. They go by the names of the high-ranking commanders they serve. The main character June goes by “Offred” because she serves Fred Waterford. Strangely enough, Puritans did something similar, using bizarre names like “Humiliation”, “Sorry-for-sin”, “No-merit”, and yes, “Handmaid”.

Emily’s Mutilation For Being Gay

Emily's Surgery

After discovering Emily’s sexuality and affair with a Martha, Aunt Lydia punishes her through female genital mutilation. She can still have children, of course, since they can’t afford to lose a fertile woman. Horrific as it seems, FGM has been used as early as Ancient Rome to prevent female slaves from getting pregnant.

The Ceremony

The Ceremony

Every month, the handmaid is ritualistically raped in a *legal* ceremony that involves her lying between the wife’s legs with her own legs spread out while the commander does the deed. Again, this came from the Bible story where Rachel offered her handmaid to Jacob to conceive their child for them.

Giving Birth in Public


Handmaids give birth in a room full of other handmaids and wives as a form of ritual. In the 17th-18th centuries, royals also followed a similar custom, giving birth to a potential heir in front of their ladies-in-waiting, midwives, servants, and doctors.

Public Executions


One of the most painful deaths on the show was Eden’s and Isaac’s after getting caught having an affair. Instead of repenting, Eden recites the passage on love from the Bible as guardians throw them off into a pool with weights chained to them. The show’s *many* public executions were inspired by the Salem witch trials, specifically the story of Mary Webster, who may or may not be related to Atwood.

Underground Brothel


In a place claiming to rid the world of its sinful past, Gilead apparently has an underground prostitution ring. Of course, its clients are none other than the high-ranking officials themselves. In the 1930s, the state-regulated brothels for the morale of the Nazi soldiers.

The Colonies

The Colonies
THE HANDMAID’S TALE — “Unwomen” –Episode 202 — Offred adjusts to a new way of life. The arrival of an unexpected person disrupts the Colonies. A family is torn apart by the rise of Gilead. Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)

A sentence worse than death is the Colonies. Here, “unwomen” (lesbians, feminists, infertile women, etc.) clean the soil’s radiation day in and day out until they die. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union put up a labor camp, forcing prisoners to gather uranium for atomic bombs in mines with extremely high radiation levels.

Dress Codes By Rank

Dress Codes

In Gilead, each class has its own dress code. Commanders’ wives wear teal for subservience, while handmaids wear red for fertility and shame (probably like The Scarlet Letter). This is reminiscent of the Holocaust when prisoners wore stripes, stars, and triangles to represent their race and status. Puritan women also had to wear long dresses and head coverings, much like the Amish people today.

Physically Silencing Handmaids

Lip Sewing

Just when you think handmaids couldn’t have it any worse, season three gives us a glimpse of handmaids whose lips were literally and forcefully sewed shut. Lip sewing, in reality, is commonly done by refugees and asylum seekers as a form of protest.

Esther Keyes’ Marriage

Esther Keyes

The season four premiere broke Hulu records for good reason. It introduced us to Esther Keyes, a 14-year old wife to an elderly commander who had her raped by several commanders, guardians, and eyes in order to get her pregnant. Child marriage is heartbreakingly real and still happens today especially in parts of South Asia.

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