The Handmaid’s Tale is Reclaiming the Power of “Bitch”

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, the faux-Latin rallying cry in Margaret Atwood’s novel, gets a whole episode devoted to it in the TV series. But at the end of that episode, after learning that “don’t let the bastards grind you down” was nothing more than a schoolboy joke to the Commander, Offred silently rallies her fellow Handmaids with an appended version: “Nolite te bastardes carborondorum, bitches.” It’s a jarring line that, when I first heard it, took me entirely out of the emotional payoff of that episode. It felt too glib, too smug, too oddly anachronistic for a dystopian story; Vox called it “a rare false note.” It seemed as much of a misstep as the use of the peppy song (Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Perpetuum Mobile”) that backed it over the credits.

That was episode 4. The next time “bitch” is used at a key dramatic moment comes near the end of the season, when Moira shakes off her defeat to procure a dangerous package for Offred. This puzzle piece of Mayday’s larger plan comes with a note that signifies Moira’s return to the resistance: Praised be, bitch. Here’s your damn package. And suddenly, it all clicked.

No spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale season finale.

Handmaids’ position within society is coded into Gilead’s language. “Blessed be the fruit” is the greeting bestowed upon Handmaids, whether it be from their fellow red-robed slaves, Commanders, Wives, Aunts, Marthas, Guardians, Eyes, or visiting trade delegations. “May the Lord open” is the required response to that particular call. Other statements get a blanket “Praised be”—praised be that there is good weather, that a new baby has been born, that they are not laboring in the Colonies or hanging on the Wall. “Blessed are the…” is a favorite of Aunt Lydia’s, a perversion of the Beatitudes to fit whatever punishment or trauma of the moment with the disingenuous promise of a divine reward.

The TV series’ expansion of the novel’s world means that the number of scenes in which these stock phrases are uttered is increased tenfold. Whereas the book features Offred in a handful of encounters with Gilead’s power figures—a few Ceremonies, a single Salvaging, Birth Day, and Particicution each—the TV series features multiple reminders, some occurring in the same episode, of how much cause for praise there is. Of how blessed the Handmaids are, how selfless, how deserving of praise and admiration. And yet, this does not stop Commanders from raping them, Wives from imprisoning and abusing them, Aunts from indoctrinating and maiming them. The Handmaids are simultaneously raised up as Gilead’s most vital members of society and held down as its most disenfranchised.

The Handmaid's Tale bitches praised be language oppression

It’s a disturbing contradiction that comes to a head in “A Woman’s Place”: Offred must present herself to the Mexican trade delegation and lie about choosing this life, knowing that she will be punished if she diverges from Gilead’s script in any way. Though the ambassador attempts to engage Offred in direct conversation, the Handmaid is so accustomed to being treated as the lowest member of her household, speaking only when spoken to, that she automatically responds in the designated platitudes. Mrs. Castillo presses, emphasizing Offred’s “sacred position” and how “it’s an enormous sacrifice, what you’re doing.” Offred is unable to contradict her. When asked directly about whether or not she is happy having “chosen” such a difficult life, Offred pauses briefly, grinding her teeth against the truth, before finally responding, “I have found happiness, yes.”

Offred is tongue-tied talking to another woman—in this case, a potential ally or even savior—inquiring into the truth about her experiences because Gilead’s language has been drilled into her. She and the other Handmaids have been conditioned, through slaps and electric prods and whippings and maimings, to respond only to and only with variations on “praised be” and “blessed be,” to constantly praise their circumstances.

This is gaslighting.

The Handmaid's Tale review Aunt Lydia

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The silent flipside of the constant barrage of “praised be” is Why are you so ungrateful? It’s in Aunt Lydia’s first appearance in the series, a flashback in the pilot to her indoctrinating Handmaids in the early days of Gilead. Preaching on the “special plague” of infertility made worse by “dirty women’s” decisions to “murder babies,” Lydia directly contrasts the Handmaids with these women, raising up June and her fellow prisoners as being spared for a divine purpose:

[Y]ou are special girls. Fertility is a gift directly from God. He left you intact for a Biblical purpose. Like Bilhah served Rachel, you girls will serve the Leaders of the Faithful and their barren Wives. You will bear children for them. Oh! You are so lucky! So privileged!

The Handmaids repeat this language of being oh-so-fortunate, as when Ofglen wryly describes how she, “a carpet-munching gender traitor,” nonetheless wound up as a Handmaid: “I have two good ovaries. So they were kind enough to overlook my sinful past. Lucky me.” Even as sarcasm, it reinforces the mindset that they’re better off than working themselves to death in the Colonies.

“Praised be” is used 28 times in the series; it oversaturates nearly every conversation, to the point that it becomes oppressive white noise. The highest concentration of “praised be”s per episode occurs in “The Bridge”—chorused by the Handmaids as they gather to usher Janine to her next posting after successfully giving birth to a healthy baby. This after the excruciating ceremony in which Janine/Ofwarren has been forced to hand over her infant daughter to Commander Putnam and his Wife, as they read from Bible verses praising her for her supposed selflessness:

For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For, behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.
Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children. And they bowed themselves.
May the Lord now show you kindness and faithfulness, and I, too, will show you the same favor. The Lord bless thee, and keep thee.

Side note: Can we talk about the fact that the above passage is actually stitched together from a number of different Bible verses from separate books? There’s Luke 1:48 (which, by the way, is Mary proclaiming how blessed she was to be pregnant with Jesus), 2 Samuel 2:6, and Numbers 6:24. So, they can’t even pretend there’s some Biblical precedent like with the Rachel/Bilhah story. Taking a verse about Mary out of context and using it to justify the Handmaids is an especially ballsy move, though it doesn’t seem likely that any of the women, Handmaids or Wives, would know that the passage is fake.

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge"

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

“Praised be” erodes the women’s identities, sanding them down from complex, flawed creatures into (as Offred puts it) “walking wombs.” “Praised be” lies as heavy on them as the red cloaks, cuts them off from one another like the winged bonnets that block their peripheral vision. In the same way that they are trained to walk in lines, to chant the same phrases at Birth Days and Salvagings, any personhood is eclipsed by the uniformity of their station. No Handmaid is exceedingly smart, or witty enough to induce giggles, or a real pain to make small talk with, or prone to outbursts; they are blameless, and they are interchangeable.

Which is why it’s so radical when Handmaids call each other bitches.

Here in 2017, the pre-Gilead times of The Handmaid’s Tale, “bitch” is ubiquitous: Bad bitches. Boss bitches. Best bitches. Bitches get shit done. It’s a tender affection for the closest of friends and a curt, confrontational insult to a stranger; a way to both celebrate and dismiss other women. Thinkpieces argue both sides, that the word demeans women to the point that it makes it easier for men to do so, and that the word is so overused as to have lost its meaning. In Gilead, it’s almost certainly a forbidden word. There’s a fire behind “bitch,” the kind of anger that the Aunts discourage the Handmaids from holding on to, that they are allowed to sublimate only through the Salvagings and nowhere else. To be a bitch is to assert agency, positive or negative. The Wives consistently complain about their Handmaids, but they would never dare grant them the power of being called bitches; they’re “selfish girls,” “ungrateful girls,” a servant and a surrogate, but not a woman.

The Handmaid's Tale bitches praised be oppression language

When Offred proclaims “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches” at the end of episode 4, it’s both a call to arms and the moment in which Offred begins to see her peers as the unique, complex women they were before Gilead. A bitch is Ofglen/Emily, jumping behind the wheel of a car and running over an Eye’s head in the middle of the market. A bitch is the new Ofglen, cranky and self-serving, desperate to keep her cushy new lifestyle. A bitch is Janine escaping her new posting, kidnapping her daughter, and calling out Warren for his philandering and lies in front of everyone. It’s no mistake that Moira refers to Janine as “that crazy bitch” when she and June are reunited at Jezebels in episode 8. Janine is a crazy bitch—have we forgotten her psychotic break during the Particicution?—and that exchange says more about her personality than the useless words that Warren and his Wife heap upon her. To call a Handmaid a bitch is not reductive but revelatory.

The Handmaid's Tale bitches praised be oppression language

An episode later, June and Moira are moving one another to tears at their second reunion at Jezebels: June is pushing Moira to rebel, shaming her for giving up—being, frankly, a bitch—with Moira snapping back that she was doing just fine before June showed up. But June’s words jar Moira out of her paralysis, because by the end of “The Bridge” she’s smuggled out a package for the resistance and arranged to get it into June’s hands—along with a special note:

The Handmaid's Tale 1x09 "The Bridge" Moira package

After five episodes of Offred reframing her perspective of her fellow Handmaids, Moira’s message says I see you to June, recognizing that she also contains multitudes. The message—which is radical enough merely for being written by a woman—also specifically says fuck you to the notion of “praised be,” dismantling the system that oppresses Handmaids by making a mockery of one of its key phrases.

The bitches are back.

Natalie Zutter wrote this piece for all the bitches who get shit done. Talk The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 with her on Twitter!

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