This story contains spoilers for episodes 1-3 of The Handmaid’s Tale.
A triumphant moment in Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale comes at the close of the first episode when Offred reveals her real name. As episode endings go, it doesn’t get much stronger than this: a clear mission statement for the main character, coupled with a reveal 30 years in the making. And as the credits role, Lesley Gore’s classic feminist anthem You Don’t Own Me plays.
“I intend to survive…My name is June.”
With those words, Elisabeth Moss puts decades of speculation to rest. Fans and critics alike have cited a passage in the original text taking place in the Red Center listing several Handmaids’ names as a possible source of Offred’s name. Since the book is a diary of sorts, the idea is that she slyly included her own along with the others. Through process of elimination, June became the frontrunner. Although Margaret Atwood has denied that she had the intention at the time, her involvement in the show and the selection of June certainly suggests that this is retroactively cannon for the book as well.
Handmaids are quite literally named for the men who possess them: Offred for Commander Fred Waterford. Much like slaves, Handmaids’ names signify whose property they are. When Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen is removed for being a gender traitor, Offred asks her replacement where Ofglen is. The reply is simple yet unrelenting: “I am Ofglen.” Handmaids’ names do not belong to them, but rather remain with the posting, making them more like titles. But unlike titles, they do not bestow any place of honor or privilege on the bearer. On the contrary, during the third episode, we learn that underneath those names, the Handmaids have only numbers, much like many victims of the Holocaust.
The use of names to connote property is also reminiscent of a time when marriage was purely a financial transaction. A woman’s last name changed to signify that she ceased being her father’s property and became her husband’s. While times have certainly changed, we live in a world where bride kidnappings and forced marriage still occur, so it’s little wonder that the idea of changing one’s name rankles for some women.
For Handmaids, sharing their true names from before the Commanders of the Faithful rose to power is a kind of currency, a transgression that binds them to one another. At the Red Center they exchange real names, and later use them in secret at birth parties or the “Particicution” to keep tabs on one another. The tragedy of Ofglen’s departure is compounded when Offred realizes that since she doesn’t know Ofglen’s real name, it will be much harder to find her again.
In some ways, learning Offred’s name doesn’t change a thing – like when an old friend leaves a childhood nickname behind, I have to keep reminding myself what to call her. But in a world where being true to yourself is a triumph and sharing a secret can be deadly, I can’t help but feel honored that after all these years, June has finally entrusted us with her most closely guarded piece of herself.