The Handmaid’s Tale is Weirdly Cheerful, and Imperfect, and Something You Should Watch
WTF is The Handmaid’s Tale?
The Handmaid’s Tale is Hulu’s attempt to get in on the premium TV game by adapting Margaret Atwood’s most famous novel. The series aired on Bravo in Canada, and you can also stream it on Crave TV.
Like the book, the TV series takes place in a dystopian future version of the United States, where most of the population has become infertile, and religious zealots have violently seized control of the country. The action takes place about five years after the takeover (which is relayed to us in flashbacks), and is filtered mostly through the point of view of Offred, a handmaid in the new order.
Handmaids are the last women capable of bearing children, and they’re forced to act as surrogates for wealthy couples. For reasons having to do with misogyny, they’re also forced to do this in the most invasive way possible, by having the world’s most unsexy three-way with the wealthy couple during a “ceremony” that takes place when they’re ovulating.
Other features of the religious dictatorship include: a rigid social class system, a secret agency that spies on everyone to see if they’re being religious enough, armed military guards who patrol the streets all the time, executing people in various horrifying ways, torture and mutilation, kangaroo courts, a brutal re-education centre, and no rights for women.
How the fuck is that cheerful, Katherine?
Watching The Handmaid’s Tale, I was reminded of that alternate ending to Get Out – the one where the black hero is wrongly convicted after he kills some white people in self defence – and the director’s explanation that he dropped that ending because, after everything that happened in the United States after he started to make that film, he felt like he needed to end on a more hopeful message.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a really dark book. Every time Offred starts to cling to some kind of hope that the dictatorship she lives in won’t destroy everything good in the world, her hopes are summarily crushed. The whole thing ends with her getting into a black van that might be coming to save her or might be coming to kill her, and we never know what happens. We never know of anyone who successfully escapes or rebels. We never see any real sign that the people who create this world regret what they’ve done.
The TV show is more uplifting than that. The first season still ends with Offred getting into the black van, but it follows her journey from being terrorized at the re-education centre to finding the courage to fight back against the system in small but meaningful ways. Her friend, Moira, eventually escapes to Canada, where she finds an entire nation of people willing to help her (which even I, as a Canadian, think is laying it on a bit thick). She eventually receives word that her husband, Luke, survived the attack on their family and has also escaped to safety. She gets confirmation that her daughter is still alive. She gradually starts to find a sense of solidarity and community with the other handmaids. She gives a weird speech about how they’re an army. The evil woman who runs the re-education centre is revealed to have some compassion. The evil woman Offred has to have a three-way with once a month is revealed, multiple times, to regret the role she played in bringing this new world about. Offred is eventually connected with a resistance movement that she is able to actually help.
I’m not mad about it, because, thinking about the state of the world right now, and the threat to women’s rights in the United States, I agree that it’s important to show people that there is hope – to show images of defiance and resilience and so on. But I also think part of the reason The Handmaid’s Tale, as a novel, has had the resonance it’s had, is because it portrays religious dictatorships as what they really are – the most crushingly awful way that anyone can ever live. And the final chapter of the book challenges us to stop being so tolerant of cultures that destroy the women living in them. It’s a very complicated, and controversial, and important message. And it has to be acknowledged that there’s a trade-off in the TV show between honouring that message and putting forth a new message that says, “You can survive these dark and troubled times.”
What’s it like as a TV show, though?
The writing is uneven, but the acting’s very good and a lot of the shots are pretty. The people who did casting for this show did a really superb job – the actors are such a perfect fit for each role that it’s hard to imagine swapping any of them out and having the same show. My favourite moment of the first season is Yvonne Strahovski’s delivery of the line, “What we do is so terribl—it’s so terribly hard.” My second favourite is watching Alexis Bledel act with her eyes while half of her face is covered by a surgical mask.
Story-wise, there are a few details that bother me. The tone whips back and forth between hopeful/defiant and unrelentingly dark in ways that sometimes seem realistic and sometimes seem misplaced. I cringed at the bad-ass slo-mo sequences where the handmaids walk in formation while Offred says, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches” and “If they didn’t want us to be an army, they shouldn’t have given us uniforms,” because I reject the idea that there’s anything bad-ass about being made to suffer for no reason.
I was also a little weirded out by how often the show leaned on traditional slave narratives – meaning, the narrative where free people get kidnapped and taken to a foreign land where a bunch of strangers take for granted that they’re inferior, and then, after experiencing a lot of violence, they learn to pretend they’re not as smart as they are while they plan to escape.
The Handmaid’s Tale draws on that narrative a lot. It even has one of the characters escape to Canada through an underground railroad of sorts. The reason it feels weird is partly because slavery is still strongly tied to racism in contemporary American culture, and it seems like using slave narratives to primarily explore white womens’ oppression (even though it’s real) risks being appropriation.
The other reason it’s weird is because the traditional slave narrative is describing a different situation than the one in The Handmaid’s Tale. The situation in The Handmaid’s Tale is not about transported people – it’s about people who were all living side by side in a totally different culture five years ago and seem to intermittently have amnesia about it. The wealthy women seem to believe that the handmaids are stupid and uneducated, but they must know that can’t be true. They, like the handmaids, were doctors and lawyers and professors just a little while ago.
Enslaving your neighbours is different from enslaving people you’ve literally never seen or heard of before. Enslaving people based on a social category you also belong to is different from enslaving them based on a social category you could never belong to. Each situation demands different psychological contortions, and I’m not sure those contortions are really teased out very much on screen. There’s a certain sense in which hatred is hatred no matter who it’s directed at, but hatred can also be expressed in different ways depending on the target’s relation to the hater. The Handmaid’s Tale is mostly focussed on misogyny – and homophobia, in so far as it’s a close cousin to misogyny – but doesn’t take an intersectional approach as far as race.
So, when you’re using a form of feminism that doesn’t see race and you’re using a slave narrative, things get weird.
Which means I recommend it with an asterisk
The Handmaid’s Tale is a well-acted, technically well-made TV show that’s saying something important about women’s rights and the need to proactively defend them from men who want to use religion as way to consolidate their power. It takes a stronger political stand than most shows on television and, for the most part, I personally agree with its politics.
Like every other show on TV, though, it isn’t perfect. It sometimes comes across as heavy handed, and it does a better job of examining some social problems than others. I spent most of this blog post focusing on things I didn’t like about the show, but I fully understand that the reason I’m even able to make those observations is because The Handmaid’s Tale already passed a bar that many shows don’t manage to pass, as far as offering meaningful social commentary such that someone can write a blog post criticizing it.
In other words, this is absolutely in the echelon of shows that Everyone Should Watch, but not because it’s perfect and amazing. We should watch it because it’s a show that has ideas, and those ideas are worth talking about, even if we don’t agree with all of them.