During its two seasons The Handmaid’s Tale, the series created by Bruce Miller for streaming service Hulu, has become a sort of manifesto for the feminism connected to movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up. A quick look at its plot shows why.
In its dystopian world, inspired by Margaret Atwood 1985’s novel, infertility has reached a peak, and the fundamentalist cult that takes power in the US (renamed Gilead) decides to endow every powerful couple with a handmaid to provide offspring. This takes place through what is hypocritically called “the Ceremony”: a ritual rape in which the “commander” (the handmaids are given a sort of patronymic based on their name, so the protagonist is called “Of-Fred” or “Offred”) engages in intercourses with the handmaid. All this is in the presence of his legitimate partner, who is supposed to maintain eye contact with him while holding the handmaid’s hands. Soon we discover that, behind their pious surface, the commanders indulge in guilty pleasures like illicit sexual relations with the handmaids, or occasional escapades in the secret brothels where those women are kept. The critique of the regime, in other words, is in its hypocrisy, rather than its political aims.
The morbid and undercover sexuality of the commanders is compared to the consent-based and “natural” one of their opponents, as described by Meghan O’Keefe. This is shown by the moments in which Offred (Elizabeth Moss) remembers the sex she had with her previous husband, and the depiction of her relationship with an Eye, a secret spy in the Republic of Gilead, who becomes her ally. This juxtaposition between “perversion” and “nature” is the very position of the regime that the series outwardly condemns – and the same binary applies to biological parenthood, which Offred often uses as a weapon against her commander.
Moreover, the commanders’ sexuality is violent, humiliating and objectifying for the women, but it is also part of the spectacle offered(pun intended, by the show itself of course) to the viewer. In a sequence in season one in which Offred is brought to a brothel, we watch a typical makeover scene, where Offred transforms from her usual monastic handmaid’s outfit into a conventionally attractive woman – not dissimilar to Moss’ red carpet looks at the show’s many awards.
The strategy of condemning while titillating is nothing new in the media. It is precisely what happens in The Handmaid’s Tale, both when it comes to sex as when it comes to violence, as stated by Lisa Miller, who describes the series as traumatising and gratuitously painful. So why has a series that exploits the graphic depiction of abuse gained such popularity among supporters of the #MeToo movement? As Miller writes: ‘the reviewer Willa Paskin noted that watching season one made her feel “almost virtuous,” she wrote, “like diving into a winter ocean.” (…) Wanting to envelope myself in that virtuousness again, in solidarity with the women on screen, I continue to watch.’ Watching (and suffering) establishes a bond with the women on screen, one of closeness and identification with the victim. Such identification, though, has worrying implications.
The first is the paradoxical effect of reassuring the viewer, by giving no space to moral ambiguity. As in a gothic fairy tale, the heroes are good and the villains are evil, with no room for subtleties nor psychological depth. More importantly, the heroes are such in virtue of the coercion they experience, or of the agony they have to endure. As in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Calvary is the only path to redemption – and to the audience’s empathy and admiration. Despite her questionable choices and mistakes, we are always supposed to sympathise and identify with Offred to justify her flaws, due to the oppression she is experiencing. The problem with this is that it seems to confer a redemptive power on pain. The same pain is inflicted on the viewer from the sound, in which the whispering of the characters is set against the suffocating soundtrack, to the dark-blue/dark-red cinematography which underlines the oppression of the protagonist. The aim seems to be the visual mortification of the spectator in a typically puritan concept of guilt and redemption, which is expressed by the “virtuousness” to which writer Paskin refers.
These ideas of nature and pain are not the only problem. The series’ position towards nation and nationalism are more pronounced under Trump’s America. We’ve witnessed how intersectional feminist reactions to Trump have extended beyond simply rejecting female oppression – they address the way the US has used its democratic ideology to hide deep social, ethnic and racial cracks. But instead of the show unpicking the very democratic processes which liberals believe makes America “the greatest country in the world”, The Handmaid’s Talesuggests that “exported democracy” from Canada is the biggest hope for Gilead’s rebels, in what is a naive trust in international diplomacy and in patriotism (“stars and stripes forever, baby” plays the clandestine resistance’s radio).
All these aspects mean that the series is less an opposition, but rather a form of “reaction” to recent events. A reaction to media products that hide women or show them only as sexual objects, that demands of its female viewers to agree to watch this painful violence, because at least this violence is acknowledged. A reaction that demonstrates that time is indeed up for patriarchy. It highlights the reactionary character of a narrative that tries to condemn patriarchy, while still being mired in its puritan and nationalist ideology – and how much more radical the overthrow of such an ideology needs to be.