Pop Culture
Sep 19, 2018, 06:28AM

The Muddled Message of The Handmaid's Tale

The hit Hulu show is a terrible rhetorical framework for discussions of modern politics.

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When the stardust settled at the Emmy Awards, one of the night’s big surprises was the massive snub of The Handmaid’s Tale, last year’s big winner for its first season. This year, the second season of Hulu’s dystopian feminist drama picked up 20 but came up empty in all the major categories, bested by Game of Thrones and The Crown. Some critics, and many fans, are crying foul. But maybe the Emmy snub is a case of the emperor’s new clothes (or the empress’s, in this case) finally exposed as a fraud. By the time the Emmy nominations came in on the heels of the Season 2 finale, more and more critical voices were breaking from the near-universal acclaim to point out the show’s serious problems with narrative and characterization.

Quality aside, The Handmaid’s Tale has been primarily a political phenomenon: a parable of Donald Trump’s America and anti-Trump “Resistance.” Unfortunately, the show’s artistic flaws are compounded by very bad politics: a mix of paranoia and self-congratulation that panders to the anxieties of the audience while letting it bask in the glow of fictional martyrdom. If that glow is wearing off, so much the better.

The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel depicting a future in which the former United States (now Gilead) is ruled by a brutal Taliban-like theocracy and women are confined to domesticity or breeder slavery, began filming when Hillary Clinton was expected to become the country’s first female president. It began airing several months after a man widely regarded as an unrepentant misogynist won the election, partly due to the anti-abortion evangelical vote.

For many critics and pundits, the linkage was obvious. Countless articles praised the show as “timely,” “prescient,” and “scary because it’s true.” Co-star Yvonne Strahovski said it felt alarmingly “close to home” post-election. The red-and-white outfits of the “Handmaids,” the show’s breeder slaves for the ruling class, became a hit at protests.

The second season parlayed all this into deliberate, obvious, heavy-handed references to Trump-era issues. Assaults on the press? Check. (Hiding out at the now-abandoned offices of The Boston Globe after her escape, the heroine, Offred/June, discovers that it was the site of a massacre.) Brutish Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents? Check. (Only this time they’re a menace to people wanting to leave the country post-coup, not to ones trying to get in.) Muslim persecution? Check. (A kind working-class man who helps June hide turns out to be a secret Muslim; eventually, he is caught and hanged.) Campus culture wars and no-platforming? Check. (Serena Joy, the wife of Gilead commander Fred Waterford and herself an architect of the regime, is shown in a pre-Gilead flashback trying to give a campus lecture on traditional motherhood and getting shut down by students yelling things like “Fascist cunt.” Since this is not an especially unfair characterization in Joy’s case, one gets the disturbing feeling that the show is saying the students were right.)

Other parallels happened spontaneously: the parent-child separations at the U.S. border became a big story just as The Handmaid’s Tale focused on Gilead’s child-snatching, which prompted assertions that the show had become “too damn real” to watch.

Lost in all this political symbolism is the fact that, despite its excellent cast (Elizabeth Moss as June/Offred, Strahovski as Serena Joy, Joseph Fiennes as Fred, Samira Wiley as June’s friend Moira) and compelling visuals, the show is a narrative disaster. Atwood’s novel had its own credibility problems, but the Hulu series vastly magnifies them—especially in Season 2. June’s story endlessly spins its wheels, and arguably goes off the rails, so she can keep returning to the Waterfords and play out her tangled psychodrama with Serena Joy, Fred, and dreamy chauffeur/secret police agent Nick. Events that would seem to blow up the status quo—sometimes literally, as when a suicide bombing by a rebellious Handmaid takes out a good chunk of Gilead’s elite and leaves Fred Waterford badly injured—go nowhere as the show hits the reset button. Plot twists turn out to be plot devices.

The characterization is just as woeful. Fred—complex and quasi-sympathetic in the novel—is a boringly a one-dimensional, sleazy villain. Serena Joy, whom the show gives an interesting if not very plausible backstory, seesaws from sadism to sisterly warmth (rinse and repeat) and from uber-bitch to tragic woman on the verge of anti-patriarchal mutiny. Three episodes before the finale, she instigates and aids Fred’s violent rape of a heavily pregnant June, ostensibly to induce labor (it’s the Marquis de Sade school of obstetrics) but really to punish June for embarrassing her. Then the finale rolls around, and Serena Joy is a noble martyr to sisterhood. I get it that she was meant to be a conflicted character, but there’s a difference between “conflicted” and “multiple personality disorder.”

The show as a whole has its own multiple personality problem: it tries to balance patriarchal/totalitarian horror with feminist optimism and ends up with a muddle.

Following a girl power-heavy Season 1 finale, Season 2 started out on a grim and bleak note: June and other disobedient Handmaids put through a gruesome mock execution (which makes no sense since any of them could be pregnant and miscarry, and Gilead prizes babies above all things). June escapes but is recaptured moments from crossing the Canadian border, and is so badly broken by abuse that she becomes a passive, zombie-like shadow of herself. Two rebellious Handmaids end up in the “Colonies,” wasteland gulags where inmates have a short life cleaning up toxic waste with no protective gear.

But soon enough, we’re back on the girl-power track. June recovers after one episode. After a bunch of other Handmaids die in the same bombing that wipes out many Commanders, the Gilead regime realizes it has a shortage of fertile women, and so the Handmaids sent off to the Colonies are brought back, their fertility presumably undamaged by exposure to toxic waste. I feel like I’m losing IQ points just summarizing this.

But for some, the upbeat storyline works—and once again, it’s all because of “Trump’s America.” A Daily Beast hailed the relatively optimistic Season 2 finale as comforting for “progressives who have had more reason that ever to believe… that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ could become America’s reality under President Trump.”

To which I can only say: Come on. The notion that Trump’s America is slouching toward Gilead is a bit like the notion (once popular on the right) that Barack Obama’s America was careening toward the quasi-Soviet dystopia of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. That is to say, silly and out of touch with reality.

Gilead is, after all, a patriarchy so extreme it makes modern-day Saudi Arabia look moderate. Women, except for a few female enforcers (“Aunts”), are forbidden not only to hold jobs but to read and write, on pain of mutilation. Fertile women classified as sinners—single mothers, lesbians, women in second marriages—lose their children and are condemned to ritualized rape to produce babies for childless high-status couples. Dissent is ruthlessly suppressed.

So where are the parallels to modern America? Yes, the ideological shift on the Supreme Court means that Roe v. Wade, which protects abortion rights nationwide, could be overturned—though the probability of that is hotly disputed. But one can strongly support legal abortion—as I do—and recognize that abortion restrictions are not equivalent to women’s enslavement. Modern-day Poland with its harsh abortion laws is not Gilead (in fact, it outranks the U.S. on the United Nations gender equality index). And the fall of Roe would not mean a nationwide abortion ban but pitched political battles in some states and strong protections for abortion rights in many others—including Massachusetts, where most of The Handmaid’s Tale is set.

As for child-snatching and abusive immigration enforcement, these would-be parallels only highlight the shortcomings of The Handmaid’s Tale—at least as current-events commentary. In the reality of 2018, parent-child separations affect a specific population of unauthorized migrants and asylum-seekers; aggressive ICE tactics affect primarily the undocumented immigrant population, but sometimes also legal immigrants or even U.S. citizens of Hispanic background suspected of undocumented status. In The Handmaid’s Tale, such repressive measures are fictionalized as targeting middle-class, mostly white American women.

Tone-deafness on race and privilege has been one line of criticism often directed at The Handmaid’s Tale; while such critiques can amount to censorious demands for “woke” orthodoxy, in this instance the charge makes sense. But it still misses a basic issue: the fact that, despite feminism’s centrality to the “resistance,” the Trump administration’s very real assaults on civil and human rights and its thinly veiled bigotry are not directed primarily at women or based on gender. The primacy of female victimization on The Handmaid’s Tale is a self-aggrandizing fiction that ignores real-life victims.

The red capes and white bonnets are an eye-catching protest theme. But let’s face it, The Handmaid’s Tale is a terrible rhetorical framework for discussions of modern politics. It pushes paranoia and victimhood that looks absurd to anyone but a true believer. It also promotes the nasty idea that conservative women—including those who oppose abortion out of conviction—are deluded collaborators in their subjugation, like the women of Gilead’s elite. (Is the show telling us that if pro-life or traditionalist women aren’t stopped, they will help turn us all into chattels?) And it substitutes a dark but heroic fantasy of oppression for the much more mundane reality of Trump-era absurdities and abuses.

I don’t know if the show’s drubbing at the Emmys means that bien pensant America is over The Handmaid’s Tale. But, as the Handmaids know, there’s always hope.

  • I agree Season 2 was muddled. However Season 1 helped to avert the Trumpocalypse. Its influence should not be underestimated. There are 2 main fundamental problems with the show. First of all, the original novel was an excoriation of the Bible, but ironically they had to downplay that and redirect the animosity to Trump. Secondly, her captors were hot. Thus the show is actually utopian not dystopian and there was no good resolution.

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  • This shows that you can have a bad, meandering, confused dramatic series even if the characters aren't shown texting each other every two minutes.

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  • "...actually utopian not dystopian..." Yep. Stuff of fondest dreams. Self-flattery is the handmaiden of dystopian fiction.

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