Handmaid costumes / Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr
Blood, women’s suffering, and endless parallels with current events. I frequently ask myself why I’m watching The Handmaid’s Tale, internally, as I’m glued to the couch in shock. I consider myself relatively desensitised to violence in films (thank you, Hollywood), but season two included moments where I have physically shielded my eyes in horror.
The show is well-made, but painful to watch. Everything that plays out is recognisable, not in a vague way, but because it has happened recently. Give me a week of newspapers, and I could find you parallels for most of the key events in the series. Season two makes these references overt, with June’s flashbacks mirroring current events.
Margaret Atwood wrote the novel in the 1980s, when the world was steadily leaving behind outmoded ideas about women’s rights. The setting was an abstract, speculative future. The TV series takes place now, and the speculative future is the next decade. Transplanted into a modern context, with Gilead rising within the structures already present in our society, the series hits close to home. Sometimes, too close to home.
The show is intentionally bleak; it’s a story of June’s endurance and survival rather than an uprising or rebellion. The premise is total control of reproduction and women. That idea has always been terrifying. So why does it seem especially relevant right now?
The reasons are more than rapid ideological changes at the hands of world leaders who seem intent on moving us back into the 20th century. Specifically, The Handmaid’s Tale seems real because women’s movements are revealing ugly backlash.
In the past month we’ve seen a terrorist attack from a man who believed he was owed sex. Reputable newspapers have published opinion pieces suggesting that sex (and therefore women’s bodies) can be redistributed like commodities. Perpetrators of workplace sexual violence are still avoiding prosecution. Even within the feminist movement itself, women are excluding trans women based on their reproductive organs.
Women are not a commodity. Reproduction is not the basis of our existence. Men have nothing to reclaim because equality has not been achieved. The Handmaid’s Tale explores what happens when all of these basic moral truths about women are ignored. It’s a cautionary tale of “What if the worst happened?”
The pain of The Handmaid’s Tale could be educational. As a rare, direct portrayal of the women’s suffering, it is effective. But a lot of the time, as an audience member who is already convinced that there are a lot of things wrong with our world today, viewing is depressing. The bleak arc of the series seems to suggest that there is no power in women’s movements today. The images of incredible suffering could be a motivator to ensure a Gilead-like future never takes hold, but they are also a bleak reminder that all of our efforts could be futile.
The brevity of the book made it bearable. But in an extended format, where the creators of the TV show have moved away from the original plot and created their own narrative, that pain stretches on indefinitely.
For all those flaws, I can’t stop watching the series. It’s difficult, and maybe masochistic, to watch an exaggerated version of the war against women. But maybe, if one person watches a horrific incident of victim-blaming and never again asks “What was she wearing?”, the pain will be worth it.
I’m just not sure that the largely feminist audience of The Handmaid’s Tale should watch a drawn-out portrayal of women’s oppression without a revolutionary hope in sight.Support Villainesse