The Handmaid’s Tale Viewing Notes, Episodes 1-3

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The power of the Handmaid’s Tale is how perfectly believable it is. It’s a modern woman’s nightmare. Men (and certainly numerous women as well) like to think we’re in a post-racial and post-sexist society in the United States because everyone has equal rights on paper. However, regressives frequently challenge those rights in courts or through legislative gymnastics. Women made incredible strides this century to be sure, but modern women fear the recoil. After all, the first African American girl to attend a desegregated school is still alive today. She is only 62 years old. American women have held the right to vote for fewer than 100 years. Let that sink in. The men who wanted women to be voiceless raised an entire generation that is still alive and, in many cases, in power today. In fact, they whittle away at women’s reproductive agency and bodily autonomy every day at their jobs. Watching the Handmaid’s Tale while a woman (WHTwW) will surely be a buzzy health condition this month. I wonder how many right-wing viewers will miss the mark, though. “Isn’t it just the pits that women aren’t trusted to make their own bodily decisions?” an anti-choice viewer will muse to his or her neighbor.

In an emotionally grueling scene, one of the handmaids opens up about her horrific gang rape experience at school. Afterward, the other handmaids are forced (by threat of bodily harm) to shame her for “leading the boys on” and bringing the gang rape upon herself. In the Handmaid’s Tale, as in many real-life modern societal circles, women are unironically viewed as powerless and meek at the very same time that they’re thought to wield the all-powerful weapon of sex. From the show’s reception, these scenes clearly strike deep chords with women today. Rape victims are generally viewed as liars until proven raped in a court of law (see: nearly any case involving sports figures or celebrities ad nauseum), senators and congressmen argue whether pregnancies can biologically result from “legitimate rapes”, judges ask if victims bothered to move their butt around to avoid the penetration or if they kept their knees together, and even legislators go so far as to uphold rapists’ parental decision and visitation rights.

Still not convinced? Still think women’s closeness to this novel and mini-series is self-indulgent paranoia? Try playing Refinery29’s game, “Republican or Handmaid’s Tale” and see how well you do.

Another blogger delved into Atwood’s real-world influences for the novel that make it almost biographical:

“When Atwood was writing it in Berlin in 1984, she determined that she would put nothing into it that hadn’t already happened to women somewhere on earth. …. The novel has its origins in the 17th-century Puritans who settled in America, and in contemporary Afghanistan, and in Romania’s Decree 770, which dealt with a plummeting birth rate in the 1960s by outlawing contraception and abortion. That so many women feel so keenly attuned to it now demonstrates an acute awareness that the impulse to police women’s behavior and reproductive systems is as old as history itself.” – Sophie Gilbert for The Atlantic

Beyond the glaring premise of the show are other human rights atrocities that are just as believable. LGBTQ people gathered up and executed? Happening right now in Uganda, Russia, and Chechnya to name a few off the top of my head. And who can forget the ISIS video last year of a gay man being flung from a roof in execution. Female genital mutilation? Rampant in northern Africa and some parts of the middle east. Rape? No citations needed. These are common human rights crises happening at this very moment around the globe. One does not need a tinfoil hat to see the plausibility of American society’s downward spiral as illustrated by this television show. In the story, all it took was desperation and fear. One gruesome, alleged terrorist attack, and the bible belt handed the reigns of governance over to martial law. Welp, have you watched Fox News yet today? Its viewers are frothing at the mouth to do just that and support every idea that reroutes funding from critical services to the ever fattening military industrial complex (while inexplicably fighting for the right to stockpile guns in case a tyrannical government turns on them?) And did the show’s march for women’s rights remind you of a certain Women’s March on Washington in defense of women’s healthcare (among many other issues)? It’s startling to think that this scene was likely written and filmed long before our real march occurred. Yet, here we are.

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Front and center to the show are the women of privilege–the military wives–who seem to help enforce the new social constructs and keep select women enslaved. We hate them at first as we view the plot through a lens of the “have everything”s versus the “have none”s. Almost as soon as we begin watching, though, we see that many of the privileges the wives enjoy are barely that, as they still cannot work, own property, or have their own money. We’re also led to believe they may not have chosen their husbands and that all companionships are assigned. Take Mrs. Waterford. She looks pristine and clean at all times: hair, makeup, dress, high heels while she walks around the house. Her husband is out of town, yet she must still don her uniform of the privileged woman. She may visit friends that day, but that is the totality of her freedoms. She can’t even enter her husband’s study in their home. Privileges are thrown at these military wives like bones–nice homes, macarons and ice cream, fancy clothes–but bones are all they are. And these women, desperate to maintain what little status and few privileges they have, will do anything to keep them, including keep slaves. In this same way, the Handmaid program’s leader, Aunt Lydia, takes delight in lesbian Ofglen’s court-ordered “reformation”, a genital mutilation to remove sexual arousal for the wrong gender. Aunt Lydia rose to power for her pious devotion to conveniently cherry-picked dogma that supports the current powers, and she won’t abide women whose positions (or very existence, in Ofglen’s case) challenge her. This show does an incredible job of including the reactionary ways in which women help to uphold patriarchy and the ways in which women’s complicity are integral to its continued existence. It would have been easy and safe to focus on the male over female power structure in this adaptation, but that would not have been entirely true to Atwood’s tale nor to the reality of patriarchal structures.

When I was reading reaction blogs today, a piece in The Atlantic echoed my thoughts on this topic:

“The complicity of many wealthy women in the tyranny of Gilead is another aspect of the show that sharpens its topical relevance, particularly after an election in which a majority of white women voted against a female president. But casting women as co-oppressors in the novel, Atwood told me, was merely another way of remixing history. ‘They’re the roles that women have always played,’ she said. If someone were creating Gilead from scratch, she said, the most intuitive thing to do would be to enlist women in the policing of it, offering them limited power over other women. ‘There are always takers for that.'” – Sophie Gilbert for The Atlantic

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In the same way women are antagonists, the show is also careful to include men in an ally role. In the women’s march scene, men are gunned down on the front lines alongside the women, and of course we start the show with Offred’s husband dying in order to give his wife and daughter a running shot at reaching Canada. This inclusion is, of course, great on its own. But every now and then, it did make me laugh out loud. For example, while taking notice of men during the march scene I had the simultaneous thought, “this is to placate the MRAs who will surely frame this show as us versus them, anti-men propaganda.” If it had been a few men included in the march scene, I would have smiled at the simple inclusion and moved on. But, it was a gratuitous, slow motion homage to men at the women’s march. It even looked like a 50/50 gender split. It was as if the episode director was shouting preemptively, “See? We KNOOOOW #notallmen, you guys. We get it. Just look at all the men we put in this protest scene for you!” See, I know they had to, and that annoys the living shit out of me. But, as I find myself saying a lot lately, “here we are.”

In conclusion, it is the law of the internet that comments on any post about feminism justify the need for feminism. And, where men can look at the entirety of human history and still have the absence of mind to find the Handmaid’s Tale (novel, movie, or Hulu miniseries)  “hysterical, criminally unerotic, and a symptom of the author’s misandry“, let these same rules apply.

About Marpoo

Purveyor of sass and unsubstantiated rhetoric. View all posts by Marpoo

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