THE HANDMAID'S TALE TERRIFIES ME, BUT I CAN'T STOP WATCHING IT
Whether you're a fan of speculative fiction, an in-your-face feminist (the best kind!), a career coach potato, or a combination of all three, Hulu's first narrative television series The Handmaid's Tale, based on the 1985 dystopian novel of the same name by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, does not disappoint. Set in the not-so-distant future, the series depicts the fictional commonwealth of Gilead, a puritanical police state where women, stripped of basic human rights, live only to serve as the non consensual bearers of children for powerful men.
The story centers on Offred, one of several women of reproductive age who, in the wake of a string of mysterious ecological disasters that renders the majority of the country's men and women sterile, are forced into state-sanctioned sexual slavery for the sole purpose of procreation. The series' premise alone chills the bones, but as a feminist, watching Offred's story unfold across my television screen each Wednesday since its April 26th premiere has triggered in me a mixture of emotions, in particular, anxiety about the surreal state of our current presidential administration and its open hostility towards women, queer people, and people of color. The experience is painful, but it's also oddly satisfying. I'm uncomfortable, yet it feels familiar, and dare I say, necessary. The Handmaid's Tale terrifies me, and yet I can't stop watching it.
To be sure, Atwood's instinct to draw from actual historical events and previously enacted legislation adds a chilling authenticity to the show's original source material as well as the series. In an article for The New York Times, Atwood wrote that she wanted to create a world where "It could not happen here," a phrase oft invoked to disregard legitimate concerns of a tyrannical overthrow of government (and all too familiar in the Age of Trump), could not be depended on, and anything could happen anywhere given the circumstances. “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the 'nightmare' of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities," wrote Atwood. "God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.”
And neither Atwood - nor the series - shy away from depicting in excruciating detail the lived experiences of real women who walk through a world where gender discrimination is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and sexual violence is not only rife, it's expected. And in The Handmaid's Tale, violence takes many forms. From female genital mutilation to enactment of reproductive health policies that strip women of body autonomy to the implementation of faux feminist rhetoric to shame women into surrendering themselves, in the name of honorable sacrifice, to the service of tending to the needs of men at the cost of their own - The Handmaid's Tale tackles it all. But the issues the series and the novel on which it is based discuss extend well beyond women's rights as well, addressing a wide spectrum of feminist causes including LGBTQ rights, eco-feminism, and the militarization of police and the use of excessive force.
My friend once remarked that when it comes to media, I'm attracted to depressing stories about society's subjugation of women. "If it's sad and it's about women, you'll watch/read it," they joked. In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, that may be partially true. If audiences long to see themselves and their stories represented authentically on-screen, The Handmaid's Tale fulfills that need in me. Despite the extraordinary circumstances at the center of the story of which I have no personal experience (including, but not limited to, enslavement and repeated, ritualistic rape), as a feminist, I identify with Offred's feelings of fatigue, defeat, and anger in the face of her oppression. Watching The Handmaid's Tale, I feel less alone in my frustration at the characteristically slow nature of progress, and given the series' positive reception inside and outside the U.S., I am reminded of the social, political, and economic struggles of women around the world.
But one does need to be a feminist in order to appreciate the masterful storytelling on display throughout the series. The first three episodes, for example, directed by cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano (She photographed Beyoncé's music video series for Lemonade), feature tight close-ups of the actors' faces (and in particular, Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss), which capture every raised eyebrow, every flick of the eye, and every jaw clench - all the subtle ways in which human beings communicate without saying a word. And for handmaids in Gilead, for whom silence is mandated, such communication is critical to their own self-preservation and survival. For Morano to understand this and invite the audience to take part is a revelation.
Another stroke of genius? Morano's choice to use contemporary music to evoke nostalgia for a time gone by while still grounding the story in the now. From Simple Minds' Breakfast Club closer Don't You Forget About Me to Lesley Gore's feminist anthem You Don't Own Me to Blondie's pop-y Heart of Glass which underscores a peaceful protest turned deadly demonstration, Morano's thoughtful musical selections not only enhance the unfolding action, but tell their own separate story, too.
Most remarkable, too, are the various directors' handling of Offred's sexual assaults, inflicted by her master, known as The Commander, and facilitated by his wife, the complicit Serena Joy. In no way gratuitous and still profoundly disturbing, these scenes stand in stark contrast to other popular television series' depictions of rape which often exist only to provide motivation for poorly-written male characters, the horror of the act taken to extremes to satisfy this need and prop up a flimsy plot. In Gilead, rape is an everyday reality, and rather than fetishize the act for "entertainment", the series makers have incorporated it as a "normal" part of the world, a quiet approach that ultimately proves more unsettling than loud, graphic violence.
The Handmaid's Tale terrifies me, and I can't stop watching it - and I hope I'm not the only one. Because the series as well as the original text are not only art. They are tools of consciousness-raising activism. For women, for queer people, for people of color, for the poor and disenfranchised, allies, and the opposition, The Handmaid's Tale is exactly what we need to see. We must not look away.
Kitty Lindsay is a writer, theatre maker, and professional feminist. Publications include Ms. magazine, Ms. Blog, The Feminist Majority Foundation Blog, The Establishment, Los Angeles Review of Books, and TheatreIsEasy.com. She is a regular weekend contributor at Hello Giggles. She is also the creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists.