Hey readers, just a heads up that this piece includes discussions of sexual violence, both in fiction and reality. Some of you might want to save it for later.
I stopped watching The Handmaid’s Tale early in season two when June, or Offred, is caught attempting to escape Gilead. Caught again – and so close to freedom this time. Already on board an unsanctioned plane, about to cross the border into Canada, June is seized when plane and pilot are shot down during take-off. Even as I was sucked into the drama, gripping my boyfriend’s T-shirt and turning my face away from the screen, I was angry. The show refuses to let its hero escape – and refuses to kill her off – but dooms her to endlessly try. Each time, June ends up back in the Waterfords’ immaculate townhouse, and we return to the everyday horrors of Gilead: the ritualised rape, the groundless punishments, the lack of women’s rights. And for what? Why keep watching this play out in a contrived and senseless loop?
“It’s horrifying,” I say to my boyfriend at the end of the episode. Like I have said so many other words before. Disturbing, enraging, distressing – adjectives pouring clumsily and inadequately out of my mouth.
He murmurs some kind of assent in response.
“You don’t find it horrifying?” I press him.
“No,” he says.
“Because it’s not real.”
Many have written about the connection between Gilead, the nation originally created by Margaret Atwood in 1985 in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and the oppression of women today. In the increasingly infertile world of Atwood’s text and the subsequent television series, women function as mindless incubators, with no rights over their bodies and no voice of their own. I was moved to write this article when I woke up to two stories in my Guardian Morning Mail that could have come from Gilead: one on Marshae Jones, the woman in Alabama who was shot in the stomach and charged with the manslaughter of the five-month old foetus she was carrying. And the other on Paul Batchelor, charged with rape but found not guilty because the “combative” woman on the stand had most likely wanted rough sex. Those who know better can sentence – and consent for – women in our world too.
June’s tale is, of course, fiction; offscreen, women are not suffering in the precise and intricately conceived ways the series depicts. But does the dystopian nature of The Handmaid’s Tale make manifest the gender violence that women do experience? Or does it make such horrors palatable, easily dismissed through metaphor and detachment, treated as fodder for dress-up parties (thank you, Kylie Jenner) and thrilling entertainment?
The Handmaid’s Tale is simply one example in a larger debate on gratuitous sexual violence in award-winning television. Series such as Game of Thrones, Westworld, and a string of crime dramas have received significant flack for their use of rape as plot device and their titillating brutalisation of women on screen. But where the criticism so often lies in the portrayal of one-dimensional and expendable women, as in the crime genre’s use of the Beautiful Dead Girl trope, series like The Handmaid’s Tale directs this abuse towards its female protagonists, complete with agency and voice. The ‘realness’, then, of the women and of the sexual violence, is not in itself enough to make such depictions necessary or even worthwhile; there needs to be some hint of resolution or escape. Where The Handmaid’s Tale incites such anger, and where it stands alone, is in the very role of the handmaid as victim. The series will not let June out of Gilead because she cannot exist outside her abuse; her character arc is not sustained without it.
The series will not let June out of Gilead because she cannot exist outside her abuse; her character arc is not sustained without it.
My boyfriend and I thought we would give The Handmaid’s Tale another shot when we finished (re)watching all seven seasons of The West Wing. The series stepped in as our go-to for cosy nights in, accompanied by TV snacks. I nibbled on chocolate as women were raped and mutilated, as “gender traitors” were hung on the wall and non-conformists were sent to “colonies” to mine radioactive material. We inhaled the episodes, gorging on the excitement, consuming their distinctive beauty.
We settle down to season two on a laptop in Istanbul. After spending our days snapping pictures of cats, drinking coffee and eating falafels, in the evenings we collapse into the couch to escape the lingering heat. As ever, the beauty of the series is striking. We watch as the handmaids’ emblematic red robes swish silently across the snow, hitting the white like blood, raw skin and anger. From above, their bowed heads weave single-file through the trees while the grey tendrils of the branches spread like stars. In perfect symmetry, the women surround a circle of tombs holding casualties from when one of their number, Ofglen, bombed a gathering of commanders, hoping to take down the bastards in charge.
As season two, and then season three, progresses, The Handmaid’s Tale moves outside the closed loop of June’s capture-escape-capture to focus on others’ stories. Finally, those with power begin to reveal discomfort at the misogynistic and violent system that they themselves have put in place. The questions the series asks become more interesting – what is such a world for its creators? And what insight can we gain from considering the ordinary people complicit in, if not responsible for, horrific acts? Perhaps the most interesting of these is Serena Joy, wife of the powerful yet credulous Commander Fred Waterford. Once outspoken proponent of Gilead’s ideals, she experiences her own helplessness as a woman under Gilead rule and falls brilliantly apart.
In one particularly nauseating scene, Serena and Fred hold June down on the bed while she yells and resists. Desperate for a child through their handmaid, the Waterfords do what they believe is necessary, trying to initiate June’s labour ‘the natural way’ against her will. “It’s horrifying,” I say to my boyfriend again, needing to express my repulsion in order to keep watching. I enjoy drinking my glass of rosé in front of the screen but feel sheepish for doing so – as though it’s disrespectful to these (unreal) women, or to their (real) plight. And I’m indignant at my boyfriend for feeling above this.
Finally, those with power begin to reveal discomfort at the misogynistic and violent system that they themselves have put in place. The questions the series asks become more interesting – what is such a world for its creators?
Last year, to much controversy, Germaine Greer proclaimed that it was women who sought and perpetuated the depiction of gender violence on screen. Referring to the first episode of the Scandinavian noir series The Bridge, Greer said that female fantasy fuelled such storytelling. While her argument was both unsubstantiated by evidence and outright bizarre (the woman in the episode is stoned to death – hardly an enticing fantasy for many), it made me wonder about a gendered element to the reception of sexual violence. Does a binary division of gender, as constructed by society and perpetuated by such cultural representations, equally impact our viewing experience? What does it mean that I feel physically ill while my boyfriend watches unperturbed?
Watching the rape scene makes me aware of some kind of deep-seated difference between me and the man beside me on the couch. For, despite individual exceptions, the series naturalises male authority and an accompanying monstrousness, while charging its women with the responsibility for resistance and change. Where Fred’s thrusts incite a visceral rage, it is Serena’s role in this rape that is most distressing; I keep waiting for her to round on her husband and side with June. Given that Gilead ultimately depends on gender distinction more than any division along class lines, the men have less reason to work to bring down their society. I crave an understanding between Serena and June because I don’t expect it from Fred (or from the remorseful Commander Lawrence, or even from June’s lover Nick) – and I don’t see it in my boyfriend.
Somehow, even though The Handmaid’s Tale paints many of its characters with nuance, going beyond their established roles of man and woman, good and bad, handmaid and Commander and wife, the sour taste of a fundamental and instinctive division remains. I recognise the culpability of women like Serena, but I still long for her to band together with June and ruthlessly destroy the men. Break the system, I want to shout, when Serena sets fire to her beautiful house. Let it all burn: the arched windows and perfect tiles, the tasteful nursery for the absent yet ever-central baby.
I crave an understanding between Serena and June because I don’t expect it from Fred – and I don’t see it in my boyfriend.
I’ve never been good at watching horror movies, even the ones that supposedly weren’t scary. “It’s so bad, it’s funny,” my friends would say, talking about the nineties films like I Know What You Did Last Summer that we’d seen growing up. I understand, intellectually, the flaws in filming, plot and dialogue that make such stories unbelievable, but I cannot help experiencing their horror at the same time. The Handmaid’s Tale takes us to this uneasy middle ground, caught between our emotions and examining the show with intent. Just as it lures us with an ostensibly instinctive gendered complicity, it reveals the terrifying society from which such feelings emerge. Over and over, wilfully and so successfully, the series arouses raw and basic emotion yet forces a critical and reflexive distance.
Gilead’s famous ‘Ceremonies’ – clinical and sacred efforts at conception whereby the handmaid lies between the wife’s legs to be raped by the husband – do not belong to any religion we know. The scenes are absurdly stylised, enacted in red and green dresses, in three-piece suits, and enhanced by mood lighting. But the cool detachment of the official event is, in the above scene, wrenched towards established representations of rape. The Handmaid’s Tale plays with the line between metaphor and reality, pushing us closer to Gilead and then further away. When Oflawrence waits for her Ceremony in the season two finale, the sinister ritual is interrupted with a burst of familiar pop music, Small Faces singing “it’s all too beautiful”. And on Serena’s trip to Canada, the stately green uniform of the wife is replaced with that of the regular thirty-something woman on her day off; donning jeans, blazer and ballet flats, she seamlessly enters our world. Language too jumps from old-fashioned and pious to bad-ass and contemporary: June’s retort “bite me” slices into the nonsensical aphorism “praise be”, a reminder that she is one of us.
I’ve fallen behind now, out of touch with where season three ended and actively avoiding spoilers online. From Istanbul I went to Paris, and my boyfriend to Buenos Aires. I find the episodes too stressful to watch on my own and, plus, I feel obliged to save them – as though they’re our little treat.
On a hot Wednesday night, I go to see writer Elif Shafak speak at Shakespeare and Co. In 2006, Shafak was put on trial in Turkey because her characters in The Bastard of Istanbul labelled the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 a genocide. She is at the famous Parisian bookshop for the release of her new book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which delves into the mind of sex worker Tequila Leila after she has been murdered and left in a dumpster in Istanbul. I quickly try to jot down the statistics Shafak gives to one of the questions from the audience. She says that in Turkey there are fifteen times more cases of gender violence than a decade ago (hopefully some of this is increased reporting rates), that one in three marriages involve a child bride, and that just months ago, legislators tried to pass a law to reduce sentences for rapists of minors should they agree to marry their victims. For all her terrible statistics, what Shafak finds most disheartening is the prevalence of censorship – the quashing of representations of gender violence, sexuality and abuse when such realities are everywhere. Is it then a privilege to watch or a privilege to turn away?
I understand, intellectually, the flaws in filming, plot and dialogue that make such stories unbelievable, but I cannot help experiencing their horror at the same time.
When I get home to Melbourne, the controversy over the bill to decriminalise abortion in NSW is in the news. Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce are on the attack, respectively calling abortion “infanticide on demand” and comparing the debate to that of slavery. In Australia, where the issue has never had the political toxicity that it does in the US, their protests seem bizarre; they have little support from the public and no hope of stopping the bill. What is scary, however, is how desperately they hold on. The arguments of the conservative right are ill-founded (there is no evidence that sex selection actually occurs, and late-term abortions are rare and never undertaken on a whim), but they offer a pretext for continuing to exert control over women.
The Handmaid’s Tale showcases this suppression of women’s rights. When watching the show, what I feel is a visceral and horrifying lack of control. And it’s true that the series sometimes takes this too far; relentlessly, and not always with purpose, it depicts female powerlessness before male entitlement, spurring fear and rage in its viewers. Still, it is worth examining where The Handmaid’s Tale misses the mark and why it gets carried away with its own horror. For whether the story is real or not is surely beside the point. What is important is that the series is real. It’s far more interesting, then, to consider what its presence now tells us about our society. Because it is here that The Handmaid’s Tale most concretely, and most urgently, enters our world – in the questions and debate it inspires. I think about this as I finish my pasta.
Frances Egan is a translator, writer, and teaching associate. She recently completed a PhD in French literature and translation at The University of Melbourne and the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow and various academic journals.
Cover image by Mark Schneider via Flickr, used under Creative Commons.