tv Is The Handmaid’s Tale Still Worth The Agony Of Watching It?
Hulu’s original series The Handmaid’s Tale is back for season 2, looking bloodier and more harrowing than ever. The series, based on Margaret Atwood’s freshly relevant 1985 novel, is set in a near-future dystopian country named Gilead, where widespread infertility has changed the political and social landscape. Fertile women are a commodity — dubbed “Handmaids,” and passed out like property to powerful families to be ritualistically raped and used as surrogate mothers. The entire society of Gilead seems to be built around propaganda and social control. Like so much science fiction, it’s meant to explore the possible end results of present developments, and to serve as a cautionary tale.
But what does this harrowing, oppressive drama really bring us? In the show, men are executed for possibly imagined crimes, but the show lingers the most on the suffering of women who are tortured, mutilated, or murdered for offenses as small as mocking a warden. It’s a show about systemic, fascistic control, and especially about the control and ownership of women’s bodies.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been widely lauded as an effective drama — it dominated at the 2017 Emmys, with wins for best Drama, Direction, Writing, and Lead and Supporting Actress — but as a group of women from The Verge’s culture section started discussing the series, it quickly became clear that some of us were outright avoiding the show, while others approached it with dread, morbid fascination, or resignation rather than any kind of pleasure. We decided to sit down and talk through how we feel about the show, and why we are or aren’t watching.
Spoilers for the first two episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale follow.
Tasha Robinson, Film / TV Editor: Here’s where I admit that I’ve never watched an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m a longtime fan of Margaret Atwood, and I’ve read virtually all her novels, including this one. I found the 1990 movie stylish, moving, and fascinating. But when this one started, I had a hard time fitting it in among all the other series and films I was trying to evaluate for work, and the more I heard about it (or edited other people’s pieces about it), the more wearying it sounded. We already live in a world where politicians who are embarrassingly ignorant about women’s basic reproductive biology are still trying to legally control it, among other things, by criminalizing miscarriage and forwarding fetal personhoodlaws. In a world so crowded with entertainment choices, I find it hard to imagine seeking out a show where the entire point seems to be exhaustively running down the ways in which an oppressive society could abuse women. Where are the rest of you with the series?
Laura Hudson, Culture Editor: I’m extremely tired. I recapped The Handmaid’s Tale at Vulture exhaustively during its first season, half in fury and half in terror about the election of Donald Trump. There was, at the time, something that felt cathartic about eviscerating a version of the future that felt more frighteningly plausible than ever before. It’s easy to dismiss The Handmaid’s Tale as fiction, when in all of the most important ways it is anything but; as Margaret Atwood herself has noted, there is “nothing in the book that didn’t happen, somewhere.” The horrors of Gilead are the same ones that countless cultures have inflicted on women, to varying degrees, for most of human history. The idea that we have put that all behind us now is a lie, and a convenient one to parrot as powerful political forces in our country are hard at work in systematically stripping women of their right to equal pay, bodily autonomy, and anything else they can snatch from us while the getting is good.
When the book was published in 1986, a female critic at The New York Times dismissed it, saying, “Surely the essential element of a cautionary tale is recognition. Surprised recognition, even, enough to administer a shock. We are warned, by seeing our present selves in a distorting mirror, of what we may be turning into if current trends are allowed to continue … It is an effect, for me, almost strikingly missing from Margaret Atwood’s very readable book The Handmaid’s Tale, offered by the publisher as a ‘forecast’ of what we may have in store for us in the quite near future.”
IN 2018, ITS PORTENTS ARE SO TERRIFYINGLY FAMILIAR THAT THEY HAVE BECOME EXCRUCIATING TO WATCH.
To which I say: ahahaha, haha ahahaha. Good to know that more than 30 years ago, the most privileged women in America considered The Handmaid’s Tale so unbelievable as to be worthy of scorn. How secure they must have felt, all those Serena Joys, in their own power. But in 2018, its portents are so terrifyingly familiar that they have become excruciating to watch. We live in a time when its most brutal punishments of women — say, the execution by hanging of women who exercise their reproductive rights — are openly advocated by a pundit hired by The Atlantic, a man whose firing was openly mourned by conservatives who said that he was “an eloquent, persuasive conservative of awesome range and depth out of what progressive elites think of as their ‘mainstream.’” Mostly, I’m just trying to stay alive at a time when I’ve never felt less like a human being in the eyes of the society around me. How about y’all?
Adi Robertson, Senior Reporter: I wrote about The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and if nothing else, it encourages a healthy paranoia about religious fundamentalist politics. Sure, Trump’s a misogynist, but he’s also nakedly amoral, which in certain ways is less scary than zealous gender complementarianism. Misogyny doesn’t just come from overtly woman-hating men, and the show’s good at conveying that: its most compelling villains are the kind of anti-feminist women who prop up patriarchal institutions like the Quiverfull movement and Mars Hill Church. I vividly remember when those institutions had tremendous cultural prominence, and even if internet-troll political movements are more forthrightly awful, it’s useful to remember how dangerous those ideas could be.
That said, I’m touchy about feminist media that revels in abuse of women, so I’m not sure why The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t initially turn me off. I think (and I might be alone on this) that Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books are gratuitous feminist torture porn, so maybe it just looked good in comparison. But I’ve watched the first few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale’ssecond season, and man, it’s been rough.
Devon Maloney, Internet Culture Editor: Professionally, over the past five years, I’ve managed to carve out dystopian fiction as one of my major beats as a writer. I believe strongly in the sociopolitical power of the genre, and I’ve argued in its favor on numerous occasions. I have a daily Google alert for “dystopia.” Its presence is everywhere in our lives, most obviously in how we’ve ironically managed to ignore the genre’s many hallmark warnings and actively build the hellscape so many authors imagined as cautionary metaphors. Which is all to say that once upon a time, The Handmaid’s Tale was extremely my shit. Once upon a time, the promise of a Handmaid’s Tale TV adaptation would have had me chomping at the bit.
But things have shifted pretty significantly for me, as it has for many of us. After the election, I found it very difficult, if not impossible, to continue banging my trusty “dystopian fiction is good for society” drum. Suddenly, looking critically at stories that forecast our impending doom at the hands of technology or capitalism or white supremacy became more of an exercise in miserable self-flagellation than of actual intellectual or moral analysis. I started watching the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale because, at the time, I was a freelancer and felt I needed to keep up on it — after all, somebody might ask me to write something about it — but after six or seven episodes, I was burned out and gave up.
AFTER SIX OR SEVEN EPISODES, I WAS BURNED OUT AND GAVE UP.
The series is beautifully shot, acted, and directed (by women, which I appreciate, despite the fact that the showrunner is a white man), but the actual story leaves much emotional relief to be desired. In this political climate, it felt like I was watching it in 4D, where the fourth dimension is “guerilla marketing”: New anti-abortion legislation is introduced by the real-live government! Real-live misogynists on social media tell you they’re going to rape you to death!
Megan Farokhmanesh, Reporter: Well, I’ve never felt more like a masochist than after reading all these thoughtful points, because I just devoured a rewatch of the first season. I empathize a lot with what’s been said here; the sheer exhaustion of my first time with it lingers in my memory. Seeing parts of myself — an experience I so rarely get in media, as a queer woman of color — in characters like Moira or Emily is a painful experience when they live in a world constructed to grind them down, if not outright destroy them. Coupled with the real-life happenings at that time, it felt like an exercise in emotional self-harm to track the show so closely. Returning to it now, however, I found myself anticipating and even savoring the wins of the first season in a way I couldn’t before. The mysteries were gone. I knew exactly where the pain points were and how to steady myself.
Here’s another fun detail: I watched the show with a close male friend this time around. It was his first time. The experience became, for me, just as much about watching him absorb the show as it was for me to revisit it. The Handmaid’s Tale is about women’s suffering. It’s a story about dystopia and extreme consequence, but it’s not so far flung that we don’t all see a little bit of ourselves or our real world in it. The show doesn’t shy away from this; sometimes it even seems to revel in it. Watching my male companion take this all in with every flinch, cringe, or pillow hug felt strangely satisfying, as much as if I’d grabbed him by the shoulders and violently shaken him while shouting about misogyny. It’s all so bad that no one can deny how awful it is.
Laura Hudson: This season also gives us our first look into the dreaded Colonies, where bad women go to shovel dirt until they die. Does anyone know what they’re actually doing? Because speaking of misery porn and watching women suffer pointlessly, from what I’ve seen so far, all they do is slowly absorb lethal radiation while shoving soil into bags and getting shocked with cattle prods. Is this the dystopian version of Holes, starring Shia LaBeouf?
Adi Robertson: I figured it was death camp make-work, which I’ll admit would be elaborately pointless. Speaking of pointless suffering, are there male Colony camps? Not to get all “patriarchy hurts men too,” but one recent micro-Gilead was Warren Jeffs’ Mormon offshoot community, and it was notoriously ruthless toward less powerful men. It’s appropriate that The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on women, but I wonder if the almost exclusive focus on extreme female suffering is one reason it’s so exhausting.
Devon Maloney: If I recall correctly, most bad men are simply executed in Gilead, but personally, the only kind of male suffering that would exhaust me less would take the form of victories for the women over their oppressors — if it was simply progressive, rebellious men also being worked and radiation-poisoned to death, that would just make it all worse for me.
In a lot of ways, stories like this aren’t meant to be lived in long term: the whole concept relies on the high concentration of horror in a discrete, limited package, and it only works “effectively” if audiences get to escape afterward, to consider and, hopefully, learn from it. (This is why Black Mirror works so well.) To me, the show’s renewal — its Game of Thrones-ification, if you will, in which it surpasses its source material — suggests that it has no purpose other than prolonging and deepening misery for those already under Gilead’s boot (because it’s definitely not changing anybody’s mind about anything). And, like Laura, I am tired — too tired for that.
Though Megan does bring up a good point — watching men IRL experience the show could be somewhat cathartic? At the very least, it feels a little like a sentinel in the zeitgeist, a reminder for those who might not otherwise notice or care that women (or basically anyone who isn’t a man) are still very much being crushed in the crucible that is our era.
Adi Robertson: Atwood’s book does offer a sort of escape in its metafictional epilogue, which is set after the fall of Gilead. I’d be interested to see the showrunners try to work that in somehow, but it seems unlikely.
Laura Hudson: Also, the punishments of women feel very haphazard, which is weird in a society that is so devoted to ritual and being extremely regimented? Janine loses an eye for talking back; the new Ofglen gets her tongue cut out… for a reason that is unclear to me while the rest of the rebellious Handmaids get treated to some execution theater and have their hands burned on a stove; Emily (formerly Ofglen) gets genitally mutilated for being gay while her girlfriend is hung, and then Emily gets sent to the Colonies rather than executed even though she literally murdered a guy by driving over his head.
It seems like the show is just choosing random, horrible things to happen to women for shock effect rather than demonstrating a regimented and horrifying system of punishment. Which is what I suspect is happening, and along with the hole-digging this is my problem with the early episodes of Handmaid’s Tale. Why am I watching this? I don’t need to see women brutalized to understand that Gilead is bad, or that misogyny is bad; believe me, I got it. If you’re going to move beyond the book and create new stories you better have something to say beyond women running on a treadmill of nails, and I’m not seeing it so far.
I DON’T NEED TO SEE WOMEN BRUTALIZED TO UNDERSTAND THAT GILEAD IS BAD, OR THAT MISOGYNY IS BAD; BELIEVE ME, I GOT IT.
Megan Farokhmanesh: I guess my question then is: is there any payoff that would make it all worth it? The Handmaid’s Tale, as a book, as a contained single season experience, uses those hard moments to demonstrate what Devon mentioned above. It’s a movement that, in the future, serves as a history lesson, a teaching moment on mistakes to not be repeated. But with season 1 relying so heavily on the book’s material, we’re heading into uncharted territory with season 2. The show’s creators have carte blanche to play in the nightmare world Atwood created. How do they match the pace and intensity they’ve set? How do they balance meaningful stakes with reward when so much has already been lost?
Adi Robertson: I like the second season best when it zooms out to the deceptively normal-seeming parts of Gilead, like the lower-class “Econo People” who see Handmaids as bizarre and exotic. It just can’t sustain the book’s disjointed nightmarishness beyond June’s original story, and the best dystopias aren’t all about how everything is completely awful all the time, but about why large numbers of people find that awfulness acceptable — and implicitly why you, the viewer, might even be one of them.
Devon Maloney: What Adi says, I think, gets to the heart of the problem I have with the series as a whole: the most effective horror often lies in all the gray areas, because that’s how we as a society end up perpetrating atrocities — day by day, news story by news story, one not-that-bad development at a time. If the “in-group” part of a dystopia doesn’t seem at least slightly attractive to you — even Fahrenheit 451 featured a world that actively was working to end inequality, just went about it in all the wrong ways — it’s probably not going to be that powerful a story.
Laura Hudson: Given how exhausting and often painful it is to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, the question is: does the first couple of episodes give us enough of a reason to keep going? It’s my job, so I will, but otherwise I would be sorely tempted to sit this season out and reserve my psychological resources for writing about the real-life men who want to rape and kill women — that seems like enough.