“The Handmaid’s Tale’s” biggest flaw isn’t that it’s torture porn, objectifying and commodifying the pain of women. It isn’t in the way that it’s adapted Margaret Atwood’s source text, or how it’s grappling with moving past the ending of said source text. It isn’t the acting, the music video-esque inclusion of pop songs that feel anachronistic to the show’s setting. The show has one problem, and it’s a big one.
It’s that it can’t envision a hellscape worse that being denied the role of mother.
Latent reviews of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, have clamored to pearl-clutch about its hard-to-watch-ness.
The Telegraph published an explanation of why author Rebecca Reid will be “turning off the Handmaid’s Tale and its needless torture porn,” while The Verve asked “Is the Handmaid’s Tale worth the agony of watching it?”
In reality, it’s only the depiction of “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” less contrived elements that earn it all this hemming and hawing: rape and domestic violence, far from fantastical or dystopian circumstances for 1 in 5 women, are the fixtures that have viewers looking away. We have been so angry at rape as a plot point in cable television for so long we have, seemingly, lost our discernment for narratives in which women are props and narratives in which violence against women necessarily permeates the safe bubble of our daily lives.
But “The Handmaid’s Tale” does struggle to render a narrative that feels truly revolutionary, feminist, or even true to the reality of the characters living inside of it. The problem, though, is that, to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the biggest sources of subjugation don’t seem to be the prohibition on reading, the lack of reproductive autonomy, or women’s’ inability to participate in the professional sphere. Instead, “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems to want us to believe that the biggest horror any of these women may face is being denied the role of mother.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” chronicles the lives of women following a coup on the American government in which zealously Christian men turn democracy into theocracy, and name it Gilead.
From a different perspective, Gilead is a reaction to a world in which fertility rates have dropped drastically, perhaps especially among white people.
In Gilead, it often seems as if the sabotaging women who have helped erect the very architecture the oppressive regime–like Serena Joy, previously a domineering wife and well seasoned writer-slash-lecturer–have done so purely out of desire to have a child. Aunt Lydia, whose job is to train women for their new role as breeding machines, seems to waver in her support of Gilead only when it appears to jeopardize the welfare of children, for instance.
Even the commanders are often exalting children as the highest purpose of the new society, but we know that for them it’s all a euphemism and pretense for the subjugation of women.
In Margaret Atwood’s novel, one of Offred’s biggest source of consternation in Gilead seems to come from the lack of sexual freedom and romantic encounters. This is why she willingly has sex with Nick, an Eye and the household’s driver, despite the risks involved with such a rebellion.
Book Offred also takes the chance to leave Gilead at the novel’s close, not knowing whether she’s gotten into a black car to leave the country or to endure torture at the hands of the eyes, knowing full well that her daughter, Hannah, will remain trapped within.
For twelve episodes, there weren’t any significant problems in its first season without the source text as its guide, though it was becoming frustrating to watch both Offred and Serena vacillate between two basic and opposing modes for yet another twelve hours (Offred ends episodes alternatively resigned to her position in Gilead and resolved to get out whatever the cost; Serena Joy ricochets from a would-be professional intellectual reaching out for solidarity from her female housemate and vindictive abuser incapable of handling her envy at Offred’s fertility).
But now the show has gone in a direction so unlikely for the source text that I’m inclined to doubt the veracity of Atwood’s consulting producer credit.
That’s because season two closes with Offred refusing to leave Gilead because she can’t bear separate herself from her oldest daughter.
The obsession with children and rendition of women as baby-obsessed sentimentalists was all well and good when it helped to explain why Serena Joy would co-sign on her own oppression, or when it provided a prescient and gut-wrenching parallel to the U.S.’s own latent pension for separating parents from their children. But now that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has failed to offer us a single representation of a woman that isn’t motivated completely by children. It has begun to feel as if the show-runners are in agreement about what defines a woman with the commanders in their own fiction.
Serena Joy tolerates lashings, sexlessness, and the monotony of knitting in the hopes of one day having a baby. Ofwarren’s substantial suffering—her eye has been removed, she’s been brought back from the brink of suicide only to be tortured some more, and she’s been sent to the colonies—melted away like a bad dream when she was able to comfort her baby with skin to skin contact. And, now, Offred is willing to tolerate life in Gilead and the Waterford house indefinitely if it means being in the same general 100-square miles as Hannah, her daughter, who she cannot see and who she certainly cannot save from her position.
One would think that, at the least, a show which regularly showcases the rape of women for the purposes of conception–and one in which almost no pregnancies are the result of consensual sex–could muster a single representation of pregnancy that isn’t characterized by joy and outward glowing, but, so far, the only representation of pregnancy that portrayed even a moment of invasiveness and discomfort has been Moira’s in flashback to before the rise of the draconian regime.
But, more importantly, you would think it could envision a woman whose identity doesn’t hinge on motherhood.
In Gilead, the role of a woman as a mother is the pretense, the cornerstone, and the justification for all of the oppression the handmaids face. It’s also, apparently, the only role any of the characters desire.