Why Aren’t We Talking About ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?

This article is by our guest writer, Clare Ostroski.

The second season of Hulu’s most acclaimed original series, The Handmaid’s Tale, began streaming on April 25, 2018. Since then, I have been fixated on its antic pandering and refusal to acknowledge or rectify its glaring toxicity.

Reviews and commentary of season two have almost unanimously venerated the show, but few opt to mention its frivolousness. With just three episodes left, I feel it important to acknowledge these things now, before its finale deafens any criticism of the season more broadly.

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From left to right, Sydney Sweeney as Eden Spencer, Joseph Fiennes as Fred Waterford, and Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu (2018)

Season one of The Handmaid’s Tale posed the question: what if women were slaves? The country of Gilead is a not-too-distant United States, transformed into a religious autocracy that rounds up women to be raped and impregnated in the hopes of repopulating a broken society. Families are separated as women are enslaved to upper-class households, brothels, or labor camps. The problem with this story is that it isn’t entirely fictional. Slavery exists today, and it existed in America not so long ago. Families are currently being torn apart and abused at the United States border. Ethnicity accounts for incredulous disparities in American incarceration. Women have been there for all of it.

While some might argue that realism is the genius of the show, its refusal to be self-aware poses more of a problem for its identity in media than its storytelling and cinematography can apologize for. The events of The Handmaid’s Tale are explicitly set in the United States, in all its racist histories, cultural failings, and societal hierarchies. Despite these things, its lead character is portrayed by a white woman. In the world of Gilead, Elisabeth Moss is discriminated against in the same way as gay women, women of color, and disabled women. Handmaid’s universalizes how women are treated, embracing a post-racist ideology all-too prevalent in neoliberal media. While histories of misogyny and homophobia have translated to this fictional world, intersectionality is abandoned, leaving a cast of white protagonists and supporting characters of slightly more marginalized identities.

Season two could have backtracked; In a storyline completely independent of Atwood’s source material, the show has had every opportunity to explain its absence of racism, if even in the half-hearted spirit of Girls or Mad Men. Instead, it has further entangled itself in the real world, ceaselessly making reference to contemporary pop culture. Not unlike the misguided prestige of Westworld, the mode through which this show tells its ill-informed stories does nothing more than pander to its second-wave feminist audience.

The second season is exhaustively colloquial: one of its opening lines is, “Seriously? What the actual fuck?” These tiring nods, alongside the appearance of a Friends DVD, are accompanied by a soundtrack featuring “Hollaback Girl” and “Consideration”. While the cheap tricks are successful in tethering Handmaid’s to its young, left-leaning audience, they are also effective in further diluting its supposed political message. Imagery of protest and rape isn’t as harrowing when supplemented with relentless comparison to the real world.

The suggestion of real-world implications doesn’t end with allusions to other TV shows and relatable white girl talk, either. A large part of season two has been spent depicting labor camps dubbed “The Colonies”. In this hardly fictionalized place, women are shown being punished for their dissonance with some sort of forced agricultural labor, as they cough up dust and squint in the beating sun. These scenes seem not to evoke American slavery as much as borrow from it, exploiting a common understanding of institutionalized suffering to be applied to the experience of non-intersectional women. The season has also spent time unsympathetically representing child brides, again appropriating our real-world empathy for non-Western misogyny and sexual violence for the sake of a white story. It’s as callous as it sounds.

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The Colonies of Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu (2018)

The Handmaid’s Tale is entertaining and, at times, sexy. The acting is good. But it is in these ways The Handmaid’s Tale has spent 2018 digging its own cultural grave. By strengthening its orientation to the world of its viewers, it has magnified its own ignorance regarding representation of women. While other viewers have expressed satisfaction with its spooky intimation of institutionalized sexism, I have felt increasingly gas-lighted by it. As young people and leftists, we pride ourselves in taking control of media discourse and calling out problematic narratives. I feel the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale has not been met with that same enthusiasm, which is especially disappointing given the substance of season two and the context of our political environment.

The Handmaid’s Tale is obsessed with a cautionary interrogation: what if? The problem is that we don’t have to look further than our history books to wonder what it would be like if women were battered or enslaved by societal institutions. In a story that’s gone rogue from its author’s intent, the capitalization of social issues for the means of soap-like intrigue is fraught. There should be other less frantic opportunities for us to celebrate women’s stories on television. The only novelty of Gilead is that intersectional women are treated with the same disrespect as Elisabeth Moss.

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