We’re three weeks into the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel in the UK, The Handmaid’s Tale. Kate le Vann ponders if it is really a warning of things to come, or a reflection of the present.
Is it bad that a constant nagging thought when I’m watching Bruce Miller’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is always: why are blokes putting up with this? In Gilead, the new theocratic republic of America where the series is set, the men who haven’t been shot to death for being political dissidents are either over-qualified cucks doing what David Cameron calls ‘menial jobs’, in which case they “haven’t even been assigned a woman” or they run things and only have (non-consensual) sex on ovulation day while a third person who looks like their mother sits on the same bed, glaring at them throughout. Gay sex is banned. For an ur-patriarchy, they have thrown away all potential sexual benefits of their unassailable control. It’s almost like the men are victims too.
Bruce Miller’s adaptation. I wonder if this is important. We should be furious with the men, I say, but they are tortured and sensitive here, while the real bastards, the ones who mete out the injustice, are women. Public executions take the form of death-by-angry-mob-of-women, like the ones with fake beards at the stoning in The Life of Brian.
There are harmful divisions drawn throughout. Almost all the old women are violent psychopaths. Margaret Atwood herself slaps Elisabeth Moss across the head, and she’s Canadian! Almost all the married women who can’t have children are cruel and bitter in ways that go beyond enabling their partners for their own advancement. The single exception in both those categories is actually the same woman.
But this is an exploration of what happens when the oppressed reject solidarity, and in real life, women have co-signed restrictions of their own rights through identification with the group that gives them privilege. The majority of white American women voted for Trump. A great deal of thought has gone into persuading the viewer that this world is closer than you think, and doubts (I have many) are always swiftly answered with careful explanations.
The scenes that cover how are vastly more interesting than the ones that cover now. The show splits between Offred’s present as a handmaid and flashbacks to the political situation immediately before Gilead took over, when she was June. Offred scenes are slow and ponderous, including real-time televised Scrabble games and supermarket shopping. Elisabeth Moss whispers all the time. June scenes are jerkily exciting and Moss talks loudly and swears. Sometimes the two lives intersect: “I liked Anthropologie…” Offred sighs, thinking about the old days. The American chain Anthropologie, with a branch and a half in the UK, is an expensive, boho, mildly culturally appropriative lifestyle brand for women. Their homewares have conscious, responsible global influences. It’s such an important choice; it means the programme makers know their audience. Oh my god, don’t you love Anthropologie? they’re saying. That’s for, like, liberal feminists like you? Maybe this could happen…
There’s a scene in a coffee shop where pre-Offred June goes to get a cup of coffee with her best friend. The two women are wearing low-cut running clothes, being loud, being comfortable. The frosty male barista grows overtly hostile, eventually calling them sluts. Back in Gilead, Offred drowns in nun-like clothes and swears in her head whenever she scores a tiny victory. Every swear is a sign that she’s fighting back.
There’s a problem with simplistically equating cussing and cleavage with emancipation. I was at secondary school in Doncaster during the miner’s strike. Girls at my school who were sexier, swearier and brighter than me didn’t have the middle-class privilege I had and didn’t have the same luxury to push back against the patriarchy. Most of them had to leave school to find work at sixteen, in jobs that did not match their potential. My middle-classness also ensured that I wasn’t called a slag at school for having big breasts, but male friends felt comfortable enough around me to call out the overt breasts of poorer girls. Emma Watson was startled that her demure, liberated breasts mistakenly found themselves on the sexual breasts list when she displayed an inch of them earlier this year (normally an inalienable right of small, posh breasts), and had to rethink her position that Beyoncé’s breasts had sold out to male voyeurism.
For an idea of where your own breasts fall on the breast hierarchy, and to understand where I stole this entire paragraph, consult Salena Godden’s brilliant My Tits Are More Feminist Than Your Tits. My point is: June and her friend are not experiencing something that doesn’t happen right now and every day to other women. It is happening, it has been happening. It just hasn’t been happening to women like them. We shouldn’t be getting easy thrills from imagining it as a hypothetical consequence of things getting worse.
It goes deeper than breasts. When Handmaid has to consider non-Anthropologie shoppers, it’s on shakier ground. There are excellent articles by women of colour, which I won’t attempt to paraphrase, that discuss how the show tackles race. This one by Paige Allen is a great place to start.
There’s a scene in which Offred is speaking of rebellious matters to a like-minded comrade when they’re interrupted by a well-behaved handmaid, who warns them not to ruin this sweet set-up for her The obedient handmaid explains that she was a sex-worker, addicted to drugs, back in the old world. She likes her new, clean, sex-once-a-month life. She welcomes this regime in which she isn’t allowed to go where she wants or speak to whomever she chooses, or read books or magazines or chill out all Sunday watching television, or play music or fall in love, or keep her children. For women like her, we’re asked to believe, this is an escape.
About a year ago Save the Children ran a brilliant campaign that asked the viewer to imagine the life of a Syrian refugee through the eyes of a British child. In the film, a little girl sees foreign soldiers invade London, is torn from her mother, walks miles in the cold and is eventually dispatched to a foreign country alone, bracing herself for their hostility, and with little chance of survival. It’s deeply affecting but also accusatory: you’re aware that you only care so much because she could be your child.
Does Handmaid carry the same accusation, or is it more of a cautionary tale? Every abuse of women in the show is based on a real-life abuse of women that has happened in recent history or is happening right now, somewhere. The writers have done their homework, they are responsible, and they care. I think the problem is that they seem to assume that *we* are all still safe. Keep an eye out for this, Handmaid says instead: in the future this shit could get serious.
The Handmaid’s Tale is on C4 at 9pm on Sundays