Mandated Rape, Horrific Abuse & No Free Will: The Handmaid’s Tale, 2017’s Most Important Show
The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, and was adapted for television by Bruce Miller. Season one premiered in April, and since then it has been hailed as the most important show of 2017. That's not an exaggeration, given what is currently happening in the US and the rest of the world.
The Handmaid's Tale is the story of June, a handmaid in Gilead, the republic formed in the place of the US after a civil war, by a Christian fundamentalist group. Because of widespread infertility, this new government takes away the rights of women, discards the ones who cannot have a child, and trains the rest of them to be handmaids. They are then assigned to various rich families, where they have sex with the 'Commander' once a month on their fertile days while lying between the legs of the Commander's wife. This rape is called 'The Ceremony,' and is considered a sacred ritual.
Shahana Yasmin and Kashika Saxena, two Vagabomb editors who read the book several years ago, finished watching the show on Tuesday. Here are their worried, depressed thoughts about the most important show of 2017.
[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
Immediate thoughts after finishing the show
Kashika: Oh my God. I'm so glad it's over. I've never had such trouble watching a show I actually want to watch. Elisabeth Moss (Offred/June), in an interview, said that you shouldn't binge-watch this show because you won't be able to get up in the morning, and she was right. I watched seven episodes in one day because I had to finish it to write this article, and I had nightmares that night. Even in my dreams I can't imagine myself with a baby, so I dreamt that someone kept taking away my younger brother from me. It was awful. The only other time I've had such terrible dreams after watching something was with NH10.
Shahana: Relief. Period. Never before has a show been THIS difficult for me to watch, but The Handmaid's Tale TERRIFIED me. I cried at certain scenes in the show; not the delicate tears-pouring-down-my-face kinda crying, but actual proper loud choking sobs. It did have some issues, of course, but God, this is one show I will not re-watch. Not because it's bad, but because it was so hard to watch. But it should be mandatory viewing for EVERYONE.
Why does the show ignore race?
Shahana: One of the biggest failings of The Handmaid's Tale, the show and the book, is that it says nothing about race. Doesn't mention it, doesn't talk about it, not a thing. And that's ridiculous. Someone could say that the issue of fertility trumps race, but I can't believe that race didn't mean something. Maybe the white handmaids went to higher-ranking officials or something, but I refuse to believe that race didn't mean something in a nation where there's such a clear hierarchy for everything else.
The depiction of Female Genital Mutilation
Kashika: Alexis Bledel (Ofglen/Ofsteven/Emily) killed me in the show. She will always be Rory Gilmore to me and the worst thing that happened to her was that she didn't get a fellowship at The New York Times, so the third episode terrified me. Khatna, or female genital mutilation, is a reality for so many women in India even today, that watching it happen on screen made me want to punch a wall.
Shahana: OH MAN THAT SCENE. I remember reading an interview by the director, which said that they put that in because it's not like it didn't happen to women in other countries, it just didn't happen to “white girls who look like Rory Gilmore,” and I was like YES. And that gets to the root of why The Handmaid's Tale was so tough to watch. Because almost all the things happening to the women on the show are happening to other women in other countries, just not to white women who look like Rory Gilmore.
The scariest episode
Kashika: Late, the third episode, undoubtedly. I stopped watching the show for five weeks after this. From the barista calling June and Moira (Samira Wiley) sluts and all the women realising they can't own property anymore after getting fired to the women's march where the soldiers open fire, the show made it seem like this could happen any day now (and it can) and I was terrified throughout. And then they kill Ofglen's Martha girlfriend in front of her before circumcising her. I was a mess.
Shahana: There wasn't one particular episode that I thought was scary, but snippets from several. The scene where June and Moira discover that they couldn't own money or property was chilling, because it was so easily done. Everything was online, on one database, and that's what made this so easy. I've been following the Aadhar debate, and this scene instantly got to me, because I realised that the Aadhar implementation could make this a reality.
Thoughts on casting and direction
Shahana: Part of this show's brilliance was the way it was made. There were little things that really got to me, like in episode four, when June asks Serena Joy (the Commander's wife) to be allowed outside and is refused, and the camera focuses on June's fingers SLOWLY letting go of the sofa, showing her desperation. The way the show focuses on hands says volumes.
Kashika: I cannot get over the fact that Moss is a Scientologist. June is the lowest-ranking member of Gilead, and terrible things are happening to her. Scientology, where Moss is a high-ranking member because of her celebrity status, has been under scrutiny for decades because of instances of alleged physical and sexual abuse, among other horrifying things. It further irritated me that at the Tribeca Film Festival, she and the rest of the cast refused to say that the show is feminist.
Shahana: I understand, but freaking Elisabeth Moss. Wow. I haven't seen Mad Men (I know, I know), so I didn't know if she was good or bad or what, but she got such a visceral reaction out of me. Sometimes, in shows like these, actors often overact, but what Moss did so brilliantly was to keep everything restrained. June was like a taut bow, brimming every second with everything they threw at her, but with no power to show that emotion. The way Moss kept it together was epic. And I loved how she kept her voice so soft the entire time, almost like a whisper, as opposed to everybody else's loud confident ringing.
Almost all sex in the show is rape.
Shahana: One of the biggest problems a lot of feminists have with major shows like Game of Thrones is that the nudity seems exploitative. And that's because it is. There is nudity in The Handmaid's Tale as well, but it felt powerful. The Ceremony needs no nudity, because rape doesn't need a naked body. But when June has consensual sex with Nick, it didn't feel like her breasts were there for viewers to gawk at, it felt like a celebration of her body, something that June isn't allowed to do anymore.
Gilead exists because of religious extremism.
Kashika: I'm a religious person, and while intellectually I know it's impossible, I do believe that my Gods exist in idols. They are there to protect and guide me in a crisis, not to be used as an excuse to commit horrific crimes. If you're harming another person in the name of religion, you're not doing God's work. Faith might not be logical, but humanity is. If you're not humane, no God is waiting for you in heaven.
Shahana: I'm completely against organised religion. Faith in a higher being I understand, but if there is a God that requires people to kill other people, that requires puny people like us to defend them, then what higher power is it? So many crimes are committed in the name of religion, and this can be traced back to centuries. All religions are interpreted to serve those in power, which has traditionally been people with penises. I find that a little suspect.
Also, let's not forget that HUNDREDS of “holy” men have committed the WORST crimes, from bribery, blackmail, molesting and raping children to murder, and religious bodies protect them. I refuse to believe in any power that condones and allows that.
Are we heading for Gilead?
Shahana: I think we are. Attitudes towards women are not changing, violence is rampant, and India's policy makers care more about cows than women. We have a government body that asks women to control lust and abstain from sex when they're pregnant. The Prime Minister thinks it's okay to make a speech at a concert, but not to denounce crimes against women, or trolls attacking people on social media in his party's name.
Are you going to watch Season Two?
Kashika: I honestly don't know. The show ended where the book ends, so in a way, the story is complete. But there are a lot of cliffhangers, so I might read about season two when it comes out, but I doubt I'll watch it. It was just too difficult.
Shahana: Season one was not fun to watch. And based on this interview Moss gave to The Pool, “Season two is going to be bad too, really dark,” I really, really don't want to. I mean, I really liked the show, and considering Miller said that he's actually listening to and reading all the conversations about where the show failed, I'm interested in seeing how they tackle it. The Handmaid's Tale has me torn. I will watch season two, but I will have to work myself towards doing it.
If you've watched the show, tell us what you thought in the comments. If you haven't, what are you waiting for?