I spent some time at home recently. As the ritual goes, much of this time was spent catching up on random TV and movies that my relatives had been consuming (side-note, people outside of DC watch a lot more cable). A lot of this were reruns of Family Feud. My sister however had a new kick, The Handmaid’s Tale (HMT); and as goes when my sister has a new interest, I was eventually browbeaten into partaking.
Every generation has a few dystopic nightmares that inform their presumptions of apocalypse; HMT is one of these modern presentations. The setup is a future American society that has become hyper fundamentalist, where women are property of the state and religion has become (more) inseparable from legal and cultural systems. This show, and the garb used by its namesake Handmaids, have become a rallying cry and cultural touchstone for a large segment of politically active Americans. Especially in light of recent, retrograde laws enacted by states across the country, women have been using imagery from HMT to organize outrage over these actions.
I’m an ardent Democratic Socialist, and have been clued into liberal politics at a very young age. To this end, I’ve believed that women’s rights are as crucial to that mythical Liberal Alliance as just about any other issue. But to be honest, I had never truly read or understood women’s issues in depth greater than tacit approval of the justness of activism around it. But as recent protests broke out, especially those that incorporated imagery and dogma from HMT, I found myself reacting negatively to them. I’m not proud to admit that I initially revolted against the imagery – of women dressed as Handmaids in protest – that appeared from some of these mobilizations. I felt that the protests were contrived. I was happy to see mobilization against these laws, but I demoted the activism as group cosplay rather than determined protest. In my head, I had an image of what protest and dissent should look like, and these displays weren’t doing it the right way.
A lot of my pointless ambivalence towards these protests were manufactured from my unqualified disagreements with HMT, which I felt was overrated and reductive. My critiques of HMT were just as fussy and pointless. In the disjointed YouTube clips I watched, I found its politics too on-the-nose. Its antagonists weren’t evil in the right ways. Its leads weren’t heroic in the right ways. The scenery was too dark. The costumes were too monochrome. The episodes were too long. Preachy. Melodramatic. Boring. Built in bias prevented me from giving it an honest take. On reflection, I believed it to be pedantic yet beneath me. I searched for the barest pieces of evidence to afford this opinion.
Why had I made assumptions about a massively popular television show and political movement without giving it an honest shot? I’ll give myself some credit, and really say that aesthetic taste fueled my original rejection of the show. But would aesthetic displeasure be so intense as to denounce political mobilization that referenced and rallied around a TV show? I was insulted by references to HMT, a show I perceived as beneath and unimportant to someone educated like myself. Frankly, I believed that I didn’t need any more education on a women’s outlook and perspective. I invented all matter of petty stylistic critique to prevent myself from second guessing my intuition. I couldn’t even be bothered to formulate more nuanced reasons for my distaste.
How much of this was dormant misogyny? On what authority am I, someone who has never really participated in any matter of political protest or created any type of political art, qualified to dissect or judge others’ attempts at mobilization and engagement? On what authority am I cleared of already understanding the complex politics that aggregate “women’s issues?” Following discussions with family prompted after watching, it’s difficult for me not to see my initial reaction to both HMT, the protests, and general presumptions of my own political education to be prompted by my own misogyny. Somewhere deep down, I was threatened by seeing women organize and educate others outside of my own judgement.
An exercise in penance
On actually watching HMT, it not only blew up my (sour) expectations for the show, but also revealed some obnoxious blind spots in my own political philosophy. My writing that follows is not a complete review of HMT, but merely a recounting of my experience watching the show, and summary of some thoughts I’ve had following various discussions about it. I didn’t watch scenes too closely, as I was in the company of family huddled around my grandma’s tiny tv. But for a show like this, I think it’s better watched with company or as a group. HMT works best as a prompt for facilitating larger discussion.
I was shocked at how intense HMT is. It’s a constant parade of tragedy. Ceremonial rape is just something that happens on the show. Varied degrees of mental agony waft between scenes, oscillating viewers emotions between moral disgust and visceral anguish. Some scenes seem to be lifted straight out of slasher horror. In watching with grandma in the room, some shots would prompt her to nervously egress, or bark disgust at the “dirty” display (honestly, maybe not the best show to watch with grandma). My grandma wasn’t wrong in diagnosing the intensity of the show: HMT is dark. Not just tonally, but visually. The colors are muddy and grey, making sure viewers are constantly reminded that all of this is terrible. It can be overwhelming and exciting, especially as you realize that the show-runners do not pull their punches on all matter of abuse and torture subjected to the inhabitants of their world. I believed HMT to be a prestige drama. So wrong. HMT is straight horror. Usually.
Constant tension defines the show. This tonal stress is backed up by violent scenes (seriously, one scene just shows someone’s hand getting surgically removed in gory detail) and disorienting emotional trauma. In theory, these scenes work to reinforce the political messaging of the show. In practice, it sometimes elicited hoots and hollers from me and my family. Not laughing at the implications of the scenes, but at the spectacle of watching such gruesome and unending horror. These are the sort of nervous jeers that come from watching a slasher movie. Honestly these moments were fun, but I have a feeling this wasn’t how it was intended to play out.
But HMT is not wed to its horror; and I’m not exactly sure if HMT was intended to be viewed from the lens of the genre. Individual episodes tend to change on a dime, from well-produced soap opera to slow moving spy movie. Some episodes play like post-apocalyptic thrillers, others like political dramas. Although unending tension is a constant quality of HMT, changes in genre keep it interesting and engaging. Watching different characters react to and within different tropes affords viewers a peek into the brains of its characters, so we feel them rooted to the world around them. We are given full characters to cheer and care for, and this provides viewers with an investment in the success (defined, frankly, as overthrow of the patriarchal hegemony) of HMT’s protagonists.
Political messaging is stark and unmistakable. HMT never loses sight of its enemy in the patriarch, and explores a varied collection of nuances that exist within this political context. HMT displays how women of different social classes, sexual orientations, or identities react and are defined within those politics. It also shows how economically disadvantaged men end up working for a system that doesn’t respect or even benefit them. These social nuances help define the rules of Gilead’s patriarchy, which can be extended to our own world’s manifestation of it. Heavy-handed language and direct monologues ensure that misogyny – and specifically its Christian, fundamentalist flavor – are always on naked display. Every horror that unfolds across the screen is tied to this flagrant and sinister force. There is no missing or misappropriating this subtext.
I’m not prude to visceral or “deep” media. Most of my favorites are particularly dark and passionate. But this is certainly the first show I’ve watched where the drama unfolding is particularly acute to women. Fear of abuse, loss of self, navigating convoluted and confusing social dynamics – these are feminine coded fears that are given a full display within HMT. I don’t mean to suggest that these are fears that only women have, but in comparison to how other prestige dramas portray indignity, I was prompted to think how much of “prestige” television has portrayed masculine coded struggles. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Better Call Saul all parade masculine indignity: lost honor, providing for a family, the struggle to maintain strength and control. But HMT taps into a well of terror I rarely consider. Sure, I understand the pain and awfulness of domestic violence or sexual aggression, but HMT provided a context that completely encapsulated me within that fear. By sparing the viewer reprieve from a parade of terror, HMT ensures its viewers – and especially its male viewers – see a side of horror and injustice that rarely gets its due.
All this said..
There are some structural issues with the show that, while not fatal, detract from its success.
The unrelenting horror of it all is offputting. Some of the tortures inflicted would be considered over-the-top in a horror movie. I don’t have a problem with this when viewing the show as campy horror. But given HMT’s intent to be taken seriously at all times, you sometimes feel that it’s just too much. There are too few cathartic releases in tension. Humor, aside from some sardonic remarks or scenarios, is completely missing. Moments of relief or joy are far and few between. Even in the rare scenes showing relief, it is complete and head-whacking jubilance that inflicts a sort of emotional whiplash. Even joyous moments are tiring.
If the show managed its tension and payoffs better, would the show be more successful, and reach a broader, or (crucially) male, audience? Unrelenting tension is fine for an hour or two, or within the context of a movie. But for 10 hours? It’s a big ask for an audience, and especially a liberal audience that is living under a conservative government that gives no breaks in policies that outrage and disgust. A simple question might be, who has the time to wallow in a parade of despair?
HMT is also exposition heavy. There are many “everybody got that” moments that pull you out of the world and away from its characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for people watching from the cheap seats (as I did with my family). Maybe this is for the best, in making sure the audience does not miss the connection between the show and contemporary politics, but it can be distracting and trance breaking. If the plot were more complex, this would be more appreciated. However, in the one and a half seasons I watched, the plot really did go nowhere. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it did contribute to building HMT’s atmosphere. But the constant tension of the show meant that nothing would ever really resolve – the world and its characters felt hopeless. It’s depressing.
The only plots that received consistent development were its romantic and interpersonal ones. Although I appreciated HMT’s genre flipping, when the show is stuck in soap opera mode is when I find it the least engaging. Emotional relationships between various characters’ adds depth to their lives, but at times it is tedious and unimportant. Given that society has collapsed and is being run by an authoritarian dictatorship, you can’t help but feel that there might be better things to focus on. Instead of world-building or exploring the nuances of Gilead, we spend way too much time mulling over the minutia of romantic relationships and love-triangles. For a show so committed to feminine liberation, the time spent on love and romance feels quite stereotypical. Some viewers may enjoy this, but I found it rather boring.
Some of my critiques here may feel like nitpicks. Its because mostly they are. The show is well executed – there are no glaring flaws in either the production or the delivery of its message. Although the show doesn’t exactly align with my taste in dystopic art, it nonetheless provided me an entertaining and enlightening experience. Most importantly, it provided a platform for my family to discuss contemporary political issues that may have otherwise been lost in the news cycle. As a drama, the show is recommended, if not passable. But as a piece of propaganda, it is surgically effective.
HMT as propaganda
Demonstrations of female trauma are constant and never-ending in HMT. Some reviews posited that the stream of abuse is too much and occasionally distracting. But more subtle forms of mental abuse are suggested in its demonstration of the mind control and group conditioning that informs HMT’s caste system. As we watched, my sister would occasionally turn to me and say “you know these things really happened.” I scoffed at first, but as we discussed it in detail, she reinterpreted some family stories that made the abuse in HMT all too real. Coming from a working-class and Catholic family, I am well versed in the sort of hardcore, old-school expectations placed on women. There is a level of docility and submission expected and justified for the sake of affirming social order. I have always loathed these ideas, and am lucky to come from a family that has mostly, or at least on the surface, rejected these expectations. But these cycles of indoctrination and control run far deeper than I originally considered.
The older women in my family had told stories of traumatizing abuse invoked in the rigid catholic schools of their youth. Like Aunt Lydia’s indoctrination on HMT, they told stories about being locked in closets, whacked with rulers, screamed at, mocked as ugly, jeered as stupid, and publicly humiliated for every observable human flaw. These jeers and abuses would resurface in the community around them, and the expectations drilled into them during school hours would be enforced by extended family and the insular immigrant community they lived in. Through disconnection of time, these stories were told to us as jokes, or even as points of pride. As a child, and frankly up to a month ago, I accepted these stories as funny refrains.
But on watching HMT, and being prompted to reconsider these scenarios by my sister, these memories revealed themselves to be much darker. I was pushed to consider how prevalent this terrible conditioning was. Having been assaulted by a parade of visceral imagery from HMT, these stories were recontextualized to portray the depth of fear, inflicted and inspired at such a young age, women have had to endure in the past. Although times have certainly changed, my sister was insistent on making sure I understood this past. Not only so that I understood how the trauma of that ancient abuse resurfaces in our older family members, but also how malevolent forces in society are attempting to reinforce that social control to this day.
This all filled me with the sort of indignation that comes from realizing your family has been abused. What dreams or passions had been smothered? What anxieties sourced from this terror inform our familial ticks? In what ways had I reinforced this evil conditioning against my own blood? Misogyny existed so deeply in my construction of society that I could not even recognize the pain it inflicted on my own family. To this end, HMT is a successful piece of propaganda in that it shook me out of my complacency, forcing me to engage with the ways powerful forces had not only impacted people close to me, but had conditioned my own political conceptions.
I don’t use the word propaganda as a deflation – all art is propaganda. The National Review (a slimy broth of overcooked, pointless, and out of touch conservative editorials) dismissed HMT as beneath propaganda: un-art (??). Missing from that lazy discussion was any acknowledgement of how the show is used as a platform for discussion, or why people were drawn to the show in the first place. I couldn’t help but feel ashamed, as before I had ever really given the show a chance, I would have likely agreed with this empty assessment. In my haughty presumptions of my own political education, I was an unwitting vassal of the oppressive systems I loathe.