The Feminist Frenzy Over 'The Handmaid's Tale'
When news of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was released, many women were enthusiastic about the prospect. After the less than impressive 1990 film adaptation, the potential of seeing a more satisfying visual interpretation of Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel seemed long overdue. More importantly, despite the fact that the show had been in production long before the 2016 US presidential election campaign, there was a palpable sense of excitement that something so uncannily reflective of the current political situation would be airing on TV.
A Tribeca Film Festival panel interview with Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes (who play the Handmaid named Offred and her master, Fred Waterford) upset a lot of people because there was a perception that both actors were loathe to use the F-word, feminism. Yet follow-up interviews, in which Moss and Fiennes clarified their positions, didn’t gain nearly as much traction. Moss told Huffington Post that, “I wanted to say ― and I’ll just say it right here, right now ― OBVIOUSLY, all caps, it is a feminist work. It is a feminist show,” while Fiennes explains via Marie Claire that after working on the show “I feel much more switched on to feminism and what it means and stands for.”
Other critics were less concerned with the cast members’ use of the word “feminism” than the way the concept was portrayed on the show itself. Writer Francine Prose’s opinion is summed up by the title of her NY Books article, “Selling Her Suffering.” In it, Prose argues that the show is “neither a useful warning about the patriarchy’s hostile plan for women, nor a proactive attempt to thwart those dark intentions” but instead a “seven-hour-long orgy of violence against women.” She compares the so-called feminism of The Handmaid’s Tale to “girl-on-girl mud wrestling, or vintage prison films like Women Behind Bars,” neither of which she sees as feminist.
This kind of ghettoizing of what denotes “good” and “bad” feminism is unfortunately quite familiar to those of us who enjoy genre fare. As the argument so frequently goes, a good feminist would never enjoy exploitation films or horror movies. Any feminist who enjoys such works would be quick to disagree with such an assessment, especially in the face of so much women-centric and/or -created horror that is both feminist and violent: À l'intérieur, The Descent, American Mary, Trouble Every Day, and the more recent films, Prevenge and Raw, to name but a few.
It’s interesting to note that Prose asserts that it’s not because she abhors violence. “I was a great fan of the immensely violent AMC series Breaking Bad—and not because it dramatized the problems of those who, like Walter White, lack adequate health insurance,” she states, which seems like a non sequitur and strangely reductive defense of her position. What she doesn’t like is how “It trades on our terrors, torments its female characters, goes after a hefty profit, and at the same time tries to persuade us that it is not only doing women a favor but furthering their liberation.” Perhaps a show that did not require a subscription to Hulu would be more palatable?
Still there is nothing in Prose’s argument that addresses why she has a specific problem with the TV adaptation and not Atwood’s original book, even when she confuses things which are obscured or merely suggested in the series with “plot holes.” There are details in Atwood’s prose which are discussed but not done so in excruciating detail, such as the Aunts’ fondness for the cattle prod, beating the Handmaids’ feet, and severing their limbs. As much as I am personally a fan of both gore films as well as horror that “implies” rather than “shows,” the choice to avoid showing the violence would have severely hampered the impact of the world of Gilead upon the viewer.
Prose ends her analysis of the show with this statement, “To claim that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is feminist TV is like saying that bullfighting is an intentional defense of animal rights—because there is always a slim chance that, in the end, the bull may prevail,” an argument that is not only ridiculous, but inaccurate. Perhaps Prose is not aware that even if the bull, as she puts it, prevails, he (and it’s always a male) will usually be killed in the end.
One also wonders if Prose is taking into account that 44% of college-educated white women voted for Donald Trump in November or that there is an entire movement of young women convinced that feminism is unnecessary. Perhaps it is for these women that the show is most urgently needed.
Other critics have taken issue with the “middlebrow” narrative trajectory of the show. Writing for Variety, Sonia Saraiya spends three paragraphs complaining about the addition of the word “bitches” to the end of the show’s infamous malapropism, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.” She calls it “basic,” which begs the question: Is Offred nothing more than a basic bitch? Regardless of one’s feelings about the loaded history of the word “bitch,” it seems like a petty thing to fixate on whether or not women using that word amongst themselves denotes “true” feminism or not.
Such critiques focus on semantics (if not an outright misunderstanding of Atwood’s book), while forgetting that, as this piece from io9 details, there are real laws in existence that are reflected in The Handmaid’s Tale, something which is even more troubling considering that the book was originally written in 1985. Complaining that the show is “too violent” or “basic” could be an understandable position for women who consider themselves “woke” and not in need of further understanding, but what of those who don’t have the luxury of being surrounded by progressive parents or friends, or those who do not have access to a liberal college education?
At Harper’s Bazaar Jennifer Wright notes, “It’s all deeply upsetting in a way that can and should make you nauseous,” and examines the question that Prose seems unwilling to resolve: “Why should any of this inspire a sigh of relief?” She continues:
“If you’re concerned about making sure we don’t go backwards, you’re not crazy. And seeing that onscreen is a relief. But the show is a reminder that if we don’t continue to hold our ground, the world might get a lot crazier.”
This is why we need shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and why we also need genre fiction that isn’t afraid to explore the all too often non-fictional problem of violence against women. Perhaps this TV adaptation isn’t for everyone, but the kind of feminism it elevates sure as hell should be.