I’m assuming that with the buzz surrounding the show many of you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, have already popped over to Hulu to peep The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t, turn around here! SPOILER ALERT! And if you have, I’m sorry, we’ll get through this trauma together.
Now as you probably know, faithful Filthy Dreams readers, I am not easily shock-able and yet, I found myself watching the first four episodes with my pearls firmly clutched at their queer storylines. Some of these were a part of Margaret Atwood’s classic book, namely Moira’s sexuality, but many were not–bolstering the show’s progressive, social justice cred with some serious violence, mutilation and brutality.
While the debate surrounding whether or not the show is actually feminist should be a topic for another scholar (paging bell hooks!), I’ve been looking around stunned at critics’ positive appraisal of the show’s inordinate amount of cruelty, especially to its queer women characters. Now, I know the show is a dystopian morality tale, but still, everyone has limits. But, not, it seems, the critics who, like NewNowNext, have deemed the show “Queer AF.” Of course, the old stand-by “now more than ever” made quite a number of appearances in reviews, bestowing praise on the show’s timeliness. Hank Stuever in The Washington Post, writes, “The phrase ‘now more than ever’ has become a tiresome cliché in the past few months, but so what: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is here and it demands our attention, now more than ever.” Just because you acknowledge it’s a cliché, doesn’t mean what you wrote isn’t a cliché, Hank.
Anyway, the ten-episode series transforms Atwood’s original text, which apparently wasn’t disturbing enough, into an unending horror show. Yes, it’s still a dystopian tale of women acting as vessels for babies under an authoritarian theocracy in the not-too-distant future, but Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, created by Bruce Miller, seems to, even more than the book, delight in long, drawn out scenes of physical and sexual violence, as well as implicated violence off-screen. It is undeniably beautifully shot, but discussing how beautiful a rape scene is seems to be a level of cynicism that might not be beneficial to anyone. With its cinematic quality, the show echoes the problematic tone of Lars Von Trier’s films like Antichrist, which revels in absurd levels of violence with no apparent pay-off.
While I wanted to like the show, which seems like Mike Pence’s fantasyland, the added queer narratives were just so nauseatingly unsettling and seemingly disingenuous that I found myself steaming while watching. Did they just want to use the phrase “gender traitor”? I don’t blame them–it is a great phrase. But, why mess with a good thing? Atwood’s novel is only a literary classic. So in order to press pause on all this critical adoration, I’m delving into the experiences of the two main queer women characters in the show to lay out their bizarre treatment by the show’s creative team.
Played by Samira Wiley, Moira typifies the gay best friend trope. In Atwood’s novel, Moira plays a much larger role, but, here, she seems to act as the sassy Black woman foil to Elizabeth Moss’s milquetoast Offred. Moira’s partner disappeared, being caught in one of the “dyke purges” and sent to the colonies. But, Moira, at least throughout the first three episodes, mainly quips radical feminist things against the patriarchy because, you know, she’s such a sassy lady!
For example, after all women’s accounts are frozen as Gilead amasses power, Moira and Offred, then known as June, return to June’s apartment to guzzle wine, vent and figure out what the hell to do next. Luke, June’s husband, appears and Moira rages, “Hey look, here’s the fucking problem.” She continues to berate him about his intimation that he can take care of June, after she’s been stripped of her agency. Moira’s taking a stand against the patriarchy! What an angry lesbian!
But, even more than conforming to a stereotypical trope, Moira’s role becomes ridiculously diminished in the fourth episode. In Atwood’s novel, Moira escapes Gilead by herself by threatening one of the Aunts (dowdy, schoolmarm-ish women in power). Moira dons the Aunt’s clothes and flees. In doing this, she becomes somewhat of a myth for the other handmaids, who look to this powerful rejection of autocratic power as a beacon of hope.
Yet, in the show, Moira escapes with the help of Offred, who even cattle prods the Aunt they’re shaking down. I mean, why write Moira a larger role that would make her freedom more meaningful in the context of the story? It’s so much easier to convey this scene through the eyes of Offred than writing Moira a more dynamic, multifaceted role. Essentially, the blond white lady Offred does the heavy narrative lifting, inadvertently stripping away the singular power from this Black queer character.
Once Offred and Moira make it to the train station to leave, Offred gets caught by guards who wonder why she isn’t with her partner (handmaids apparently use the buddy system). Rather than yelling to Moira, which would have sent both of them back to the rape training school or whatever it was, Offred glances longingly at Moira, while Moira steps on the train and gets the hell out. So in many ways, Offred allowed Moira to escape, further taking away her narrative power. Thanks Offred! Oh yeah, and when she gets back to the center, naturally, all the other handmaids adore her, not Moira.
However, Moira’s experiences pale in comparison to the extensive trauma endured by Ofglen in the third episode. Played by Alexis Bledel, best known for her role in Gilmore Girls, Ofglen is Offred’s handmaid partner and also a member of the resistance. She also has a preference for the ladies, which is exactly what gets her caught by the “Eyes.” Ofglen disappears at the end of the second episode, replaced by another woman who is now the new Ofglen.
In episode three, we discover where exactly Ofglen went. Well, she’s been arrested for being in a relationship with one of the Marthas, a position lower than the handmaids. Fitted with a gag mask, Ofglen is muted through the entire episode as she maneuvers through the justice system. Entering the courtroom, she spies her lover who is sentenced to death, while Ofglen is given “redemption” because she has two working ovaries. How sweet!
After the sentencing, the couple is shoved in the back of a black unmarked van. With one long shot, the two cry together and Ofglen’s love gets pulled out of the back of the truck in an abandoned lot where a crane awaits tied with a noose. Ofglen is forced to watch as her lover is hung, which is filmed unflinchingly (which raises the question how the hell this got on the air).
Asked about the scene in the Hollywood Reporter and its possible conforming to the “bury your gays” trope, in which gay characters frequently are given the final boot on TV series, Bruce Miller responded, “Gilead and The Handmaid’s Tale operates outside those rules because in that world, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. So the “kill your gays” policy is institutional in the series. You’re operating on a different lane than that conversation.”
But, the institutional violence against queer women is something YOU made up, Bruce.
Anyway, if that weren’t enough, there’s more! Whee! Ofglen wakes up in the hospital with gauze taped over her hoohah in a perfect triangle. Glamour! Yep, you guessed it, they pulled an Antichrist and removed her clitoris. What a fun-filled show! After she gazes down at her newly mutilated body, Aunt Lydia, played demonically by Ann Dowd, who apparently only takes roles where she can be some threatening cult leader, says, “Things will be so much easier for you now.”
Phew, so now your question, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, is probably the same as mine was: WHY. Why did Miller create this storyline, separate from Atwood’s original text?
Well, according to Miller’s interview with The Hollywood Reporter, it’s an important narrative because these things do happen in the world. Citing the Taliban in Afghanistan and hangings in Iran, Miller says, in reference to the clit removal scene: “It just doesn’t often happen to American girls who look like Alexis. It’s not graphic at all — we don’t show anything. It’s all implied, we don’t even really say anything. I was trying to take something that Margaret did — she didn’t make up anything in the book, everything happened somewhere — we wanted to take that and continue that very strong decision moving forward. It was a hard decision and a big discussion. We all had trepidation about doing it because it’s incredibly harsh and brutal. But all the reasons you’re afraid of doing it are why you should do it.”
The most troublesome part of that comment is that he thinks he’s somehow creating a dialogue about atrocities that are occurring in the world by appropriating horrors that happen in other cultures. And that it’s somehow more resonant because he’s doing it by inflicting them on pretty Alexis Bledel.
And if you think his invocation of Alexis’ whiteness, I mean, American girlishness was just a fluke in that answer, nope, he says it again. “It’s so strange to us to see it happen to an American or what we consider an American. Look at all the rights we have. One of the ways to recognize that is to strip them all away,” he explains.
WHAT.WE.CONSIDER.TO.BE.AN.AMERICAN. So what is that, Bruce? Just curious. And I think we can appreciate the rights we have without seeing them brutally taken away over and over again.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: This is a dystopian show, shouldn’t it be deeply disturbing? Well, yes. But there’s a question about what this much violence, inflicted primarily on queer women, is doing for viewers. Is it a cautionary tale? Does it somehow create awareness for horrors happening elsewhere because it’s happening to white, conventionally pretty actresses?
The truth is, I’d assume, most viewers know this is happening elsewhere. I couldn’t watch the hanging scene without thinking of the current persecution of gay men in Chechnya where they are being imprisoned in concentration camps, tortured and murdered for their sexual identity. Parents in Chechnya are even now being encouraged to kill their sons in order to save their family’s honor. What is this brutal show with echoes of that kind of cruelty doing for those men? Not much, I’d guess.
And this certainly isn’t new for Hollywood, which likes to pat itself on the back for showing the horrors of the world while really just doing nothing. In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson analyzes a seemingly inescapable billboard for Elisha Cuthbert’s starring role in Captivity. With a black (gloved) hand over her face, Cuthbert was the pretty face of torture victims. “It…served throughout some of the the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration,” writes Nelson, “as an outsized, daily reminder of the cultural and political forces working overtime to normalize–or in this case, make sexy–that which would have been unthinkable in (publicly acknowledged) American policy not so long ago: namely, torture, especially sexualized culture…And so when I saw Cuthbert’s face I saw not just the airbrushed image of another blonde actress pretending to be held in captivity and tortured and potentially terminated, but the nameless bodies of all the real brown people being held in captivity and tortured and potentially terminated, and this huge, sexed-up, Aryan, crying face standing in the way, like some gigantic porno scrim” (60-61).
The cruelty in The Handmaid’s Tale does the same thing as the billboard for Captivity. It glamorizes real life horror for entertainment–something we can watch from a safe distance while feeling like we’re being so woke “now more than ever.” Nelson later notes, invoking Susan Sontag, “the question of whether or not an image retains the capacity to produce a strong emotion sidesteps the problem of having that strong emotion is not the same thing as having an understanding and neither is the same thing as taking an action” (61).
All this being said, I’ll totally still watch next week–I’m in too deep.