Donald J. Trump was elected president in November 2016, and by February 2017 sales of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale had spiked 200 percent. Purchases also spiraled upward for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (first published in 1932 and 1935, respectively). And after Kellyanne Conway suggested that Trump’s insistence that his inauguration had had the highest attendance ever was simply “an alternative fact,” sales of George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984 jumped as well.
Dark times call for dark stories. And the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2017–) is about as dark as it gets. In the show, a revolution has transformed the United States into Gilead, a world ruled by fundamentalists who forbid women to read, write, or earn money. Though this does not appear to be a world run by Jews, I hasten to add that it would be wrong to peg these true believers as “Christian” fundamentalists. The teachings of Jesus are wholly lacking from Gilead, and the God of this new society is the vengeful patriarch of the Old Testament.
The few remaining fertile women are Handmaids, torn away from their own children and held prisoner as livestock for breeding. “We are concubines. Two-legged wombs,” the heroine explains. The Aunts are older women who train the Handmaids in subservience. The Commanders are the power elite who run the society and have a monthly obligation to rape their Handmaids, while the Wives hold the women down. This ritual “Ceremony” is justified by the biblical story of the infertile Rachel, who forced her servant to bear a child by her husband, Jacob.
The first season of Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s book had already been scripted and was in production at the time of the 2016 presidential election. But even though it was too late for the show to react directly to current events in that first season, when the program premiered in late April 2017 it was difficult not to see The Handmaid’s Tale as an allegorical response to the dystopian moment that Americans have stumbled into. After all, the country had just elected a president who, among other things, had bragged of his own acts of sexual assault and was doing his best to eliminate reproductive rights for women, both nationally and internationally.1 For those opposed to the xenophobia, racism, and misogyny embodied by the Trump administration, there is every day a feeling of being cut off at the knees or of falling without a parachute. And yet, women are marching and fighting back. There is still the option to resist.
In the world of Gilead, conversely, resistance must be internalized, contained, thought but never expressed, or expressed only in whispers or via furtive glances. It is exactly this internalization that the Hulu series captures so precisely, building a world based on Atwood’s 1985 novel but retooled for a contemporary audience. If the original novel was the perfect allegorical response to the Reagan years, and continues to resonate today, the online series speaks quite precisely to the Trump moment.
As is typical of television, whether online or on cable or broadcast, the program has multiple directors. As is less typical of television, it has multiple female directors (four out of five). As showrunner Bruce Miller explains, “Our show’s a bit of an outlier because there was such a huge push from [us], and me personally, to hire women at every single level. The show has such a female-centered voice in the main character. Through the first season you really recognize the difference between a female director’s eye and a male director’s eye, because we had all female directors.”2 The first three episodes of season 1 (which had only ten episodes) were directed by Reed Morano: she is generally considered the creative force who set the aesthetic parameters —the shallow focus, extreme overhead shots, and tightly circumscribed color palette—that persisted throughout season 1 and that carries on, with some modifications, into season 2.3
Morano—who began her career as a cinematographer—brings a very specific visual sensibility to the show, a sensibility that is implemented by the show’s director of photography, Colin Watkinson.4 Particularly striking is the intense, relentless use of shallow focus.5 The camera often lingers painfully on the heroine’s face, and Elisabeth Moss’s soul-crushing performance is all the more remarkable when you consider that the camera was barely a foot away from her when many scenes were shot. Certainly, there are establishing shots of exteriors captured in tight deep focus; however, as soon as characters appear, the background is likely to recede to a blur.
The effect is mixed. Sometimes the viewer feels claustrophobia, but more often one feels the loneliness of the Handmaids, who often wear extreme wimples that make peripheral vision, or eye contact in general, virtually impossible. Even when they are not wearing the headgear, the Handmaids’ psychological solitude is pervasive, and that solitude is reinforced by the series’ constant use of inner monologue. The women can barely look at each other, and they barely speak; from the beginning, the heroine suffers from not only excruciating loneliness and sadness but also excruciating boredom.
Consider, for example, the framing sequences of the pilot, “Offred” (season 1, episode 1). Following a chase scene that establishes the backstory—the protagonist running with her child, until they are captured and separated—the episode jumps ahead several years and introduces Offred (literally “Of Fred,” meaning his possession) sitting at her windowsill, initially in a medium long shot, then in a medium shot.
At first she has no face. She is purely a figure, bathed in soft light. Then, as the specifics of her features are slowly revealed, she quietly names the objects in the room in an interior monologue. She then ponders how she might “escape” by suicide, adding “my name is Offred. I had another name, but it’s forbidden now.” Her face is closer now, though it is partly shadowed, and she looks away from the camera as she says, “So many things are forbidden now.” The episode then proceeds to introduce viewers to the world of Gilead, including flashbacks to the Rachel and Leah Center, where Handmaids are trained, as well as flashbacks to Offred’s life before the revolution that created Gilead. Viewers do learn a lot of backstory, but the key force driving this opening episode is not plot per se, but character building.
Offred exits the house to meet her walking and shopping companion and, eventually, is forced to join with a large group of Handmaids in murdering a man described by Aunt Lydia as an enemy of Gilead, a putative rapist. Companions are not for companionship but, rather, to make one feel under surveillance: the system works by making women fear other women. On this afternoon, though, following the group assault, Offred and her companion, Ofglen, speak frankly for the first time. Each had assumed that the other was a true believer in Gilead, but as they stop by a headgear shop that used to be an ice-cream parlor, Ofglen quietly tells Offred: “They had the most amazing salted caramel. It was better than sex. [long pause] Like, good sex.”
Following this candid and dangerous declaration—the possibility that sex might be pleasurable, the recollection of a treasured past—each knows that the other is not a spy. Ofglen says: “They do that really well, make us distrust each other.” This furtive conversation may not be a moment of liberation for Offred, but it is a crucial moment of revelation. She now perceives that she is not alone. As the two women continue to walk, they speak of their lost children. These are important plot points, true, but the more important element is the possibility of discourse. As they reach the house where Offred lives, Ofglen says, “It was nice to finally meet you.” Offred says, “You too,” and dares to smile, her lips almost accidentally curling into a snarl, the muscles for smiling having long ago fallen into disuse.
Ofglen then warns her that there is “an eye” (a Gilead spy) in the house and that she needs to be careful. Offred is clearly frightened by this. Moving inside, where she can remove her blinkers, she glances around at the household staff. The music swells, implying menace, but what is actually important here is not so much that Offred is in danger but that she is looking. To be afraid is not the same as to be happy, but it is a sign of being alive. To look for danger is an activity, a way not to be simply in a situation (Offred’s identical days of entrapment) but to be in a story. To be in a story is to have motivations, to consider that if there are friends (Ofglen) and villains (an eye), then something new and unpredictable could happen.6 There could be more to life than naming objects in a room and hoping your monthly period does not arrive.
“Someone is watching, here. Someone is always watching,” Offred says (silently, to herself), as she moves upstairs to her room. There is a cut to a medium long shot in the window where her earlier inner monologue took place, the one that ended with her revealing herself as “Offred.” Now Offred, identically lit, says “Nothing can change.” And, indeed, this shot itself appears to be an identical bookend to the windowsill shot that initially introduced viewers to Offred. Were nothing changed, this might signal a moment of defeat for the heroine, echoing her earlier contemplation of suicide. But then she adds, “It all has to look the same.” With a cut to a medium close-up, and finally a full close-up, Offred is lit the same as she was at the beginning of the episode, but her face is different, conveying determination rather than defeat. She continues, “because I intend to survive. For her. Her [i.e. her daughter’s] name is Hannah. My husband was Luke. My name is June.” Cut to the closing credits, as Lesley Gore’s protofeminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me” plays on the soundtrack.
Transformed by the conversation with her companion, Offred is no longer Offred to herself or, by extension, to the audience. She has named herself. In the opening shot in the window, she could not even use her own true name in an inner monologue, because she had fully internalized the interdiction against pre-Gilead names. But now, June has begun to forge a plan. Everything will look the same—her subservience to Mrs. Waterford, her monthly rape by Commander Waterford—but inside she will be different. Inside, she will now be June. Thus begins her empowerment, which will increase throughout the ten-episode season. Gradually, she finds herself by finding other women with whom to connect and by resisting a system that depends upon women’s distrusting other women.
So intent is the show on fostering a notion of female solidarity that it even takes some trouble to show that the Commander’s wife might be worthy of empathy, though any such notion is a very tough sell. Mrs. Waterford, viewers eventually learn, had been a sort of Phyllis Schlafly type before the revolution. In her book A Woman’s Place, she theorized how the new fundamentalist state would work, how women would be subservient to their husbands, how immorality and depravity would be eliminated. The real-life Schlafly’s greatest triumph was almost single-handedly defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. (She had a corps of devoted followers whom she trained in feminine activism, which included baking fresh pies to graciously present to congressmen who voted against the ERA.7)
Like the real-life Schlafly, the fictional Mrs. Waterford has found great personal empowerment in conceptualizing the disempowerment of women. Further, both women have fostered and exploited fundamentalist religious fervor. Although Gilead is not specifically a Christian theocracy, it does in many ways reflect the kind of rigidly moral state that born-again politicos have been agitating for since their emergence from separatism into worldly engagement, in the 1980s and beyond.8
That initial activism centered largely on opposition to reproductive rights, and this is the context that fostered Atwood’s book. While much of the material in her novel responds very specifically to Reagan-era conservatism—as exemplified by the Meese Commission, the feminist antiporn movement, and the anti-ERA movement—the antifundamentalist ethos of the book translates easily to today. True, televangelism is not in the mainstream spotlight as it was in the Reagan years (that Mrs. Waterford, a.k.a. Serena Joy, is a televangelist in the book but not in the TV series speaks to this shift), but the push to eliminate access to abortion and birth control, and to discriminate against gays and lesbians, is still front and center. Schlafly herself embodied the historical trajectory of right-wing Christian activism. She began her career as a Barry Goldwater supporter, was at the top of her game in the Reagan years, and died a vocal Trump supporter.9
But Mrs. Waterford achieves even greater success, fostering a true right-wing revolution via her book and public appearances. After the revolution, she is, of course, demoted to housewife and no longer allowed to participate in administering the new world she conceptualized. She is devastated, and one may, against one’s will, feel pity for her at times. Ultimately, though, she is a monster who sees June as less than human.
In the final episode of season 1, June discovers that she is pregnant—with a child that Mrs. Waterford will take from her immediately after its birth. Mrs. Waterford promises her that “as long as my baby is safe, so is yours.” To demonstrate her power, she locks June in the back of her limo and lets her see her daughter, Hannah, through the window. June melts down completely, screaming, “What is wrong with you? What is wrong with you? How can you do this? You are deranged. You’re fucking evil. … You are a goddamned mother-fucking monster … evil cunt … you crazy evil bitch!”
The “C word” is often understood as the most misogynist insult in the English language, and therefore it might seem particularly inappropriate for one woman to level it against another; yet June explodes with this nasty four-letter word precisely because Mrs. Waterford’s offenses are explicitly at the expense of other women. The Handmaid’s Tale condemns the patriarchal oppression of women by men, but, arguably, it condemns the betrayal of women by women even more strongly. The point is further elaborated in season 2 (episode 4, “Other Women”), when June first confronts her own guilt about the suffering that her affair with Luke caused his then-wife, Angie. It’s a smart move for the show, which up until then has peddled the affair as the triumph of true love with no interest in the woman destroyed by the affair. It is only when Mrs. Waterford asserts ownership over her own unborn baby than June understands that she had been heartless to Angie.
Later in the season, the argument for female solidarity is pushed even further. Following a suicide bombing by a Handmaid, Commander Waterford is out of commission in the hospital, and Mrs. Waterford quietly seizes power. Serena is caught by her husband and whipped. Is the audience meant to feel sorry for her? Perhaps. But Serena literally wrote the book on female subservience, creating a theoretical foundation for a totalitarian state that sustains itself with rape. Notably, as the season progresses she feels herself increasingly trapped in the cage that she herself crafted. Her palpable suffering (and Yvonne Strahovski’s very fine performance) may provoke ambivalence in some viewers; others will lean toward schadenfreude.
Consider, for example, the cruelty Mrs. Waterford displays in the premiere episode of season 2, in which June finds herself on a gynecological table, feet in stirrups. Mrs. Waterford leans in to once again demonstrate her power over her: “I’d like to be clear. I will not have any more recalcitrance. All of your disruptions and all of your games and your secrets, all of that smart-girl bullshit is finished. Do you understand me?” June responds brilliantly, with impeccable smart-ass delivery: “Don’t get upset, Serena. It’s bad for the baby.”
The character of June in season 2 thus asserts herself as someone with power. In the pilot episode, she had been instructed to call her mistress “Mrs. Waterford.” But in the first episode of season 2, pointedly entitled “June,” the heroine turns things upside down by calling the deranged woman by her first name. Season 2 thus resonates with season 1 by opening with the notion that to name is to be powerful. Notably, when June loses herself at the end of “Other Women,” she no longer responds to her name; viewers sense powerfully that “Offred” has returned.
Throughout seasons 1 and 2, The Handmaid’s Tale not only is beautifully written, acted, and produced, but also shapes a strong feminist response to the current political environment. Importantly, though, it is a not a literal response, in the way that, for instance, a conventional documentary on the #MeToo movement would be. Instead, the Hulu show is speculative fiction, or—the term that I prefer—science fiction.10 The Handmaid’s Tale responds to the current political environment specifically through the deployment of the tropes of its genre. To understand the show, then, one must first consider its status as allegory.
The Power of Allegory: “Lost Inside Adorable Illusion and I Cannot Hide”
The Handmaid’s Tale obviously resonates strongly with many viewers as an allegorical, science-fictional response to the Trump administration; the five Emmys, two Golden Globes, and Peabody Award that the show has won after only one year not only nod to the program’s high quality but also acknowledge it as a valuable response to dire current events.11 The Peabody Awards board observes, for example, that the series is “crackling with political relevance and vibrancy” and “responds as much to the attacks on women’s rights and agency of recent years as to those of the 1980s that inspired the original novel, playing out the political ramifications of the regulation of women’s bodies and reproductive rights.”12
Yet, there are some conservative journalists who reject the notion of Gilead’s allegorical relevance. The Weekly Standard suggests that it’s silly to use the TV show to understand Trump, since Gilead is run by moral extremists, and Trump “is no Moral Majoritarian.” Better to consider Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) instead, the columnist opines.13 Another Weekly Standard writer agrees, reiterating that the uptick in Atwood’s book sales is a foolish response to Trump, since religious fundamentalism has little to do with a “thrice-married, non-church-going, affair-with-a-porn-star-having libertine.”14 Setting aside the alarming fact that Trump is overwhelmingly supported by American evangelicals, what these writers miss is that allegory is not so damn literal.15
National Review’s Heather Wilhelm takes a similarly literal stance, chafing at Atwood’s notion that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale suddenly felt like a documentary after the presidential election. Wilhelm writes, “Sheesh. You’d think that, as a woman, I would have noticed the collapse of the world around me … [but] you never notice the brutal rise of a women-enslaving dystopia when you’re attending a gala celebrating successful women entrepreneurs just a few blocks down from a clinic that cheerfully offers almost-free government sponsored-subsidized IUDs!”16 If some real-life women have access to birth control, then a fictional fantasy that conveys the opposite is somehow unbelievable?
Wilhelm has missed the point. Notwithstanding her flat-footed contention that the show is not worthy of the “documentary” label because American citizens don’t technically live in a dystopian Christian theocratic state (yet), the show has provoked tremendous emotional resonance with many American women’s lived experience. In particular, it resonates with the enduring, witnessing of, and calling out of sexual assault that has characterized the Trump era. Allegory doesn’t show exactly how things are as often as it shows exactly how things feel.
Consider again the scene from season 1 in which the Handmaids beat an accused rapist to death. Series viewers were by then already aware that the Handmaids live as domestic breeding animals, and that they are trained not to show physical or emotional reactions during their monthly rape ceremony. It is a world of torment and constraint, offering few emotional outlets. So, while the Handmaids don’t know this stranger whom they have been commanded to kill, they go at their task with gusto. It’s only the first episode, and viewers have only started to learn about the complexity of the Handmaids’ world, but somehow their rage feels more than appropriate. Moreover, it feels familiar—too familiar, even, given the feelings inevitably provoked in women by daily news reports of workplace sexual assault. There is no denying that watching Atwood’s women in action, with their lethal rocks and fingernails, and their justifiable anger, is particularly difficult at this historical moment.
Where conservative critics dismiss The Handmaid’s Tale as overwrought, liberal critics embrace it as timely, as the ultimate expression of the Trump moment. Both are missing one key analytical piece of the puzzle: The Handmaid’s Tale is not a literal cautionary tale about the dangers of Trumpism. It is, rather, an allegorical narrative, and the beauty of allegory as a component of genre (usually science fiction) is its very malleability. It offers up stories that can be applied to an understanding of contemporary existence, and sometimes it even stands the test of time. In essence, allegorical stories are those that can be understood on their own terms but that can also be taken to a deeper level of interpretation and read as broader, more global commentary.
Though allegory has a rich history within science-fiction novels and films, it has less of a presence on the small screen. Indeed, TV’s allegorical turn has been fairly recent, a characteristic of the post-network environment. Of course, there has always been television that was more political than it appeared to be.17 But challenging allegorical television is more common in the cable and streaming era because it necessitates intricate world building, character development, and storytelling to function at a complex level. Further, it requires that viewers watch every episode, in order—a practice made easier today.
Two specific sci-fi examples here offer a useful contrast. Star Trek (NBC, 1966–69) was a liberal Cold War text that sometimes elliptically took a stand on such specific issues as the absurdity of racism and of the Cold War doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” Allegorical episodes such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and “Balance of Terror” might have made more sense to those who watched the show regularly and understood the histories of the characters, but such loyalty was not requisite. Battlestar Galactica (Syfy, 2004–9), by contrast, took on the ethics of torture and the war on terror for four seasons straight, notwithstanding its veering off into somewhat incoherent religious territory in its final season. A viewer couldn’t easily jump into the middle of it and understand the bigger picture painted by achingly complex season arcs and achingly flawed characters.
Such complexity is more easily enabled by the post-network climate of niche programming delivered via binge and repeat viewing.18 In the pre-VCR, pre-DVR, and pre-streaming network era of LOP (least objectionable programming), there was far less financial incentive to create TV that was deliberately complicated, difficult, and political. Heavily serial narratives make complicated allegories more viable today and make science fiction as a genre particularly allegorically adept and adaptable. Indeed, if a sci-fi media text isn’t on some level “really about something else,” its audience may feel let down.
Science fiction may offer many pleasures, such as enthralling special effects, but it also offers the pleasure of political insights. It is in the literalization of contemporary crises—using alien invasion as a catalyst to examine existential alienation in Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016), for example—that science fiction’s dystopian imaginary worlds have so often found their greatest power. The best sci-fi takes what people already live with and pushes it further.
Crafting Ustopia: “When Logic and Proportion Have Fallen Sloppy Dead … Feed Your Head, Feed Your Head”
Try to imagine Atwood as she was writing her novel in the 1980s. She began in West Berlin, where she was able to visit the other side of the Wall and experience “the flavor of life in a totalitarian—but supposedly utopian—regime,” and she completed it in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she was warned that if she rode a bicycle, drivers would assume she was a communist and try to run her down.19
At that peculiar Cold War moment, Reagan’s Meese Commission was teaming up with antipornography feminists to promote censorship. What if this alliance had been taken one step further, and they had won their crusade to stamp out moral depravity, creating a new version of a world that kept women “safe” and shaping their own twisted version of “utopia”? Or as Atwood puts it, “ustopia,” a neologism that fuses “utopia” and “dystopia”—her notion being that every dystopia is someone’s utopia, and vice versa. Does a military dictatorship, religious cult, or gated community represent heaven or hell? That depends on where you are standing, on whether you are a Stepford Husband or a Stepford Wife.
In Hulu’s version of Atwood’s tale, the utopia-dystopia dialectic surfaces most directly in one quick, grueling moment of dialogue that occurs in season 1 when a Handmaid tells her companion to stop making waves. She seems to be a villainous type who is complicit with the power elite. But then she explains that she’s never had it so good: she’s got food and shelter, a relatively easy life, whereas she used to have to blow guys in parking lots to score money for drugs. Her dystopia was enacted in the past, back when things were “normal.” If you’d been living a comfortable middle-class life before the new regime came into power, Gilead is a nightmare. If you were living on the streets, it might be a paradise. This is the only moment in which the series seems to seriously acknowledge class inequality. The book does a better job on this front. Indeed, the novel’s heroine is much less upwardly mobile than June.
But what book and TV show share at the deepest level is a dependence on elements that are believable because they are nothing new: “I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools,” Atwood explains.20 Regulating women’s reproduction, forcing them to wear certain kinds of “modest” clothing, not allowing women to vote or own property, even staging group hangings and stonings: these are not made-up things. Rather, Atwood configured them in new ways in her book, which in the end is a novel set in the future that is about its present (1980s Reagan America), while also feeling a bit like the past (say, Puritan America). Or even the more recent past: it was not illegal for American women to be fired for being pregnant until 1978, they could not apply for credit in their own names until 1974, and marital rape was criminalized on a state-by-state basis only in the 1970s and nationally only in 1993.21
To adapt Atwood’s novel to television today has required both translating it into an audiovisual text and updating it to comment on contemporary America. The Hulu version rises to the challenge by moving away from the novel’s 1980s politics and into the current moment. Exactly how The Handmaid’s Tale allegorizes this particular moment of political crisis—and the “ustopia” it might engender—is worthy of close examination.
The program’s overall sexual politics make a viewer’s thoughts turn to the ongoing struggle off-screen for sexual autonomy and reproductive rights, but that general observation doesn’t get at exactly what is specific to the show’s emergence amid today’s Trump and #MeToo moments. Richard Dyer once wonderfully explained that musicals do not show how utopias would be structured but instead how they would feel.22 The Handmaid’s Tale does show how dystopia (or ustopia) might be structured, but more pressingly shows what it would—or rather, does—feel like. Two scenes illustrate this feeling quite well, while a third engages in a much more literal (not simply felt but also enacted) ustopian moment.
In “Late” (season 1, episode 3), the show provides an extensive view of life before America became Gilead. Protagonists June and Moira find that the regular female barista is gone from their favorite coffee shop, replaced by a nasty man who is unsympathetic when their credit cards are rejected. They cannot access their money, apparently. Shortly thereafter, June and her female coworkers are fired from their publishing jobs and trundled out of the building by men with automatic weapons. Congress and the president are slaughtered, with the violence blamed vaguely on “terrorists.” Soon, citizens take to the streets to protest, only to be gunned down by the military.
June and Moira find themselves seeking refuge from the bullets inside the same coffee shop seen earlier. As bullets fly in slow motion, a haunting remix of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” plays. As I watch the scene unfurling, my heart races, and I forget to breathe. This feels like contemporary America, when a lunatic might open fire with a semiautomatic weapon at any church, concert, or school. The possibility of a mass shooting is now an everyday reality. That “real life” mass shooters are not necessarily operating in league with the police force does not alter the felt authenticity of the scene.
In the United States, today’s police are not routinely turning automatic weapons on large groups of protestors in the streets, but increasingly such action feels like a possibility. Moreover, images of black Americans being shot and killed by police have become a regular part of the news cycle, with visibility in no way reducing recurrence. The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale fails quite miserably, though, on matters of race. It is impossible to believe that a fundamentalist Christian theocratic regime in which a wealthy elite enslaves fertile women, and where gays and lesbians are executed as “gender traitors,” is also a world in which racism simply no longer exists. In Atwood’s novel (and in the 1990 film adaptation by Volker Schlöndorff), the “Children of Ham” have been deported and the only remaining blacks are a handful of domestic servants.
In the Hulu version of the tale, however, racial hierarchies (not to mention eugenics) do not appear to exist. This postracial world may signal a long gestation period for the scripts, dating to the Obama presidency and a false expectation of a Hilary Clinton presidency, but the erasure of racism undercuts the program’s engagement with its 2017–18 moment. If The Handmaid’s Tale aptly addresses how the culture is grappling with sexual assault, harassment, and subjugation, it offers much less insight into how differences other than gender are at play in templates of inequality. Season 1, episode 1, for example, opens with a black man driving frantically as police sirens ring in the background. One might easily assume that he fears for his life precisely because he is black, but this reading is quickly eliminated as it is revealed that it is his fertile white wife who is the real target of the hunt.
The exclusion of race from The Handmaid’s Tale diminishes its standing as a ustopian allegory of life in Trump America, but it does not cancel out all that the show gets right. For instance, a scene in “The Bridge” (season 1, episode 9) centers on the Handmaid Janine, who has stolen her baby back from her Commander and his wife and is perched on a bridge over the Charles River, intending to jump and take her child with her. June tries to comfort Janine by telling her that “change is coming … it’s all going to go back to normal.” Janine asks if they’ll be able to go out for karaoke. The banality here is a perfect expression of the desire to reclaim an earlier time that was carefree or, dare I say, “normal.”
In a previous scene, Aunt Lydia, who has trained the Handmaids with cattle prod in hand, tells them: “I know this must feel very strange, but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This many not seem ordinary to you right now. But after a time it will.” The Handmaid’s Tale resonates so strongly, I believe, with the contemporary political moment precisely because it refuses to accept the “new normal” as normal. It acknowledges its audience’s simultaneous feelings of resistance and exhaustion.
These scenes resonate for contemporary viewers while also pointing to the way that science fiction’s ustopias are able to show something that feels real, but with a distancing twist. Fears of gun violence and of caving in to a “new normal” are all real fears expressed in season 1, but “in real life,” women are still allowed to make and spend money and are not forced to breed for others.
Season 2, though, differs markedly from season 1 on several counts. Most obviously, it takes place after the events of the novel, and is therefore free to go in new directions. The second season was developed and produced after Trump’s election. Where season 1 felt prescient, season 2 often feels directly and powerfully engaged with the election’s aftermath. This is particularly true of “Unwomen” (season 2, episode 2), which centers largely on the story of the Handmaid Emily.
“Unwomen” gives Emily a fully developed backstory and shows her life before the events of season 1. Most terrifying is an extended scene of Emily with her wife, Sylvia, and their child at Boston’s Logan Airport. Sylvia and their son have Canadian passports, but Emily does not. The airport is packed to the gills with panicked people attempting to emigrate. At the final checkpoint, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) police tell Emily that her marriage is no longer legally valid. She cannot cross the border. She will never see her wife and child ever again.
The Logan Airport scene with Emily and her family was obviously conceived in response to the DACA crisis and the Trump administration’s dedication to deporting the undocumented, such as thirty-nine-year-old Jorge Garcia, a Michigan landscaper who was forced to return to Mexico in January 2018, tearfully leaving his wife and two children in the airport.23 Obviously, a crucial difference is that the characters of Emily and her wife are white, upper-middle-class professionals, unlike Garcia. As already noted, The Handmaid’s Tale’s relative disinterest in engaging with issues of class, race, and ethnicity is the show’s great weakness. Still, the scene highlights the dire stakes of the current deportation crisis. If Emily is in a position of privilege as a white professional, she also occupies a risky position as a lesbian, for “gender traitors” are routinely executed in Gilead, unless their wombs are viable.
I take the airport scene as a call for empathy with all of the deported, in Hulu’s fictional world as well as in real life. This is one of the more literal moments in the show, too, since the officials who force Emily to stay are not from an agency with a title like “Gilead Immigration Force” but instead are identified specifically as ICE police, wearing the exact same uniforms as today’s ICE police. This is no minor point. Gilead is a fictional world that has destroyed most recognizable reference points. The Boston Globe is no longer published; what remains is the bullet-riddled wall where the Globe reporters were lined up and executed. Films and TV are long gone, leaving behind only one dust-encrusted DVD of Friends. The old street and traffic signage is gone. And yet the ICE police are still the ICE police, making the point: fear this agency now. This ustopia is already here and too important to be cloaked in allegory. Indeed, if the airport scene was initially conceived with the Dreamers in mind, it has taken on an even more powerful valence in light of the crisis of children at the U.S. border being separated from their parents and detained in cages in “tender care” centers—a story that exploded in the news media midway through the second season. The Handmaid’s Tale literally cannot keep up with the hellishness of real life in Trump America.
Conclusion: “Rain Keeps Falling, Rain Keeps Falling, Down, Down, Down, Down”
Jeffrey Brown of PBS opens an interview with Atwood and Moss about The Handmaid’s Tale by explaining: “The idea for the series and the shooting began well before the election of Donald Trump, but, since November, Atwood’s book has returned to the best-seller list, and the series is generating many questions of parallels to today.” Atwood adds that young women who have taken their rights for granted are now concerned that “maybe somebody’s going to take these rights away. And that may happen in all areas of life, including health care, minimum wage, and including forcing people to have babies.”
At this point, Brown says something both obvious and strange, smiling almost sheepishly: “That’s not very hopeful.” Atwood lightly scolds him, also smiling: “Well, it’s not me making this absence of hope.” Brown responds, “But you can write the future. You could write a more hopeful future, hmm?” It is a darkly comic moment, with Brown naively suggesting that Atwood should simply write happier stuff. She responds with realism: “I could, but I would have to make it plausible, would I not? So, I do believe that America is quite an ornery and diverse place, and I don’t think people are going to roll over easily for this [loss of rights]. But a totalitarian [society] gets serious the moment at which it fires on a protest crowd.”24
Atwood’s point about plausibility rings true. The Handmaid’s Tale does not appear at a hopeful moment for America, and a more optimistic story about the nation’s future would not likely resonate equally for viewers. That said, it can be dangerous and counterproductive to refuse all optimism. When “Offred” declares herself to be “June” at the end of the pilot episode, she is being optimistic that this tactic can be the foundation of a survival strategy. This assumption may be naive, but she has to start somewhere. As the Simple Minds song “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” plays at the end of “Birth Day” (season 1, episode 2), June feels almost triumphant. She spots her friend at the gate, as Jim Kerr sings, “Will you recognize me?” Ofglen turns around, the music stops flat, and a brief exchange reveals that June’s friend is gone, that this is the new “Ofglen.” Cut to the titles as the chorus swells loudly, “Hey, hey, hey, hey.”
The entire series rests on such wrenching moments of ups and downs, of hopes forged and crushed. Against all odds, season 1 nonetheless ends on a hopeful note. Asked once again to stone a criminal, this time one of their own, the Handmaids decline. “It’s their own fault,” June says in voice-over, describing the growing resistance. “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
Yet in season 2, things turn even darker. What remains is the cycle of finding hope, then having hope dashed, then finding new hope. Emily, for example, is slowly dying in the colonies with other exiled women when crazy Janine arrives, spouting silliness that God will take care of her, and Emily snaps at her. Janine suggests that two of the women in the colonies should get married, and a rabbi also living in the work camp officiates. Emily is furious at Janine; a wedding will not save anyone from radiation poisoning. Yet when one of the newlyweds dies, Emily agrees that “it was a beautiful ceremony” and places the wedding bouquet on the dead bride’s chest. Emily has come to understand that rituals, if not religion itself, may offer hope.
Now, hope alone is not enough to sustain anyone through the Trump years, but it is a place to start—a means of not rolling over easily, as Atwood puts it. Belief in justice does not inherently enable justice, but lack of belief in justice is immobilizing. Above all, it is crucial to recognize that only collective resistance stands a chance in the Trump era. Notwithstanding its darkness, season 2 inspires by embracing the notion of collective resistance.
Particularly striking is “Smart Power” (season 2, episode 9), in which Mr. and Mrs. Waterford go on a diplomatic mission to Canada. They are initially welcomed almost as zoological curiosities. Serena is even given an itinerary with childish pictures instead of words out of deference to the prohibition against women reading in Gilead, and Canadian officials exchange pleasantries with her as a kind of cultural exchange. But then refugees from Gilead appear in the street and stage a powerful protest. Later, a large pile of smuggled letters written by the oppressed women of Gilead are passed to June’s husband, Luke, and they are posted online that night.
In the morning, the Canadian government has had a change of heart and declines to engage in diplomatic discussions with Gilead. The letters have made the women of Gilead real by displaying their voices, their stories. A Canadian official tells Commander Waterford, “We believe the women.” Waterford is incredulous: “Yesterday, you believed me.” He and Serena depart, their tails between their legs. This is the triumph of collective action—by the protestors in the streets and by the letter writers themselves. Luke and his friends gather together, and upon hearing that the Gilead delegation has left Canadian airspace, they spontaneously, softly, powerfully sing “America, the Beautiful.”
Remember in Casablanca when the patrons of Rick’s Café Américain spontaneously burst into “La Marseillaise” as a big fuck-you to the Nazis? That’s kind of what it feels like. As Americans face down a fascist president, as they contend with babies torn from their mother’s bosoms at the border, as they confront a powerful resurgence in White Nationalist activism, the country has perhaps never felt more divided, or threatened. And yet the only way to defeat Trumpism is by standing together and collectively pushing back. The Handmaid’s Tale may not show viewers exactly how to do that, but it does show its audience exactly what it would feel like.
The final episodes of season 2 are both inspirational and dispiriting. Serena increasingly dehumanizes June, telling the unborn child within her: “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee. … ” It is a biblical passage frequently cited by American evangelicals to justify banning abortion; viewed through the show’s allegorical “ustopian” lens, the line constitutes an indictment of Serena. Her damning behavior continues, as, angered by June’s going into false labor, Serena suggests that Commander Waterford induce labor “the old-fashioned way.” She pinions June as Waterford violates her. This is not a “Ceremony”—with its phony, sanctifying Bible readings and corrupt sense of moral purpose—but unadulterated rape. Serena and her husband revel in it, leaning into each other with ferocious delight. The scene is crucial to the series, which so far had shown a cleaned-up version of the Ceremony that, for all the suffering it causes its victims, nonetheless conforms to the revolutionary vision of the founders of Gilead. It precisely illustrates the whole notion of ustopia: that one person’s heaven is another’s hell.
Once the child is born, June names her Holly, after her mother, but Serena calls her Nicole. Ultimately, June escapes with the baby; inexplicably, her parting words to her tormentor are “Blessings on you, Serena.” Handing the baby off to Emily for safekeeping, June chillingly instructs: “Call her Nicole.” This is tantamount to naming the child “Ofserena.” For a series so thoughtfully engaged with the politics of naming, this is an unforgivable turn of events. And for a series so invested in the notion of female solidarity, the apparent redemption of Serena is quite troubling. Are viewers to accept that mutual, maternal love for Holly/Nicole is a force so strong as to counteract one woman’s perpetrating acts of sexual violence against another? Serena’s putative redemption is a serious misstep on the show’s part.
Yet the series also concludes with material that is both emotionally and politically on the mark. June ultimately makes the right choice: instead of fleeing, she remains in Gilead so that she can save her daughter Hannah. And June’s saviors this time are not men (the resistance that appears to rescue her as a deus ex machina at the end of season 1) but, instead, an elaborate network of Marthas, the servants of Gilead. Further, in the final episodes, June not only births her own baby (both plausibly and heroically) but also learns of the existence of Radio Free America, and of the American government in exile in Anchorage. The radio announcer—guest-voiced by Oprah Winfrey—segues into Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” with these words: “Now a tune to remind everyone listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor, we are still here. Stars and stripes forever, baby.” The tune speaks powerfully to an emotionally fraught June.
The season closes on an even smarter musical note, with the Talking Heads classic “Burning Down the House” playing as June walks toward, not away from, a Gilead that is already in flames. The revolution is coming. Stars and stripes forever, baby.
1. Olga Khazan, “ ‘More Than a Gag Rule’: The Head of a Family-Planning Organization on How Trump’s Change to a Federal Birth-Control Program Will Affect Women,” The Atlantic, June 4, 2018, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/06/texas-trump-title-x/561905/; Sarah Boseley, “How Trump Signed a Global Death Warrant for Women,” The Guardian, July 21, 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jul/21/trump-global-death-warrant-women-family-plan ning-population-reproductive-rights-mexico-city-policy.
2. Elahe Izadi, “ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Showrunner Explains How the Hulu Series Went beyond the Book in Season 2,” Washington Post, April 25, 2018, http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/the-handmaids-tale-showrunner-explains-how-the-hulu-series-went-beyond-the-book-in-season-2/2018/04/24/e2a412ae-47d6-11e8-827e-190efaf1f1ee_story.html?utm_term=.5a76380fcca2.
3. The use of shallow focus continues in season 2, as the lighting grows ever darker, and the number of high overhead shots seems to intensify. Colin Watkinson was seeking to develop a color palette inspired by Andrew Wyeth. Daron James, “ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Production Crew Pushes the Envelope in Season 2,” Variety, April 25, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/artisans/production/handmaids-tale-season-2-1202785607/.
4. Zoe White came on board as an additional cinematographer for season 2. When Morano joined the American Society of Cinematographers in 2013, she was only its fourteenth female member. See Tatiana Siegel, “Is Reed Morano the next Star Wars Director?” Hollywood Reporter, January 19, 2018, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/is-reed-morano-next-star-wars-director-1075060.
5. YouTuber Evan Puschak offers an insightful analysis of the program’s use of shallow focus in “One Reason the Handmaid’s Tale Won Emmys Best Drama,” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cY4aCnfrqss. Thanks to Kaelan Doyle Myerscough for bringing this video to my attention.
6. In the novel, storytelling becomes increasingly important as the narrative progresses. See Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Random House, 1985), 344. In Hulu’s version, June’s voice-over is a TV device to reveal her interiority. There is no sense that she is crafting a story for others to read or hear, with the exception of a few powerful moments late in season 2. In the novel, it is only through this telling, though it is often painful, that Offred is able to survive.
7. Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
8. Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). Schlafly became an icon to born-again women, though she herself was a Catholic, not an evangelical Protestant.
9. Goldwater’s failed 1964 presidential campaign emboldened both the secular and theocratic right, though Goldwater himself would later unequivocally reject the Christian Right. Heather Hendershot, Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line (New York: HarperCollins, 2016). On Schlafly, see also Thomas Kaplan, “Donald Trump Praises Phyllis Schlafly as ‘Hero’ at Her Funeral,” New York Times, September 10, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/us/politics/donald-trump-phyllis-schlafly.html.
10. Atwood specifically refers to the show as speculative fiction, rejecting science fiction as a term that refers to “a galaxy far, far away.” Jeffrey Brown, “In Dystopian ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ a Warning for a New Generation Not to Take Rights for Granted,” PBS News Hour, April 25, 2017, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/dystopian-handmaids-tale-warning-new-generation-not-take-rights-granted. Atwood’s feeling is that speculative fiction “could really happen,” and she does not see science fiction through that lens. Since so much sci-fi does in fact imagine things that could really happen, I feel comfortable describing The Handmaid’s Tale as SF. Ultimately, “speculative fiction” tends to function as a status marker, like “graphic novels” (instead of “comics”) or “erotica” instead of “pornography.” See Cecilia Mancuso, “Speculative or Science Fiction? As Margaret Atwood Shows, There Isn’t Much Distinction,” The Guardian, August 10, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/10/speculative-or-science-fiction-as-margaret-atwood-shows-there-isnt-much-distinction.
11. It also won awards from the American Film Institute, the Art Directors Guild, the African-American Film Critics Association, the Costume Designers Guild, the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, and the Writers Guild of America.
12. For the full 2017 unsigned text, see: http://www.peabodyawards.com/award-profile/the-handmaids-tale.
13. “Newly Resonant Nonsense,” Scrapbook, Weekly Standard, May 1, 2017, http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-scrapbook/newly-resonant-nonsense-2007837.
14. Ethan Epstein, “The Novel for Our Time,” Weekly Standard, January 19, 2018, http://www.weeklystandard.com/ethan-epstein/the-novel-for-our-time.
15. Ruth Graham, “Church of The Donald: Never Mind Fox; Trump’s Most Reliable Media Mouthpiece Is Now Christian TV,” Politico, May/June 2018, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/04/22/trump-christian-evangelical-conservatives-television-tbn-cbn-218008.
16. Heather Wilhelm, “The Handmaid’s Hysteria,” National Review, April 27, 2017, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/447082/handmaids-tale-hulu-series-does-not-depict-trumps-america.
17. Lynn Spigel, “From Domestic Space to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sitcom,” in Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).
18. Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York: New York University Press, 2015).
19. Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds (New York: Random House, 2011), 87.
20. Atwood, 88.
21. Margaret Atwood, “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again,” interview by Junot Diaz, Boston Review, June 29, 2017, http://bostonreview.net/literature-culture-margaret-at wood-junot-diaz-make-margaret-atwood-fiction-again. Since this interview, Diaz himself has been accused of sexual misconduct.
22. Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), vol. 2.
23. Derek Hawkins, “A Michigan Father, Too Old for DACA, Is Deported after Three Decades in the U.S.,” Washington Post, January 16, 2018, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morn ing-mix/wp/2018/01/16/too-old-for-daca-a-michigan-father-is-deported-after-three-decades-in-the-u-s/?utm_term=.5f49383 924b6.
24. Brown, “Dystopian ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’”
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