As a portrayal of misogyny and violence against women, The Handmaid’s Tale ticks all the boxes. As a piece of empowering feminist storytelling, it couldn’t be more misguided. By Helen Razer.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is the first line of a book whose remarkable parts are not formed by stories but a conscious resistance to their telling. The line is almost always attributed, correctly, to Joan Didion, but never to the Didion I believe I once read. Although I can’t be sure, as this first line from a book, The White Album, is no longer tied to the chic experiment in ennui it precedes. Instead, it has become a celebration of the story. It is a popular quote, now independent of its popular author.
Didion never did say that the story is our saviour. Or that the story is itself the living truth. And she did not suggest that by the transformation of our pain into stories, our collective pain could end with their Me Too telling.
No moment in Western feminist struggle has placed more faith in the individual story than this one. And perhaps no television drama has fancied its narrative’s chances of changing the world than The Handmaid’s Tale. A story about the determination of one woman to tell her powerful story is a story for our time.
The protagonist of this feminist horror hit is – or was, in the Before Times of a fallen United States – a white knowledge worker, ergo just the sort of person ready to misread Didion. She believes that stories are the purest form of resistance: “If this is a story I’m telling, I must be telling it to someone. There’s always someone, even when there’s no one.” This is the sort of pompous noise that handmaid Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, is wont to make. Moss, also a producer on the Hulu series, is wont to tell a largely uncritical entertainment press that the schlock in which she stars is vital. Of the story, she has warned reporters, “This is happening in your real life. Wake up, people. Wake up.”
Not to underplay the mass brute force of what we now call misogyny, but, Elisabeth. Please. This systematised brutality is not happening, will not happen and has never happened to the comfortable women of our class. It is only in the Republic of Gilead – a theocracy established in record time by a group of powerful but infertile Christian fundamentalists of the former US – that ambitious ladies who once held jobs in publishing find their sexual organs and children in the custody of the state. As Lakota humourist Tiffany Midge wrote recently to Handmaid’s devotees, it is “Indigenous women [who] are well-acquainted with that American dystopian nightmare”.
This is no elegant allegory of life as it is currently endured by an Offred. It is a historical pick-and-mix fiction made unusually popular through its seeming valorisation of the story as a political tool, or the political tool, per Me Too. But the story is founded, as was the Margaret Atwood novel on which it is based, upon theft. In its efforts to depict a complex identified by many Western feminists as a “rape culture”, The Handmaid’s Tale treats itself to stories from any place it pleases, places where a rape culture can truly be identified.
Atwood has said publicly that she “challenged” herself to include only events in her 1985 novel that had occurred in history. Showrunners for the drama have said they follow this lead. Apparently none of these people have ever heard of Lionel Shriver, such is their ease with the appropriation of trauma.
This is not only a sombrero act of imperial greed and an appeasement of white liberal feminist fantasy – remember, Lakota women, we suffer too! – but it makes the show feel a bit stupid. If one “borrows” the experience of women in Iran circa 1980, conflates this with the violence of mass sterilisation and kidnapping done to First Nations people and adds a little of what-you-fancy from accounts of weaponised rape, one is bound to make a mess.
Atwood and her pals at Hulu met the “challenge” of taking real pain from its historical context and then gave it all to Offred, and the good old USA. Those who have escaped Gilead’s theocracy gather together as asylum seekers in Canada. If the season two episode “Northern Exposure” does not have immediate emetic effect, your stomach is probably strong enough to watch the many abuses of Offred. Here, we find a group of culturally diverse but identically refined knowledge worker refugees huddled together. They sing “America the Beautiful”, these poor stateless people.
Now, I’m no foreign policy whiz, but I can say that there has been no such incident in history. I “challenge” producers of this program to tell us all when privileged citizens of the world’s hegemon were forced to whisper the words of their national song.
Still. Stories. They make us powerful, human and true. Offred the storyteller is held by a majority of critics to be truly, heroically human. In 2017, Jessica Valenti spoke for many in The Guardian when she called this work “familiar”, and a reminder that women “don’t know if we can trust the men in our lives”. In 2018, Valenti spoke for the many again. The show’s great quality, she writes, is to “make its shocking dystopia feel so terrifyingly possible”.
Didion’s The White Album gave me, then a girl, this dystopian sense. Perhaps if I were younger now, and more detached by time from the Didion take on stories, I’d feel more like a Valenti. Perhaps I’d feel that this story is one to instruct and advance all women. Perhaps I would not feel that it is “terrifyingly possible” that large numbers of women in my class are masturbating every Thursday night.
Let’s be real here, sisters. The Handmaid’s Tale is not even about the impossible attempt to politicise storytelling so much as it is a cover for the pleasure of violence.
The Handmaid’s Tale is something to look at. It is so exquisitely shot that we might compare it to The White Album, whose great beauty also serves horror. Didion writes so well that her theme of our nearness to death – death of the social contract, of US idealism, of the author’s own good health – is one into which we are drawn. But there’s more than a bit that divides the writer who is a bit late to a modernist literary adventure from the cinematographer who gives us beautiful rape.
This last phrase is obscene, but necessary to convey such obscenity. The rape scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale are frequent, vivid and, in my view, intended not to provoke our feminist thought, but our masochistic female pleasure. To be clear: masochistic pleasure is not an unlawful thing for a woman to take. It is not by necessity an abasement. But, perhaps, let’s not deny it. The repressed desire, so we’re told, can return to us when we least expect it. Tell your story of arousal in order that it lives.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a bad film and a hilariously bad book. But the millions of straight middle-aged chicks aroused by the idea of renewable virginity owned it. On my way to an early screening of the first flick, I passed young, protesting women in Rosie the Riveter rag-bows. I remembered myself at their age, picketing not a piece of forgettable crap but Blue Velvet. These women had my complete understanding, and so did those inside the cinema. I was full of opinions about the commodification of female desire, until I sat with 600 old tarts and we all screamed “Christian!” together.
I see pictures of protesting women dressed like Offred in long red dresses, and I really don’t get it much at all. I can almost understand how cosplay of someone else’s story is a rebellion, but I do not understand the wide acceptance by white women who call themselves feminist of this terrible show.
It has been said in print very often that with The Handmaid’s Tale we see the male gaze truly interrupted for the first time. Even if convinced of the fact of this gaze that is male, the fact that this production is paced with female bodies subject to rape, torture and clitoridectomy and goodness knows what else I felt too unclean to watch is surely worth discussion.
A few critics have asked where all these body parts have gone, and one reporter from USA Today asked Moss when the violence would stop. She said, “When we’ve told the story that we needed to tell.”
There’s an especially good critique of this “storytelling” by novelist Francine Prose. In The New York Review of Books, she writes against uncritical feminist gratitude for an “orgy of violence against women – promoted and marketed as high-minded, politically astute popular entertainment”.
If The Handmaid’s Tale has any story to tell us about current conditions at all, it is this: progressive white women from good homes were waiting for a show that depicted their class as resilient, traumatised sex slaves.
When this sex slave is not narrating her fear of men, her recent brutalisation by men or the freedom she enjoyed in the liberal Before Times, she is narrating narration. When the actor who plays this sex slave is not promising us more violence, she is doing the same.
Stories have the power to move us, but they may not have the strength of human history – that buffet from which The Handmaid’s Tale takes its nourishing pain and feeds it to white women.
MULTIMEDIA The Burrangong Affray
Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, until August 12
VISUAL ART Design for Life: Grant and Mary Featherston
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until October 7
BALLET The Sleeping Beauty
Adelaide Festival Centre, July 6-12
THEATRE Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, July 5-29
Sydney Opera House, July 6—August 24
CULTURE Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song
Melba Hall, Melbourne, July 7-13
MULTIMEDIA Cooks River Aboriginal Oral History
107 Redfern, Sydney, until July 8
FESTIVAL Freedom Time
Coburg Velodrome, Melbourne, June 30
CULTURE Queer Expo
St Kilda Town Hall, Melbourne, until July 1
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 30, 2018 as "Hood winked".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.