It’s a line that will be recognized even by those who haven’t watched any episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, because of its presence in several trailers across Hulu’s ubiquitous advertising campaign: “Better never means better for everyone.”
This week, we got to see it in the context of the show ― but that wasn’t really necessary. We already knew the commander was the one who would say it, and that he would be saying it to Offred/June, his property.
On one hand, it underlines the absolute power he has over her. He’s admitting, to her face, that he and his cronies instigated a coup in order to install a theocratic dictatorship focused on the subjugation of women. That he was willing to grind her under his heel to increase his own power.
Of course, we already know this to be true. This is a man (like seemingly all influential men in Gilead) who eagerly participates in the monthly ritualized rape of a woman who must submit under penalty of death.
The phrase is a lazy justification by a man who holds all the cards, a man who sees quality of life and autonomy as a zero sum game, and collaborated in extending that worldview to its logical end: the world of Gilead, where the unspoken caste system of the United States is codified into law and color coded clothing for convenient enforcement.
The commander’s worldview is all too common. Too many of us fall into the trap of thinking that for us to advance, someone else must retreat. It’s easy to understand why that’s such a common viewpoint in the United States: this country exists as the result of twin genocides, one of stolen land and and another of stolen labor ― the epitome of one group’s advancement at the expense of others.
This legacy is one that many Americans will go to great lengths to deny ― even as the current administration employs career racists and literal Nazis. Then again, hardly surprising picks from a president whose entire campaign relied on racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, who chose a vice president who built his political career on homophobia.
These are men who, like the commander in The Handmaid’s Tale, truly believe that our subjugation is a fair price to pay for their rise to power.
But millions of Americans don’t accept that. Millions believe in a world where better can mean better for everyone. Millions of people have shown up, to town halls and marches, and on the phone to their senators and representatives, to battle for a society where the success of one doesn’t mean the failure of others.
Disproportionately, these people are female, and people of color. Black women already tried to save us from ourselves, voting 94% for Hillary Clinton even as a majority of white women voted for the fascist yam currently occupying the White House.
It’s obvious that women, and particularly women of color, have a lot to lose as this administration continues to strip down our democracy. The Handmaid’s Tale provides a timely sneak peak of what might be in store for us if we don’t take this threat seriously from the start. (I was only half joking when I wrote that Mike Pence would see it as an inspiring utopia.)
But beyond the current political climate, if/when we survive this presidency, we have to keep fighting for a better world that works for everyone. We must reject a model of government and economics that subjugates the global masses for the profit of an elite few.
That system is perhaps best exemplified by the swamp creatures orbiting the Oval Office these days, but make no mistake, the problem is far larger. A better world for everyone is possible - if we have the courage of our convictions to demand it, and to do the largely unglamorous work of building it together.
If not, we might end up like June: forever listening to a smug old man’s platitudes justifying our oppression in the name of his own financial and political gain.