The Handmaid’s Tale, Episode 4: What’s So Scary About Women?

Repression of female sexuality isn’t only about fear, it’s about power.

Trigger warning: This post contains discussion about rape, sexual abuse and mistreatment of women.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read unless you have watched the first four episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale has a sense of humor, you guys! Gay people are always coming out of the closet to survive. Offred goes into the closet to find the strength to save herself. How hilarious!

Last week the show finished on a highly disturbing note: The government essentially turned Ofglen into a Barbie. It was pointed out to me that the shot was highly stylized, Ofglen sporting a futuristic-looking, transparent girdle over her mangled vagina. The ugliness of their world is made more unsettling by its gauzy, jewel-toned beauty.

Episode 4, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum” (Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down), this week’s slower-paced installment, was practically a frothy relief, full of flashbacks featuring Moira and Offred/June making an escape from the high school gym/Stepford training camp. In Gilead women have to hurt each other in order to stay alive. Patriarchal societies rely on women turning against one another, which is not a novel concept; we live this reality every day in American society.

I’ve been frustrated with the landscape of American politics as of late. Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” Don’t we, though? It’s a liberal curse in a way. Moira couldn’t stomach really hurting Aunt Elizabeth during the escape. She left her oppressor tied to a pole, screaming, a choice that threatened Moira’s safe passage. Pointing out Moira’s compassion is victim-blaming to an extent; I recognize this, but I think it’s OK to feel disappointed when a character chooses the moral high ground over revenge or even personal security. We know Moira’s a feminist, the flashbacks showed that, so it’s her values and her human decency that dictate her behavior. She sticks to her beliefs despite the stress and the torture she’s endured at the hands of other women. One could argue that Moira maintaining her sense of self, her identity, even in the worst conditions is, itself, survival.

The Commander flouts convention several times, exposing his discomfort with the strict rules of Gilead. He attempts to connect with Offred before his state-sanctioned monthly raping. He can’t get it up. He runs away. He plays a mean game of Scrabble with the prisoner. And yet, he’s not blameless, is he? When his wife offers strategy on dealing with an Aunt who defected to Canada, he abruptly shuts her down, saying essentially, “Sweetie, us men have it under control.”

The heart of Gilead’s doctrine and its structure is female oppression. Even their common greeting, “Blessed be the fruit,” alludes to female reproduction. Gilead reveres reproduction while criminalizing female sexuality, which begs the question, what’s so dangerous about sex and women?

Is the fear that women, with their beguiling ways, lead good men like the Commander astray? Offred does use her sexuality to manipulate her way out of Serena Joy’s punishment. Is it Eve leading Adam down the garden path all over again?

Only women can bring life into the world. In Gilead, babies are big business, and the womb, along with everything else connected to it, belongs to the government. By subverting women, men gain control over the future. Men are able to steal the reproductive process to further their own ends. Therefore, repression of female sexuality isn’t only about fear, it’s about power.

See you next week for Episode 5. Until then, I’ll meet you on Twitter.

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