SPOILERS for episode six of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu
Since The Handmaid’s Tale launched last month, I’d been anxiously awaiting the episode where we would get a glimpse of Serena Joy’s history. It’s been years since I’ve read the novel, but I still remember something of the commander’s wife’s backstory.
A singer and Christian televangelist, Serena Joy was instrumental in building cultural acceptance of the repressively patriarchal world of Gilead. She made her name and her living preaching for “traditional family values,” and railing against sinners.
Some of the most haunting lines in the book come from June, as she reflects on the choices Serena Joy made that brought her - and indeed, their entire shared world - to this point:
She doesn’t make speeches anymore. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be now that she has been taken at her word.
Of course, it’s not difficult to find the Serena Joys in contemporary American life. Women who rail against other women, who insist women shouldn’t vote, who fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, who attempt to eliminate the right to choose.
And what do these women get for their trouble? Fame, sometimes, and money - but I’m confident that these same women happily go to the ballot box every election and exercise their right to vote, just as there is plenty of evidence that anti-choice women access abortion at the very clinics they picket and harass.
These women are fighting for their own disenfranchisement. Do they know? Do they care? Do they imagine that they’ll be spared from the logical conclusion of their own arguments because they were one of the “good ones” who shamed other women to build themselves up?
In The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy, we can see that they won’t be spared - not really. Sure, Serena Joy enjoys a privileged position in the regime, a commander’s wife, as high as a woman can rise. But the devil is in the qualifier: as high as a woman can rise. She is still largely confined to her home. She no longer commands huge audiences or earns money in her own right.
Indeed, even with her status, the small speech she gives to the gathered leadership and Mexican ambassador in episode six earns her sidelong glances and disapproving stares; not because of the content of her address, but because she dares to be a woman speaking in public at all.
In the flashback scene, we see that Commander Fred and Serena Joy once had a full and satisfying relationship, but in their present, he avoids physical contact with her, and clearly no longer consults her as his intellectual equal. After all, he’s the commander, while she’s just a woman - and not even one who can procreate, something she herself had preached as woman’s divine purpose.
Serena Joy got everything she advocated for in her previous life, and now she lives in a world where women truly are second class citizens. Still, she gets to lord herself over those other women, the handmaids, beating June and imprisoning her at her whim.
That’s what internalized misogyny does to you. So long as you get to be superior to those other women, it feels almost bearable. “I’m not like other girls,” you might protest, “I like sports/cars/beer/(insert male-coded hobby here).”
But it’s a trap. Because any man who might like you more for not being “like other women” does not like women. And no matter what interests you cultivate, no matter how much you denigrate femininity, the moment you contradict the expectations and desires of that man, you will become “like other women,” and fair game for his scorn or worse.
Complicity will not save you. The best you might hope for is Serena Joy’s gilded cage - perhaps beautiful, or even exalted, but a cage just the same.