Every woman I know who watches “The Handmaid’s Tale” has a strategy.
One of my friends only watches during daylight hours. Another, who usually loves to indulge her junk food cravings while watching her favorite TV shows, has decided she can’t eat anything when it’s on. Another is planning to wait until the season ends, so she can review each episode’s plot summary and decide whether to watch, skip or skim. I watch each episode twice, partly because I cover the show for work, and partly because the initial watch is so stressful that on the second viewing I’m able to take in details that my anxiety doesn’t allow for the first time.
The Hulu series’ first season, which aired in 2017 and ended (like the novel that inspired it) on a note of ambiguous hope, was critically acclaimed and almost universally praised among my own circle of peers. But the second season, which premiered earlier this year and moves beyond the plotline of Margaret Atwood’s beloved feminist novel, has received an icier reception.
Lisa Miller at The Cut compared the first few episodes of Season 2 to “torture porn,” questioning whether “it’s feminist to watch women enslaved, degraded, beaten, amputated, and raped?” (She concluded it was not and announced she was “done.”) The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert asked if all the on-screen suffering is really necessary for the show to make obvious its parallels to our own rights-deprived world. (She’s still on the fence.) The Guardian’s Arielle Bernstein wrote that it saddens her “that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has become the quintessential feminist text of 2018 when so much of its ethos is about making women feel angry, sad and guilty about the state of the world we live in.” Natalie Zutter at Tor wondered how many times she could “watch hope get extinguished” before it simply became too much.
Despite these valid critiques and very public declarations that some women are giving up on or disappointed in the show, people are still tuning in ― enough people that a Hulu representative told me that “in its first week, viewing of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2 more than doubled its audience versus Season 1.” That was enough people to get the series renewed for a third season a week after the second season began.
So, for those of us who still find ourselves captivated by a show admittedly full of human suffering ― specifically women’s suffering ― why are we still tuning in?
Do we feel some feminist obligation to see June’s journey through? Is it cathartic to face down some of the worst potential outcomes of our current reality from the safety of our couches? Is it actually motivating? Or do we just love the show’s stunning visuals and equally stunning performances? Do we like signaling that we’re woke using the vernacular of a TV series marketed specifically toward the identities of progressive, millennial women? What, exactly, are we getting out of a series that feels punishing at every turn?
I phoned Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, a professor of English and women’s studies who has written extensively about Atwood, to try and get answers, but she seemed just as confused as I was. She’s still watching “The Handmaid’s Tale,” even though she relates to the recent critiques of Season 2. While she wouldn’t go so far as to call it torture porn (“just torture”), she finds the violence somewhat gratuitous and resents, in particular, the writers’ decision to break June’s (Elisabeth Moss) spirit in Episode 4.
Indeed, after nearly a season and a half of watching June’s inner voice withstand separation from her husband and child, ritual rape, psychological torture at the hand of Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy, and dashed hopes for escape, Episode 4 sees her tormentors finally convince her that what has befallen her is ultimately her fault. June’s external voice becomes robotic as a result, her inner voice all but disappearing. “My fault. My fault. My fault. My fault,” she repeats over and over and over again.
Wagner-Lawlor found this to be “jolting.” “That seemed to me to come out of nowhere,” she said. “There was no real sign to me up to this point that [June] would actually suddenly break.” She wondered aloud whether the show had “gone a little overboard this season.”
By the end of our 40-minute conversation, Wagner-Lawlor was even more torn. “I will keep watching,” she said, “but I’m not waiting for it like I was before.”
In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the revulsion humans feel when confronted with a robot that has an eerie number of human-like qualities but is still clearly inhuman. Once something becomes too much like us ― and yet recognizably not us ― it becomes deeply uncomfortable, even repulsive.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 is essentially the uncanny valley of America in 2018. The season premiere included a scene in which a line of handmaids is noosed to the sounds of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” Just weeks before The Atlantic had hired (and then fired) conservative writer Kevin Williamson, who had previously suggested that women who have abortions should be hanged. The second episode featured a flashback in which ICE agents swarm airports, detaining individuals whose papers are deemed invalid ― including Emily (Alexis Bledel), who is cruelly separated from her wife and child. Just this month it was reported that hundreds of immigrant children have been separated from their parents at the U.S. border. Gileadean society is not our own, and yet pieces of the show hit nauseatingly close to home.
For women of a certain age and political leaning, it’s almost too relatable ― as “SNL” pointed out, it’s “basically our ‘Sex and the City.’”
But perhaps this is also how we derive our utility. Just as “Sex and the City” functioned as a cultural touchstone for women in the early 2000s aching to divine the meaning of 30-something singledom, “The Handmaid’s Tale” serves as a ready-made talking point for women in 2018 who are trying to find a way to make sense of the politics coursing through Washington, D.C., and beyond, however unsettling that may be.
My colleague Claire Fallon argued that another show, NBC’s brilliant sitcom “The Good Place,” provides us the memes by which we can explain our current reality, distilling the utter despair many on the left feel down to a bite-size phrase: “This is the bad place!” “The phrase is both comically mild and comically extreme,” wrote Fallon. “We’re literally in hell, but we’re going to say it with a smile.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” does something similar, but instead of pithy memes that allow us to talk about our collective hell with a smile, the show gives us a shorthand to point to the hell that could be looming in the not-so-distant future ― and get angry about it now.
When a columnist wrote about the potential “redistribution of sex” as though men who feel entitled to women’s physical affection possess a valid point, women on Twitter asked if we already are “sort of” in Gilead. When a Texas teacher was barred from the classroom after showing students a photo of her wife, my roommate deemed it “some Handmaid’s Tale shit.” “Under his eye,” “Praise be” and “May the Lord open” have become wry acknowledgments of mutual understanding and fear. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the rest of President Trump’s female enforcers are Aunt Lydias. The 52 percent of “nice white ladies” who voted for Trump in the first place are Serena Joys.
And the women pushing back on an oppressive status quo? Well, they’re handmaids of course.
What makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” such a powerful symbol for our potential dystopian future is that it not only gives us a language to discuss such a future, but also an aesthetic to represent it. When women showed up in the Texas Senate chambers in March 2017 dressed in blood red robes and white-winged hats to protest anti-abortion measures, they hardly needed to speak. Anyone who had read Atwood’s novel or had even seen a poster for the Hulu show knew the point they were making. Since then, handmaids have popped up across the country ― in California, Alabama, Ohio, Washington D.C., Florida, New Hampshire, New York and Missouri. The overarching message is clear: We will not walk quietly forward into a future where women have no autonomy over our bodies and our lives. We will not help create Gilead through silence and complicity.
Part of the backlash to Season 2 might be a symptom of the show’s precise marketing and promotional scheme. The fandom energy around Season 1 was initially driven by adoration of the novel, but a secondary groundswell formed out of the adaptation’s unintentional timeliness ― after all, Hulu acquired the show before Trump was elected and his administration began instituting eerily Gileadian policies.
“Nothing about the show changed, but the frame changed,” Atwood said during a recent Times Talk, referring to Trump’s influence on the series as its evolved.
The marketing reflected this evolution. To promote Season 1, Hulu enlisted women dressed as handmaids to roam around Austin during SXSW in 2017, and yet its cast and showrunner were still reticent to label the show as explicitly feminist. Season 2 is squarely of the Trump era. It’s no longer just accidentally relevant, but intentionally so. At this year’s SXSW festival, Hulu gave out jean jackets covered with resistance patches. The marketing materials I received before the premiere were emblazoned with #ResistSister. Margaret Atwood herself has indicated that she considers the second season of the show to be a call to action, while Elisabeth Moss has pushed back on those who avoid the series because it’s “too scary.” “Really? You don’t have the balls to watch a TV show?” she said in a May 5 interview with The Guardian. “This is happening in your real life.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is so clearly tailored to a certain group of women that I understand bristling at the implication that we need to watch in order to validate our #feminist #resistance credentials. “You think we don’t know that the world is terrifying, that Iowa just passed the strictest abortion ban in the country, and that Nazis are emboldened?” we rail at our television screens, some of us eventually deciding that our emotional energy would be better spent elsewhere. It (understandably) might feel too exhausting to march and keep up with the news, to make calls to Congress and donate to all the causes that need our money, to speak up for communities we are a part of and those we aren’t ― and also watch a TV show that constantly reminds us not just how bleak a place our nation has become, but how much bleaker it could get.
And yet, I watch.
“There’s this constant thread of hope that things will change,” my friend Maya said when I asked why she also still watches the show. “I have to know what will happen.”
At the end of Episode 5, which aired on May 16, June’s voice returns after a stretch of being psychologically beaten into silence. Just when you’d be forgiven for assuming June was gone for good, in the episode’s final moments, after a suicide attempt and a miscarriage scare, she comes alive again.
“They do not own you,” she whispers through gritted teeth and a single tear to the baby growing inside of her. “And they do not own what you will become. Do you hear me? I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m gonna get us out of here. I promise you. I promise.”
Even in the darkest of circumstances, June finds the means of lighting her own fire. In a perverse way, watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” helps me believe that we can do the same. So I keep watching, week after week, torturous episode after torturous episode, looking for that reassurance, searching for answers.
What lingers with me after watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” is ultimately not the most brutal moments of torture ― hung bodies, torched arms, clitoridectomies. The real staying power is in the symbolism, the shorthand that lets us cut to the core of the terror we feel. There is a satisfaction inherent in using fiction to process reality. Like Gilead, America is an ugly place made palatable with grand rhetoric and beautiful visuals.