Like many, I just finished watching Hulu’s most controversial TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has been lauded by critics as a necessary show. Many viewers do think the show is worth watching–especially in a time where women’s rights are being threatened. Despite that though, many women are opting out of watching, because it’s too triggering.
That alone is an interesting and compelling observation: What is too triggering–and is it OK to be triggered, at least, in some capacity? Of course, I think the answer is different for everyone, depending on their threshold for discomfort, experiences, and closeness to those experiences.
I do think we ought to answer this question for ourselves–not just to understand our own limits, but to understand what art and TV and music and media can do without harming viewers’ mental health.
Full disclaimer: Almost 10 years ago, I was raped. I was raped by a man I knew, a man I had been casually dating for a month. When I was a teenager, years before this happened to me, I had read “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the classic book by Margaret Atwood. At the time, I had the reaction that most feminist teens would have: This is scary, but so far in a dystopian future, it can’t happen. I loved it, but I also wasn’t exactly scared or triggered by it. I also had very different–and thankfully limited–experiences back then.
But now, over 10 years later and many experiences (all the beautiful and ugly) under my belt, my feelings have changed. And of course, the show departs from the book–and the fact that it’s visual evokes a vastly different reaction out of many viewers, which I wrote about here–especially considering a lot of the shots are from a male gaze and that the show is largely written and directed by men instead of women (although Atwood is the executive producer, thankfully).
Having watched it now, as a survivor, of course it was triggering. It was triggering to see Offred held down by her rapist, by her rapist’s wife, to cry after having sex with her commander on several occasions. It was frightening to see how she was emotionally and physically manipulated, how she feared for her safety every single day, how she felt alone.
While Offred’s experiences are clearly much more severe than my own (I don’t live in a dystopia), they mimicked mine enough that I could see and feel and taste the aloneness I felt during my rape (everything hurt and I couldn’t hear anything for a few minutes), the complete loneliness after when you feel invisible and want to stay invisible and disappear into a different world.
This is compounded by the completely solitary, alien experience that happens when politicians say sexual assault is a “preexisting condition.” We’re living in a moment where women and queer folks’ health is being threatened, and people are already frightened. I could taste the sweat from fear while watching these scenes. I could feel my body squirm from remembered pain.
I had flashbacks–I had nightmares. Yet, I kept watching it–because I also felt like I needed this reminder–a reminder that I couldn’t get too comfortable. I wasn’t the only one either–I talked to my friends, my sister, asked my social media community what they thought. And a lot of their answers mimicked mine.
Some people, unlike me, however, were opting to stop watching it, because it was too close to home, too real. I kept hearing the world real over and over again, like a reverse mantra. I couldn’t blame them–I still can’t. The show is triggering. It is painful.
For instance, Shannon Sarna, editor of The Nosher, told me that she wasn’t as triggered by the violence, for instance, but at the loss of Offred’s daughter Hannah. We see Hannah literally being ripped out of her mother’s arms–and then we see Serena Joy cruelly take Offred to see Hannah from a locked car, and drive away without letting Offred see or hug her or talk to her at all.
Sarna said that it was “terrifying, anxiety-inducing, and too real.” The show isn’t just about sexual violence, it’s about motherhood–and the absence of it–and what happens when we police it. She went on to say:
“During those scenes with Offred’s daughter, I almost had to turn off the show. It was so hard to watch.”
Many others responded to me on social media, saying things like:
“I loved it but had nightmares sometimes.” “I loved the book and I love Atwood’s work, but this show was way too triggering in the current dystopian society we live in for me to continue watching it and I couldn’t get through the first episode.”
“I’m still thinking about what I think about it. It triggered me but I watched anyway. I feel like I “should ” have stopped watching but couldn’t.”
“So triggering (I watched through episode 4 and had to take a break and also questioning the merits of a show that did that to women and is supposedly about women’s rights–but written, directed, produced almost entirely by men).”
This tweet especially captures how many people on social media feel, who haven’t even started it yet:
I got hulu partly because of Handmaid’s Tale – still couldn’t bring myself to finish show just because of how terrifyingly real it is
— hannah cohen (@hcohenpoet) June 22, 2017
So, what does that mean for art in general? On one hand, I don’t believe in censorship and I believe art should push the general public to question the status quo–why gender norms, for instance, are the way that they are. It is OK, for instance, to be unsettled and feel discomfort from a piece of art–to have a threshold when it comes to violence of any kind.
What makes this show difficult to watch is the fact that it’s real–and that Offred’s abusers are also her helpers. Her commander, for instance, is the reason she was able to see the outside world (all during, of course, a power play where he was in charge). This led Offred to get back in touch with Moira, for instance–a life-changing event.
This duality, the fact that her abusers aren’t abusers at every moment, is uncomfortable because it’s real. And real is scary. At times we feel sympathy for Serena Joy, for instance, despite the fact that she also threatened Hannah’s life as a way to manipulate Offred to stay complicit.
And yes, it feels a little like we, the audience, are supposed to be grateful for the small bits of humanness the protagonist experiences–and that is uncomfortable. But how often do we do that in our own lives, at work, during an adoption hearing, trying to breastfeed? For people in marginalized communities, this is their life everyday.
The crucial distinction we all need to make, as viewers, is the fact that discomfort and harm are not the same. And the line between the two is not the same for everyone. A show like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” can be triggering, but not necessarily harmful. In this way, the show is doing what’s it’s supposed to: making us think about ways women are controlled.
That being said, I completely understand why others may choose not to engage with the show, or any kind of art, that may trigger unwanted feelings and memories.
Yet the show feels important to me, because while it focuses on women, it’s about any community that is silenced and abused. And only by raising awareness can we make progress.