Finally, my baby was asleep at a relatively early hour, and dinner was done. My husband and I had a glorious window to watch the pilot of “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu, the new, much-hyped adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel that chronicles the state, and religion, controlling women’s reproduction.
We curled up and queued it up, and within five minutes, I was in near-hysterical tears. The scene of protagonist Offred’s daughter being taken from her, something I knew what was coming, hit me viscerally in a new way now that I am a (sleep-deprived, emotional) mom. And it didn’t end there: with all the plot points in my head from the book, I found myself biting my lips and covering my eyes nearly the whole time.
We stopped just shy of the pilot’s ending, and went to sleep. But then at 4 a.m, despite the fact that my son was snoozing on, I was up, heart racing— thinking and thinking about the book, the series, the images I had seen.
I didn’t get back to sleep until 6.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is not easy viewing right now, and despite the veritable media circus , that’s why a show in the age of binge-watching is being watched by many women in a drip drop way, or not at all.
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One of the most brilliant aspects of Atwood’s craft in “The Handmaid’s Tale” novel is the narrative voice she creates for protagonist Offred, a first person recollection that, in an epilogue (spoiler) turns out to be a collected artifact from a previous time.
This voice offers us the immediate tension of Offred’s limited perspective (Who in her house is a spy? Who is secretly on her side?), but also distances us from the details she doesn’t see, the violence in other houses and other places. This device gives a story about drowning in totalitarian patriarchy a mitigating current of strength and agency. In fact “The Handmaid’s Tale” contains passages that are almost boring despite the tension of the situation, simulating the punishingly dreary daily life for women in Gilead.
On the page, Offred is the chronicler of her own fate. Because she chooses, as an act of historic record, to recount her own capture, rape, forced separation from her child, and domestic enslavement, the reader experiences the horror of Gilead as a survivor’s story (much like slave narratives of America’s past, which Atwood clearly borrowed from in projecting our future). This storytelling method means there’s an intellectual aspect to the book as well as a visceral one, a chance to ponder the theology of Gilead and how it grew out of the America that once was, or could be.
Today, sadly, we’re getting closer, not further away from that reality. Consider, for example, the leader of an anti-abortion group being appointed to HHS by Trump, via this gem of an article lede in Slate: “Donald Trump announced Friday that he is appointing an opponent of abortion, science, contraception, same-sex marriage, and common sense to the Department of Health and Human Services.”
That means the word “timely” is being applied constantly to the Hulu adaptation starring Elizabeth Moss. The adaptation has garnered universal critical acclaim in a thinkpiece economy, with dozens of articles published about how we’re already living in Gilead thanks to Trump and the right wing. Other articles have cogently made the point that yes, contrary to the cast’s poorly-thought-out recent panel appearance, a show that explores control of female bodies and reproduction is by its nature very feminist.
But some women, no matter how feminist they are or how loyal to Atwood’s literary vision, will never be convinced to tune in, especially not now. Some may feel equally triggered or turned off by re-reading the book, while others feel that the television show in particular makes Gilead unendurably literal—even, by episode three, embellishing Atwood’s plot to add extra scenes of torture and brutality.
Indeed, from my viewing of the pilot, I can say that despite a smart choice to use Moss’s voiceover narration, the show is far from subtle in its realization of Gilead. The camera rarely looks away from the stark violence of Atwood’s world, at least not in the initial episodes, making the viewing experience more relentless than the reading experience. The book’s creepiness came as much from the suggestion of what was happening offstage as the reality of what happened to Offred, but now we see it all.
In the rape scenes, known as the “Ceremony,” the camera can’t help but make the viewer into a voyeur of the assault. When Offred’s daughter is snatched from her, we experience the trauma firsthand, a trauma that in the book is relayed as an ever-festering, but past-life wound.
Add all of this aesthetic intensity to the current political moment and you’ve got a bunch of fans who otherwise would tune in saying, “no thanks,” as I found out when I asked my Facebook community—which largely consists of a lot of outspoken feminists—if any of them were skipping the ballyhooed show.
“I feel the pressure of this time like a big black dog on my chest every minute and I’m not sure I’m in a place where I can watch a narrative representation of my worst fears as a woman,” one said. “Started it last night, watched the first 5 mins, and then was like NOPE and shut my laptop,” another added. “Not watching. I know how bad it is. And that it’ll get worse. The extra stress is just excruciating,” said a former teacher.
Others like me are watching, but slowly, and mediating the way they experience the show—for instance, in one case, having a watch party not to celebrate but because “I’m afraid to watch it alone,” or “waiting until a time when I can really focus and process, with at least one glass of wine.”
It’s possible that for some privileged white women, the same contingent that got “woke” only after Trump’s victory, being triggered by a popular show is a new experience. But this certainly isn’t a new dilemma for Jewish media consumers who have to make similar calculations when watching violent Holocaust content (personally, I’ve read summaries of “Schindler’s List” but never watched the whole thing), or for black people when it comes to films about slavery (“I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story,” Kara Brown wrote last year).
These dilemmas feel more intensified in the Trump era, when we have an administration that seems confused or willfully ignorant about the history of both slavery and the Holocaust, in addition to pursuing a merciless policy towards women and a tolerance of abusers. Even if tuning in to shows like
“The Handmaid’s Tale” seems politically important, it’s even more personally wrenching.
Whatever we decide about this particular show, recent controversies around “trigger warnings” on campus feel quaint right now, that given our entire government is a trigger for women, queer people and members of dozens of historically oppressed groups. An unintended side effect of life in 2017 is that our choices about consuming art, like everything else, have become more fraught.