The Handmaid’s Tale as Horror Series: Warning Mirror For Our Times? (2017)

Jane takes up Kimberly’s challenge to talk about the TV series shivering spines of women and men alike – for very different reasons – and finds a silver lining in experiencing horror for the sake of change in society.

 The Handmaid’s Tale is, by most accounts, a speculative apocalyptic vision of what happens to women if selfish, predatory men prevail in their greedy ways, toxifying earth’s resources to the point where even human babies are not surviving.  In Margaret Atwood’s imaginary land of Gilead, domineering men with their compliant women, desperate for progeny, capture fertile women, ones who have given birth to babies that lived, and force them into servitude as baby producers. Atwood’s ritualized vision of women as baby machines is horrifying indeed and for many viewers, the series does what it’s meant to do.   It incites fear, arouses anger and inspires action that drives women – and men – to make sure it never happens. It didn’t quite work that way for me. I found it nearly impossible to watch the TV series’ relentless torture of women. Horror made it more difficult for me to see the women’s strengths and the series’ subtle themes of optimism. In my life, in reaction to oppression, I’ve felt tasked with the need to build more than survive and be rescued. I know the series is incredibly popular with women, that Atwood’s vision is highly significant to present times and that you liked what you saw. Let’s talk about it.

 This inciting of fear had different effects on you and I. I was excited to see this tale of showcasing man’s worst shadows as a way of warning society of its darkest possibilities. The tool of terror worked for me. But a few episodes in, you told me you were having a hard time staying involved because you tend to prefer stories that illuminate our issues in positive ways rather than beat you over the head with the worst possible scenarios. We did, however, both agree that the show did a great job of showcasing a hidden fecundity in silence.

 Yes, I was struggling with inner conflict. It doesn’t come easily to watch the horrid consequences of worst-case scenarios where certain elements of fundamentalist religion are taken to an extreme and we’re shown what it would be like to live with them. I think that is what The Handmaid’s Tale, converted from book to TV series, has done. A moral vision for a better future is different than being against one’s worst fear. I believe the feminine core is essentially different than the masculine and its full presence in society essential to a balanced healthy life on earth. A balance in which men and women are equal is critical, in my mind, to a future of human thriving.  I don’t draw my motivation to change, to create a better future from fear.  What motivates me is the insight into the source of strength from which a woman draws upon to survive oppression. I’m looking for greater understanding of a feminine regenerative core bent not only on survival but also on an evolving quality of life on earth for all.

 Interesting, but I think Offred IS a survivor. She is holding out, taking risks, bearing punishment, and hoping for a break to get away.

 But – or and – it is not simply Offred’s rebellion against the skewed system of Gilead that is important. Offred taking chances rouses emotional gasping from audiences and her making trouble is even more terrifying. What interested me was her internal fortitude. She, young and fit, is capable of accommodating herself in the new mode of circumstance.  The harsh punishment of her captors leaves her few alternatives but to retreat into a more fundamental and primitive code.  Ordinarily, she would’ve stood up for moral consideration and risen to the defense of another woman but now she chooses silence. She’s fearful even as she whispers to another handmaiden. She’s silent because she wants to survive.  She takes to stealing, cheating and lying in secret, using her wits to evade any suspicion solely out of smart respect for the harm her captors were willing to impose.  She’s silent because it is simply easier to comply than not. But there’s more to Offred than her journey through a monstrous hall of horrors.  I propose a different focus.  What makes Offred different from the others?  Why is she going to make it through?  It is this question I ask myself and ask you to ask yourself.

I want to speak to that. You ask, is this horror the right way to make these points? I would counter by talking about our contemporary society and the president we have. I don’t think Trump was in office yet when this series came out but Atwood’s original book wasn’t talking about humanity destroying the world with its toxicity as a reason why the babies weren’t being born. In her book, it was more about youth and how the women were prized for youth more than being prized because they could bear. So the series was updated for our times and I find that interesting because it seems like sometimes in dire circumstances, thinking about our world’s ramped up terrorism and mass shootings, you have to counter terror with terror on the side of making a point about the opposite and its almost like that was an appropriate vehicle for the contemporary time and climate.

 I really like it that you’ve gone back to Atwood’s book and the times of the 80’s in America. True, incest (and the rape of youth) was more of an issue than harassment then. But to our current point of silence, I’m inspired by you bringing up these current outbreaks we are seeing in the world in the context of The Handmaid’s Tale dystopian vision. I think outbreak may come from a severe kind of repression that’s been going on, a little like a lid coming off a pressure cooker. A lot of what we are seeing now, this explosive outpouring, this cascading of stories from women about all of the abusive behavior that has been going on is also, sort of, partly connected to a silence that has been re-imposed.

 These stories have always existed.

 Yes, in the silence of the psychologist’s offices. As I watch women challenge powerful men in public today and prevail, I think about the vast realm of silence from which we’ve come.  For most of my life, certainly the 80’s when The Handmaid’s Tale was written, silence was the rule of the land for women abused by men.  True, it had begun to change.  Women were beginning to speak out about childhood sexual abuse.  Freud’s rise to prominence relying on women’s stories of their fathers abusing them were debunked as fantasies and realized as truth. Inadvertently, one could say, Freud led us out of silence. Little girls as being there for the pickings by men, often men in their families, was a societal secret being pried open.  Now, sexual abuse of grown women is yielding to the same can opener.  And Pandora’s box of horrors, hidden away worldwide, is being let loose, flying through the air on a hashtag, #metoo. The Handmaid’s Tale aligns with this phenomenon as a good look at why women are coming forward. The prospect of a patriarchal state controlling women’s bodies is intolerable.  When I first started my career it was an isolated story here and there and now it’s become not, “Do you have a story?” but “What’s your story?” In the series, I was looking for the signs about Offred that were making her a survivor, leading to her becoming someone who comes forth and speaks; that’s just where my eye goes. That’s the vision we need to come from the #metoos.

 Well, I think that is why she was originally shown in her pre-capture life in an interracial relationship and as a very liberated and educated woman. Those were the seeds of what she is bringing into this experience.

 Good point. Prior experience of a life in which she was treated with respect is, no doubt, critical to keeping herself together.

  I also want to speak to what you say about all these women coming out today and how terror is not a great way to provoke this kind of ultimate positive outpouring. The other day on Facebook I received Trump’s entire dialogue from the hot-miked bus recording where he talks about grabbing pussy and it was just white letters in a black box and at the end, it was attributed to The President of the United States, not just Trump. That really jarred me because it made me realize in that little graphic alone, how horrifying and terrifying it is that someone like that is our president. My terror stemmed from the knowledge that we’ve been through female liberation, and as you said from a psychologist’s standpoint, have had decades of becoming open to disclosing harassment and abuse, yet someone like this could be accepted in an authoritarian role of power. Yet, I think this fact also contributed to this great female backlash in the form of #metoos. It’s like his position triggered the floodgates of an opposite polarity. I don’t know if that would have happened if Trump hadn’t done that and come into power. For all our progression, the fecundity of silence was still operating at a severely underground level.

 A little different than watching episode after episode of women being tortured but I get your point. And I don’t disagree that fear is a good motivator for speaking out. Enough is enough. What I’m trying to tease out is that we need more than the excitement of outrage and survival to go the next step. Your speculation is certainly a good one. The presidency and the proliferation of the voices of female victims have happened at the same time.

 It goes along with your point about fear causing outbreaks. I think of theories of duality hypothesizing the more things get worse, the more things on the opposite end swing up to meet them in this sort of great equalizing pendulum. I find it interesting that the series parallels with what is going on in real time. Maybe you didn’t feel it was relevant in 1986 with fresh feminism in our minds, but perhaps we’ve gelled into a complacency that The Handmaid’s Tale serves well in illuminating today.

 Pendulums and parallels. What I think we are connecting is that The Handmaid’s Tale series coming out now on TV, thirty years after the book was written, is serving to showcase an element of silence that gets little attention. Beneath silence is agitation. Buried in silence, female experience is now rising to the surface. Women’s stories are being brought out in high relief to be heard and seen. The arrogance of society’s hidden sexual inequality and women speaking out simultaneously, almost like the cover is coming off at the same time and both things are being revealed equally.

 Well in your Cinemashrink columns, you talk about how pop culture reflects the myths of our lives. To me, there’s a total parallel between the series and life. I don’t think you got this far into the show, but toward the end when Offred does try to connect to the underground activist group Mayday, and she says she wants to be involved, a woman tells her to pick up a package, that she eventually ends up receiving from an allied butcher. The package is full of hundreds of stories by the captured women and this is a total mirror reflection of #metoo, even though an accidental coincidence. It is interesting to me that this synchronicity between fiction and reality occurred at exactly the point it did.

 Speaking of that allied butcher, I want to talk a little bit about the men in the show, the ones who don’t join the bandwagon of Gilead and, even though their efforts are all subversive at this point, are still providing a ray of hope that they believe in, and respect the truth that an integration of equal masculine and feminine energy on earth is essential. There is the “ear,” who Offred has a sexual relationship with, who impregnates her, and in the end, is the one who takes her out of the home where she is imprisoned. There is the assistant to the female Mexican president, who informs Offred that her husband is still alive, and facilitates in getting a message from her to him. These men are going against the rule to help these women in a society that’s built around the feeding of their pleasures and ego. They are going against the grain, and in most respects doing so with a very real chance at dying if they become discovered, their fates potentially relegated to hanging dead on the public punishment wall, their blood seeping to the ground.

 Ultimately, doesn’t this speak to the truth that men and women in balance with each other is a necessary equation for life on earth?

 If we relate these men to myth, we find Hermes, the messenger. When Persephone was abducted into the underworld with Hades, Zeus sent Hermes down to get her. Hermes is the messenger of the gods, and he is the one who goes down to persuade Hades to let her go. She does eat those pomegranates so he makes a deal with Hades that allows her to come up to the light for half the year. With these men’s help, and more specifically the chauffeur, the ear, she is able to escape and find glimpses of the upper world, representing to us viewers a sense of hope. I wouldn’t have gotten it if you hadn’t pointed the role of the chauffeur out to me. Of course, I would point out that Offred, like Persephone before her, depends on men to rescue her. We are only now in a time where women are – and are seen as – rescuing themselves. Perhaps the second series of The Handmaid’s Tale will take us there.

 It reminds me of all the men I know who sympathize with the #metoo movement. Many of my male friends posted that hashtag on their page not to share stories of abuse happening to them, but to very bravely admit that they were in positions in their pasts where they felt they had probably had a hand in harassing a woman, even in the subtlest of ways. By admitting this, they were boldly telling the #metoo women that they had heard them, that they were looking at their own behaviors, and that they were aware and actively engaging in the perpetuity of a better future where they would hold themselves accountable in acting appropriately.

 What’s most ironic to me is that both these messenger men archetypes and the horrible Gilead mentality men live in a society where women are completely repressed yet they completely value the female as mother, it is a complete hypocrisy. The only protection any woman really has in Gilead is her ability to be pregnant. I’m still trying to figure out why watching it was so horrific for me that I could not pick up on your enthusiasm. I am not quite sure what to make of that. As I listen to you talk about the way you saw it and what you say I am much more interested. It’s kind of like it was such a horrific story to watch that I couldn’t really get the beauty of the story that you speak of now, the affirmation of a woman being the source of regeneration and that men also are in honor of that.

 I don’t think the men honor it. I think that they are a slave to their ego and realize that this is the way to perpetuate their seed on the planet.

 The truth! Well, that is an even better way of putting it. There is some kind of basic truth about humanity that both men and women come into a respect for even in the most extreme circumstances as they are imagined in this dystopian novel, fascinating.

 It’s like the mafia where you can have this hardened don who has absolutely no problem killing everyone around but when it comes to his mother, he’s overprotective. It is the mother who will perpetuate the earth and the planet.

 There you go. Powerful analogy.

 I also want to talk about this concept of morality-disguised repression we see in the film and its consequences. We see a lesbian character who is so forced to repress her own sexuality, who even gets her clitoris removed, that she ends up going completely bonkers in the marketplace, stealing a car, ramming down officers of Gilead and going on a strangely glee-filled rebellion of gore before she gets shot down dead. We see the presence of the Jezebel’s bordello in this so-called moral society where even men have become emasculated to pretend that sex is only for procreation, so in fear of the feminine spirit’s equality in the world, that their repressed desires lead them to need this place to secretly “sin.” We see so much evidence that when we repress our shadow sides, it finds ways to bubble up and seethe regardless.

 Exactly, and I think that’s a point you and I are coming to in this talk. Repression ends up in explosions.

 And the idea that all of our seeming progress can be reversed in the blink of an eye.

 Yes, I think this first series was meant to scare people and I hope the second one is going to be about what the women do about it.

 Again, I believe it comes back to the sharing of stories. One of the last scenes in the first season shows us that all these letters that the women are secretly sending along the underground in Handmaid are actually reaching Canada, the refugee country. Today, in real life, we are seeing the Internet as this sort of underground. Although there are so many negative aspects of the technocracy we are all currently sucked into, one positive side to social media is this ability to blast out our experiences to millions of people. The #metoo messages are showing men that they better be careful, and accountable, lest we tell the world about their actions.

 Yes, now we are learning that women in Saudi Arabia are not just secreting themselves in private rooms to study Reading Lolita in Tehran. Now they are publicly expressing that they want to drive and don’t want a man always accompanying them.

 And they might not be saying those defiant things if they didn’t think they had a vehicle to let the whole world know about them. Transparency creates accountability.

 At least we are hoping that’s the case.

 Yes, that whole person-to-person accessibility that the Internet allows for has blossomed a wave of real voices. Instead of people just feeling enclosed in these sheltered societies that rely solely on the news or the propaganda of their administrations, we have the ability now to communicate universally.

 Okay, I get the last word. Out of the fecundity of silence comes a roaring tidal wave of noise.

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