April 26, 2017

Don’t let the bastards tell you what your own damn show is about: Stars of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale don’t think the show is feminist


This book is not about feminism.

The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 dystopian sci-fi novel The Handmaid’s Tale debuts on Hulu today. For those unfamiliar with the work, it’s about a concubine whose job is to bear the children of a powerful military official in the Republic of Gilead, a fundamentalist Christian theocracy that has assumed power in what used to be New England. In this brave new republic, women have been fully disenfranchised and more or less reduced (again) to property.

Dark stuff, people. Dark stuff.

Last Friday, at the Tribeca Film Festival, a lucky group of fans were treated to a one-night-only sneak preview of the show’s first episode. By all accounts the screening was a success. People watched the episode, and liked it. Everything went according to plan.

Then the press conference started, and attendees started asking questions about the show’s engagement with our political moment, and about the cast’s relationship to the presumably feminist political project of Atwood’s book.

Given the subject matter of the book, and given the increasingly urgent conversation about what does and does not constitute a proper and effective feminist politics, this probably came as no surprise to the cast and crew. What was surprising was the somewhat equivocal response that several gave.

Elisabeth Moss, who stars as Offred, the titular handmaid, objected to the classification, saying:

“For me, [The Handmaid’s Tale is] not a feminist story… It’s a human story because women’s rights are human rights. So, for me… I never intended to play [Mad Men character] Peggy [Olsen] as a feminist. I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They’re women, and they’re humans.”

Madeline Brewer, playing Offred’s friend Janine, similarly rejected the notion that The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist work simply by virtue of being about a woman:

“I think that any story, if it is a story being told by a strong, powerful woman… any story that’s just a powerful woman owning herself in any way is automatically deemed ‘feminist.’ But it’s just a story about a woman. I don’t think that this is any sort of feminist propaganda. I think that it’s a story about women and about humans… This story affects all people.”

Moss and Brewer are certainly right about one thing: Women are humans. Their audience was less sure about the rest.

According to a piece by De Elizabeth in TeenVogue, “the comments of the cast did not sit will with fans, many of whom (understandably) see this story as women fighting back against oppression, something that is inherently feminist,” and Laura Bradley, writing in Vanity Fair, reported that Brewer and Moss’s responses were “much less in tune with the audience than the episode itself had been.”

Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia, was bolder in her response, but still shied away from making an explicitly feminist statement:

“What I love about this, among other things, is the notion ‘stay awake.’ Stay. awake… I hope it has a massive effect on people. I hope they picket the White House, and I hope they’re wearing these costumes… I hope it’s all over the place, and it doesn’t end.”

To be fair, Atwood herself has been somewhat cagey on the question of Handmaid’s feminist bona fides. In a recent piece in the Guardian, she was cool on the notion that her best-known work was a cut-and-dried “feminist dystopia”:

The Handmaid’s Tale has often been called a “feminist dystopia”, but that term is not strictly accurate. In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. It would be two-layered in structure: top layer men, bottom layer women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level; then descending levels of power and status with men and women in each…

And fair enough! The Handmaid’s Tale is about power, and how power distorts human relationships. It’s a serious book about a lot of different things, and it’s maybe a little unfair to reduce the whole thing to two loaded and somewhat unstable words. That said, it seems more than a little strange so explicitly to defuse whatever feminist politics are active in—and potentially complicated by—the source material, on the premise that women are humans, and that it would be—what, inconvenient?—to differentiate or diagnose or address their specific mode of exploitation under a system of general misery.

Of course, the great thing about cultural production is that, eventually, it speaks for itself, and no public softshoeing by Moss or Brewer will change that. See you on the couch.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.