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Monday, May 8, 2017

A Handmaid's Tale: violence unvarnished, episodes 1-4

The question buzzes: will the "sex" and violence perpetrated against women in A Handmaid's Tale be taken up and enjoyed by people hostile to women? Does showing a high level of violence inure us to it, and make it acceptable and even pleasurable?

Any work of art, once it is released into the world, is open to interpretation and appropriation, often in unexpected ways. And any work of art that includes sex and violence will seized on in the wrong ways by people who relish and perhaps want to reenact the cruelty and sadism they see: they will approve of it. And one can worry greatly that the high levels of ultra-violence in popular miniseries can inure us to it and make it seem normal. I worry when over and over we are inundated with the message that the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and 100th response to any provocation is violence and more violence, and then more, as if this is the only form of power, and the only solution we can possibly conceive to any problem.

A Handmaid's Tale: violence enforces docility 

So the question is not if A Handmaid's Tale may be misappropriated--it will. If that becomes a reason to disavow a mini-series, it is a weak reason indeed: we would at that point have to condemn every program with the faintest whiff of non-redemptive sex or violence. We would, in fact, have to go back to the Hayes rules censoring film. And that we do not want to do.

So while a work of art opens itself to alternative interpretations and while the depiction of violence always holds the danger of valorizing, glamorizing or inuring us to brutality, it seems more fruitful to look at what a particular series might be really be communicating about (sex and) violence.

No filmed media that aspires to critical applause will admit to aiming at the basest instincts, and so we have a history of disingenuousness in many highly-acclaimed works. In a trend possibly started by the original Godfather movies, a film will focus on a single, extraordinary, heroic male, such as Don Corleone. He is a mafia boss, initially shown as a person to respect, soft-spoken but ruthless, cunning but conscious of a strict honor code, willing to kill cold-bloodedly when needed but one who takes care of women, children and his weaker Italian neighbors. Gradually, he and his underworld are then shown to be sordid and reprehensible--but it is the initial, positive, heroic version of this "great" man that lodges and persists in our imaginations. The directors know too well, as did Jane Austen, the power of the first impression, the near impossibility of dislodging it.

Don Corleone, a rich, respected alpha male, attaining an enviable place through violence.

So other filmed series--and now I turn to miniseries that are righty acclaimed for their marvelous acting, scripts and production values--follow the paradigm. The Sopranos, for example, initially sets up Tony Soprano, mafia boss, as a hero and a sympathetic one at that (his own gruesome mother wants to kill him)--and if the series shows him as ever more flawed and ugly, this doesn't dislodge our first impression.

Likewise Walter White in Breaking Bad. How can we not initially feel sympathy--and a condescending pity-- for this downtrodden sad sack of a high school chemistry teacher, moonlighting at a car wash, abused by his boss there, henpecked by his controlling wife, and then diagnosed with lung cancer?  How can we not feel some sense of pleasure when he develops a spine and begins to fight back, using his keen intelligence and science skills to cook the best crystal meth on the street? How can we not feel vindicated as he grows in confidence and begins to outsmart and outdare--to become more audacious--than the most brutally weird sociopaths he deals with? By the time he himself has become the ruthless sociopath, it's too late--we may be appalled when, for instance, he murders his best friend's girlfriend--but we are on his side. If the series increasingly pretends to condemn his behavior, in reality it does not: it admires him for his cunning, brains and ruthlessness. It celebrates that the most ruthless man wins.

Glamorized violence, from the point-of-view of the aggressors.

And it is a man. Always. Women are always put in their place in these series, and it would be a rare woman watching who didn't take away the message "don't ever dare to compete in a man's world or you will be destroyed." (And if nature imitates art, we saw that enacted in the last election: our miniseries propagandized well.) In these series, any woman who has ever in any way stood up to dominant male can expect some form of humiliation, if not death.

But then there are extraordinary series that are rife with violence that don't convey this message message of misogyny or that violence is the only effective form of power. One is the recent Man in a High Tower. Another, so far (and I take the caveat so far seriously) is A Handmaid's Tale.

The show is saturated with disturbing sex and violence, depicting a Christian fundamentalist dystopia in which women are firmly put into their place as subordinate to men. Sterility is a huge problem in this culture and women of a liberal, secular background who happen to be fertile are saved from a slow death sentence cleaning up radioactive waste in order to be bred with important males in the new hierarchy. They are handmaids, like the handmaid Rachel in the Bible used to have children with Jacob. (The series entirely stays away, as the novel does, from Mary as a handmaid to God.)

De-individualized handmaids sit, a hanged body dangling as a reminder of state power.

These women are unequivocally coerced through ever-present violence that ranges from the mundane to the life-threatening into lives they would not in any way choose--dressed in long gowns and ridiculous bonnets, forced to be submissive and docile, compelled to submit to ritualized, unpleasant rape in "The Ceremony," in which, sitting between the spread legs of an older woman, the wife of the man in question, they are subjected to a cold-blooded, humiliating, ritualized intercourse meant to impregnate them.

Rape ritual: Offred is frozen, trying to be elsewhere.

If one has to show violence and coercive sex (rape) in a series, A Handmaid's Tale does it in the best possible way. This is unvarnished, unromanticized violence, that, if we are to see violence, we need to see: real violence that is not heroic, not "empowering," not "ennobling", not even "necessary" and not for a greater good: not to defend one's home or children (a common fantasy encouraging violence), not to defend one's country, and not to enhance one's masculinity (the perpetrators of violence in this series are by and large women so far and unattractive women at that; the men are mere automatons with machine guns): it is violence, as Ellen Moody rightly notes, meant solely to destroy and control less fortunate people, which is what violence most often IS: shown naked, ugly, brutal, and applied both in physical and psychological ways to break its victims. The series reveals the brutality relentlessly and doesn't allow us a way to justify it. It shows us as much as we need to see (which is and should be very uncomfortable--after all, this IS what violence IS) and not more--the camera cuts away once it has made its point.

Further, and this is significant, compared to shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, in A Handmaid's Tale we are wholly meant to identify with the victims of the violence, not the perpetrators. We are, unusually in a mini-series, running with the hare, not the hounds. This is not Walter White achieving confidence and selfhood through murder and mayhem and crushing his enemies to a pulp to become the man at the top of the heap (there are no Walter Whites or Tony Sopranos or Don Corleones in this series): we witness ordinary women (and men, if we include the young chauffeur) who are coerced through violence--witnessing endless hangings and themselves subjected to slaps, kicks, punches, beatings, electric shocks, imprisonment, isolation, cruelty--with no chance (which is very realistic) to fight back in kind. We ought to find it hard to become inured to this violence because it isn't heroicized violence and it is not justified or made palatable as for a greater good in any way: it would be a strange mind indeed that would attracted to or inured to this kind of un-aesthetic terror rather than repelled. It is the ugly violence of bullies, applied to people who can't fight back. The series thus attacks our comforting paradigms about paternalistic violence.

To be continued ...


  1. Thank you for mentioning me -- and my blog by implication. I did not rise to this level of important generality, or only as a side comment. I think your centrally effective point is made at the conclusion: unlike other series, we are not invited to know or sympathize with the perpetrators. While by episode 4 there appears to be sympathy for an apparently quietly sensitive educated commander, and a desperately barren wife, these are free floating traits not issuing in any decent behavior. That the commander in the fourth episode frees Offred from solitary confinement is a case of classic too little and on the wrong terms.

    One can make your points from less ambitious, less distributed and less praised mini-series: the other night I tried Outlander the second season and was just too upset by the frivolous trivializing treatment of gender subjection to carry on. The dialogues embarrassingly utterly unlikely -- costumes from earlier times does make some viewers not ask themselves for believability of character. It's a sina qua non.

  2. Thanks Ellen. I am sure my points can be made from other miniseries, but wanted to focus on those that to my mind trade in confusion and disingenuousness.

  3. Thanks Ellen. I am sure my points can be made from other miniseries, but wanted to focus on those that to my mind trade in confusion and disingenuousness.

  4. Well done, Diane. I like how you put the miniseries in the context of other violent programs and how you differentiate it from the others. Certainly, we don't want censorship no matter how some people may misinterpret a show or book or any work of art's premise.