Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, episode 4: nothing sexy about men or violence: subversive television

The men in episode four of A Handmaid's Tale are impotent. This is shocking in a mainstream drama. Fred Waterford, the commander-pater of his dysfunctional fundamentalist family, becomes the most important and literal representation of this impotence. In a normal series, pandering to patriarchy, the handsome and politically powerful Fred would be the hero figure. But heros have erections; virility is essential to the package.  I remember the Jeremy Irons character in The Borgias, playing a pope who uses the ruse of erectile dysfunction to rid himself of an aging lover: the joke (and con)  is on her, because after all with the right (younger) woman, he has no problems.

Fred, however, in this episode, can't manage an erection. So much rides on the Ceremony, and he has a young, fertile woman at his knees, but you can hardly blame him for his troubles, given the nature of this dehumanized sex act. Nevertheless, it's painful and embarrassing to watch him trying desperately to arouse himself with his hand down his pants. It's worse when he goes into the bathroom and his wife follows: he still can't manage an erection, we register his distress in his flailing, pacing and furious rubbling, and yet, for reasons too complicated to be easily understood, he rejects his wife's offer of oral sex. The all-important Ceremony has to be postponed.  Patriarchy doesn't portray its alpha-males this way: this kind of vulnerability and emasculation makes for very subversive TV.

In another, earlier scene, Offred rejects another form of dehumanized sex when her gynecologist, arguing that Fred is infertile, proposes to impregnate her himself on the examination table.  It's a favor that Offred, for all her helplessness, rightly refuses from this creepy unseen man on the other side of a curtain. Her refusal--her agency--leaves him as impotent, if metaphorically so, as Fred.

It's hard to imagine humanity propagated so joylessly as through the sex that is offered Offred.

Offred's handsome young chauffeur is equally impotent: he has no wife, and adultery is clearly out of the question in this new world order, at least for subalterns, so we assume he has no sex life. He is unable to protect or save Offred, though he clearly empathizes: no Rambo he, again muddying our expectations of male potency and protectiveness. In a normal drama, he would have jumped in by this time to use violence and virility to save her. Here, more realistically, he is at the mercy of larger forces.

Offred, however, realizes that she has the power over Fred's sex life. She recognizes that Fred needs an emotional connection to maintain an erection--and she uses that to her advantage, manipulating him so that he forces his wife to free her from her imprisonment in her room. This "punishment" for a "crime" Offed has no control over (though she abjectly apologizes for it to try to get some humane treatment) shows the cruelly arbitrary nature of power and violence.

We see Offred exercise power too in a flashback in which she and her friend Moira kidnap an "aunt" in their training institute and use her garb to get past their guards. Offred is captured, but Moria escapes: that is a striking display of power.  Offred faces torture, but the series relies on fearful, anxious anticipation (Hitchcockian) rather than the actual violence itself to make its point. We know the grammar of this society well enough to understand that something terrible will happen to Offred for her flagrant crime (it is surprising, except that they need her womb, that she is not killed).

We see her strapped by her wrists and ankles face down on a table. She is writhing, terrified and begging for mercy. We feel a sense of deep dread as we witness her vulnerable body. The woman she kidnapped shows up with a switch. Offred heaves and writhes, moans in fear. The woman beats her not on the buttocks, which might sexualize the violence, but on the soles of her bare feet. We know if we have read the novel that the feet are full of nerve endings, so this is very painful, torture, not punishment. The woman strikes her soles, Offred screams, the woman strikes again, Offred screams in agony, and the scene ends. We next see Offred, the soles of her feet bloody, being dragging half conscious and dumped in her dormitory bed. This is desexualized (unless perhaps you have a foot fetish) violence perpetrated on a defenseless person. It is not empowering, not sexy, not glamorous, but simply sordid: violence-torture stripped to its essentials.

At the end of this flashback, we see a glimpse of humanity that creates a stark contrast with the dehumanizing society in which these women are trapped: Offred's dormitory mates, as they file past, each drop a bit of food on the bed for her--tiny, gentle, domestic gestures that signify empathy and humane connection. In essay called “The Pacifist Image,”  Mary Evelyn Jegen writes:
"Goodness expresses itself in love, trust, truth and justice; evil shows itself in deception, injustice, and the reduction of other persons to instruments of self-aggrandizement—three dimensions of violence."
She writes as well that:
"An insight into goodness is born in pain.” 
A Handmaid's Tale dramatizes both Jegen's truths. Evil dehumanizes everyone, even Fred. But the starker victims of its cruelty understand what humanity is. The women's small acts of kindness are not trivial. They show the women haven't capitulated, haven't accepted the cruelty inherent in their overlords. The show intuitively understands that it must, at the risk of triteness and sentimentality ( I have some reservations and could have wished for something more original, less clobbering and cloying, yet ...),  let the camera linger on this scene of quiet generosity, showing the power of genuine connection in which hope lies. 



  1. Just adding a few thoughts to excellent insights: I felt in the way sex was presented, the implication was men don't need a woman to respond and all their sexual feeling can be satisfied in genital sex for themselves, without regard for the woman. Indeed in this scenario, the man would prefer the woman just be still so as not to get in his way.

    I have seen a series I feel so ambivalent about use impotence as well as infertility in key males: it's Outlander. It's a series which panders, is outrageously anti-homosexual, has torture scenes inviting voyeurism and misrepresents torture, but at the same time central males turn impotent, infertile, they have nightmares, need to be mothered and cuddled by our pro-active strong heroine from the 20th century, Claire. I grow so angry at it that I don't think I can finish the second season; it does show how male sexuality is more undermined than it once was in mainstream costume drama. Another place for this undermining are the Tudor costume dramas (Henry VIII matter).

    The chauffeur (as I call him) comes closest to what we imagine when we conjure up "the natural male." I wonder how much Atwood meant us to remember the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley's lover -- a modern analogue is the chauffeur of Downton Abbey, coopted but at first defiant.

    But in Handmaid's Tale the women are at the center; that's why it is so hard to watch. Like so many TV films the protagonist are fiercely punished; we are used to seeing the males at the center fiercely treated, with the females watching from the sidelines.

    I must watch episode 5 tonight ....

  2. Thanks Ellen. It does seem that Fred needs some sort of relationship with Offred to be able to perform sexually.

  3. Very well said.
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