TV, Uncategorized

The Handmaid’s Tale – a necessary if harrowing watch…

After having read Fiona Sturges’ article for The Guardian on why she’s stopped watching The Handmaid’s Tale and having spoken to friends who found the series too upsetting to watch, I was forced to reflect on why I continue to torture myself with June/Offred’s (Elizabeth Moss) story. Sturges argues that the second series has lost its sense of hope and instead all the viewer is shown is senseless cruelty and violence. But violence has always been a central part of this show, and we still witness the Handmaids’ resistance against the regime. As for this desire of viewers to remain ignorant of the horrors of Gilead – it is not doing us any favours. Not all TV is designed to be enjoyable; good shows will challenge their viewers. And this show challenges its audience by reminding them of the terrors of our world – terrors which Margaret Atwood herself borrowed to design the oppressive regime of Gilead. Fear of exposure to June’s story is a kneejerk reaction lest her tale threaten to destroy our ignorance of the horrors going on in our world.

In the age of #MeToo and Time’s Up, we can discuss inequality, prejudice, and sexual harassment more openly. I will not deny or downplay the positive responses that these campaigns have generated. They’re crucial in allowing voices of victims and survivors to be heard, and they have created practical impacts in the workplace, and most critically they have woken people up to the problems that women and marginalised groups face. But internet trends are often fleeting, and the momentum that these movements have built could be lost without continued discussion and awareness. We may well see film stars congregate on the red carpet in a sea of black dresses, but those photos, in a world of information and data overload, only stay in the mind as long as they are trending on Twitter. We’re only human; we have short memories, we grow complacent. We see stars making a stand and then we are liable to assume the problem has been solved. Harassment has been called out, the world is fixed: end of story. But more often than not it’s not so simple, and we’re naïve to think the work’s done.

Yet a thirteen-episode series, stretched out over the same number of weeks, and not binge-watched? That’s a whole different matter. Those thirteen hours of television are given time to digest, be discussed, and be re-watched. With such consistent viewing, Gilead does not leave you.

For some, the creators of The Handmaid’s Tale should have ended on an ambiguous note as Atwood’s novel did:

And so I step up, into the darkness within, or else the light.

This last flicker of hope and then a fictional academic dissection of Offred’s account is how Atwood chooses to close the tale. Would it not have been better for the show’s creators to have teased its audience with this last ray of hope and the certain knowledge of Gilead’s fall? Maybe, but as a reader inclined to believe the best, I can only assure myself that June did get out and that Gilead is gone – and once these stories are over there is little reason to dwell on them. Such a response generates complacency, the TV series does no such thing. Continuing to tell The Handmaid’s Tale serves to remind us that such stories do not just end, and it ensures that Offred’s voice is heard. We also see, through the extent of the state of Gilead, how all people are negatively affected by its oppressive structure. And Mayday’s resistance is only in its most basic form – anonymous, lower than grass-roots level, and often it fails.

Viewers may well want a happy ending. I too wait (perhaps in vain) for the episode when Offred finally crosses the Canadian border, with Hannah, her baby, and Nick in tow, able to reclaim her identity as June and recover from her horrible experience as a Handmaid. But is this what we need? Not all stories have a happy ending, and Atwood’s Republic of Gilead is a regime that she envisioned as lasting for at least several years. As horrible an experience watching The Handmaid’s Tale is at times, I will continue to watch, to hear Offred’s story, to remind myself that there are still people who deserve justice in the world.

You can (and should) stream The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu or watch the series on Channel 4 each Sunday night.

A link to Fiona Sturges’ article for The Guardian on why she’s no longer watching The Handmaid’s Tale:

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January 2021
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