‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Is Way Too Real — and Watching It Has Become Masochistic
Separated families. A newsroom massacre. Forced pregnancies. The parallels between Hulu’s Emmy-winning series and present-day America are shocking.
The current season of The Handmaid’s Tale has been brutal. And so has America as of late. When the show, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, premiered on Hulu last year, critics and viewers discussed its relevance during that political climate. This could happen in America—to America. That was the general consensus of much of its viewership, failing to recognize the long history of abuses portrayed on the show committed in real life—in America—against Black, Latinx, indigenous and other women of color.
Even so, the election of Donald Trump felt like a precursor to the menaces, dehumanization and persecutions of the most vulnerable people in America, and the show was playing out the what-if’s that were well on their way to being realities. Spoilers ahead.
As this country continues to slide down a slippery slope into chaos, watching The Handmaid’s Tale has become masochistic as the main character, Offred/June, and other women are raped, abused and heavily oppressed by the fictional government of Gilead. I imagine this is what Stephen Miller’s dream journal looks like.
This season shows a pregnant June’s attempts at escaping Gilead, which are met with even more heart-wrenching, horrific truths about the tyrannical society. The reflection of the current state of America feels even greater now with recent episodes depicting events that have seemingly prophesied violent events of the real world. The forced separation of children from their mothers in Gilead mirrors the current situation at the US-Mexico border. As June finds refuge in the old offices of The Boston Globe, she discovers the shocking remnants of what appears to have been a mass execution of journalists at the newspaper. It was hard to stomach when it aired, but now as five journalists at Maryland’s The Capital Gazette were just gunned down in a targeted terrorist attack, with many others forever traumatized by the shooting, it’s even harder to watch. The episode in which the Waterfords make a diplomatic visit to Canada, which resulted in the Canadian government ousting them from the country, coincided with Trump’s bizarre argument with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over tariffs.Those are just three examples, but there are others.
Viewers have taken notice.
Amanda Marcotte, a politics writer at Salon, recently tweeted: “It’s absolutely surreal that two of the most affecting scenes, shot months ago, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are a woman sobbing as her daughter cries for her while being torn away, and an empty newsroom stained with blood from massacred journalists.”
Now with Justice Anthony Kennedy, a vital swing vote for the left, announcing his retirement, Trump has an opening to make another lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. This creates a very real threat to the repeal of Roe v. Wade, further risks to women’s reproductive rights and an attack on LGBTQ+ rights. On top of this, one of the leading judicial nominees, Amy Coney Barrett, is a fervent opponent of abortion rights and belongs to a religious sect that literally refers to women as “handmaids.” Basically, if you value a moral and just world and are petrified of a real-life Handmaid’s Tale situation, we’re fucked.
America is about to take on even more of the traits of Gilead, with the likelihood that even if the left take back the House, Senate and the White House, the Supreme Court will still be operating under the tenets of Trump for years to come. Again, we’re fucked. And the most vulnerable in our society will be most affected yet again.
This begs the question: Why watch The Handmaid’s Tale when, in effect, it’s too damn real?
The answer is, you don’t have to, and it’s okay not to, especially as our collective stress levels and anxieties are at an all-time high and the show often exacerbates them. Sometimes you need a mental break from the deep fear we’re already dealing with, and the show doesn’t help.
Plus, there are barely any sex scenes anymore to break the bleakness, and it seems like there’s no win in sight for June or the other handmaids and marthas. If there’s no Max Minghella butt shots, why put up with all this torture?
Some watch as a feminist act. It’s not. It’s a television show. The show’s stream count won’t protect Roe v. Wade or keep Trump and his followers from spewing hateful rhetoric. Its vicious content can be found in history books or on the news. The show is not a cautionary tale when its storylines are well documented. Viewers won’t be more informed or prepared for IRL Gilead by sobbing into their pints of Halo Top after yet another brutal episode.
And too often, as a woman of color, it seems like the ones most freaked out about America becoming Gilead are white women with minimal experience with violent discrimination and oppression at an institutional level. It’s just torture porn masked as woke viewing for white ladies in pussy hats who are finally feeling the panic and subjugation Black and non-Black women of color have been feeling. The show’s failure in discussing race exacerbates this. The result is condescension aimed at these groups and an erasure of their experiences.
With that in mind, this season of The Handmaid’s Tale has been going all-out in glorifying the lost America within the created world. In one scene, June turns on a car radio and hears a radio announcer (voiced by Oprah Winfrey no less) sharing some world news followed by this line:
“And now a tune to remind everyone who’s listening, American patriot or Gilead traitor, we are still here. Stars and stripes forever, baby.”
Then a live version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” plays. In another scene, following the impactful release of secret letters from women in Gilead smuggled into Canada and delivered into Luke’s hands by Nick, American refugees go into a sing-along of “America the Beautiful.” The scenes are meant to give hope, but no one seems to point out that Gilead grew out of America—America fostered Gilead enough that it overthrew the country. And as a viewer watching the atrocities of the dystopian world go down, I ask myself if they’re longing for the America I currently live in. I can’t help but look around incredulously. Are you for real, Handmaids? Have you seen this place? Sure, I’m not wearing a bonnet or forced to become a baby factory, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Of course the show couldn’t have predicted the actions of the government or how closely it would mirror its events, but writers were well aware of the Trump administration’s intent. So the patriotism and nostalgia for a bygone America on full display is a bitter pill to swallow. America is not so beautiful right now, even if it’s not as bad as Gilead. Even so, this show can’t make me feel proud or wistful of an America that built Gilead, on screen and off.
With only two episodes left this season it might be too far in to stop, but it’s worth discussing what the intent is of making The Handmaid’s Tale such a hard watch. What are we learning here that can affect the real world? Season 3 is a ways away, but here’s hoping the writers of the show make considerations to the world we live in as they continue to build the world we’re watching.