If you haven’t heard of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, a show based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, allow me to give a brief synopsis before you begin this article: the story takes place in the future, where pollution and toxins have harmed the environment so intensely that a plague of infertility falls upon women. The minority of fertile women are forced by the government to bear children for the rich and influential men, under the consent of their wives. The story follows June, a handmaid to Fred and Serena Joy Waterford.
Handmaid’s Tale is a deeply disturbing story with much to analyze. The future strips women of rights, reducing them to property and their worth to whichever man owns them (June must take the name of Offred — literally “of Fred”). As poorly as the patriarchy and the misogynistic men at the top are portrayed, the most striking element of the show to me isn’t how the men treat the women: it is how the women treat each other. Womanhood is powerful, Handmaid’s Tale teaches, but our power can be put to use in different ways. If privileged women do not speak up for the oppressed, they are also to blame for injustice.
The storyline of Serena Joy teaches this lesson most prominently. An extremely intelligent woman, Serena’s wits match her husband’s, the potent Commander. In her backstory, it is revealed that in life under the previous government Serena was a televangelist who wrote books about women assuming traditional gender roles in a theocratic society. With this influence, Serena played a role in inflicting oppression. The new totalitarian society incorporates her ideas — the only important role women play is that of procreation. Was Serena fully aware of the consequences of her actions? With the new government, Serena’s power and rights are taken away. She is infertile; she is worthless. In a stunning shot, we watch her book get thrown in the trash, as women are not allowed to read anymore, let alone write. “Back then, did you ever imagine a society like this?” a foreign leader asks her. “A society that has reduced carbon emissions by 78% in three years?” Serena responds. The leader pauses. “A society in which women can no longer read your book.”
The state incorporated Serena’s ideas only to shut her out. Her once active life — in which she held a career she obviously loved — is replaced with a miserable one; there is nothing for her to do other than decorate her home and tend to her garden. She desperately prays for June to deliver her a child so she can at least put her mind towards something. We watch her relationship with her husband deteriorate as what once used to be a collaborative partnership turns into one where he tells her, “You answer to me. Go to your room.” Are we supposed to sympathize with her?
Absolutely effing not. A victim of her own ideas and actions, Serena only concerns herself with what directly affects her. At the top of the totem pole, she turns a blind eye to the enslaved and tortured women in the theocratic society she designed. Feminism is what allowed her to write and give speeches in the first place, and she made the choice to obliterate it. Serena is to blame for her own demise, her own silence, and her own imprisonment. Her passivity towards a new life she clearly hates leads her to abuse her handmaid, making June’s already terrifying situation significantly worse. Serena could’ve helped June. The two women are around the same age; it is possible they could’ve been friends of some sort. But June’s enslavement is a clear product of Serena’s doing. And Serena shows no guilt.
It is no surprise that Handmaid’s Tale serves as a warning. We must do all we can to promote the health of our democracy. We must practice the separation of church and state. We must do more to protect our environment. But I find the warning delivered via Serena’s character the most pressing, and perhaps the easiest to act on.
Women need to help each other by calling for equality on all platforms, even ones that may not directly affect us — yes, this means adopting intersectional and trans-inclusive feminism. Recognizing one’s privilege and practicing empathy is perhaps the most important thing one can do. We need to be allies to those less privileged than us, and actively work to stand with them, not against them.
Women are strong as hell — Handmaid’s Tale shows this. Serena was powerful enough to influence an entire new system of government. June was powerful enough to challenge it. How you use your power matters.
On a final note, while watching Handmaid’s Tale, I could not help but think of Martin Niemöller’s quote:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Speak as loudly as you can.