Yes, “The Handmaid’s Tale” Is Feminist

From The New Yorker:

April 27, 2017

In the fourth episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the gripping new Hulu adaption of Margaret Atwood’s novel, Offred, our narrator and heroine, goes to the gynecologist. She lies on an examining table, her lower body, and the male doctor poking at it, concealed from her view by a gauzy white curtain. Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, is a handmaid in Gilead, the brutally repressive patriarchy that has subsumed the place formerly known as the United States, and a handmaid’s job is to reproduce; she is “a womb on two legs,” solemnly raped once a month by her Commander, Fred (Joseph Fiennes), as she lies rigid in the lap of his “barren” wife. At least the official explanation is that she’s barren. The nation’s plummeting birth rates are blamed on its women. Offred’s doctor has a different idea. The Commander is probably sterile, he says. Most high-ranking men in Gilead are. “Sterile. That’s a forbidden word,” Offred thinks. For a woman, to speak it could mean death.

As in the Oceania of George Orwell’s “1984”—as in all authoritarian regimes, and those that would emulate them—language, in Gilead, is a weapon of the state. Handmaids are the chattel “of” their commanders in name as well as fact, and are forbidden from reading or writing on pain of losing a hand. Undesirable words, like undesirable people, are made to disappear by the government; even “hello” and “goodbye” have been replaced by the creepy pieties “Under His eye” and “Blessed be the fruit.” When the Commander breaks the law to ask Offred to see him alone in his office, she thinks that he is after a blow job. What he actually wants is to play Scrabble, and as Offred moves her hands over the contraband tiles you can almost see her brain, dull from neglect, light up with happiness.

I thought of these scenes when I read that another word has apparently been struck from the vocabulary of “The Handmaid’s Tale”: feminism. Last week, at a panel discussion at the Tribeca Film Festival, members of the cast were asked whether they considered the show to be feminist. As Laura Bradley reported for Vanity Fair, the answers came in various shades of “hell, no.” Madeline Brewer, who plays Janine, a handmaid subjected to particularly grotesque abuse—when she scoffs at the new regime’s restrictions on women, her right eye is plucked out—replied that “any story that’s just a powerful woman owning herself in any way is automatically deemed ‘feminist,’ ” and said that the show is “just a story about a woman,” not “feminist propaganda.” Ann Dowd, terrific and terrifying as the Trunchbullesque Aunt Lydia, one of an army of potato-sack-clad matrons who indoctrinate the handmaids with the help of a cattle prod, felt comfortable enough to call on viewers inspired by the show to picket the White House, but not to use the F-word, which she dodged. Weirder still was Elisabeth Moss, who said that Offred’s tale, like that of her character Peggy Olson, on “Mad Men,” is “a human story because women’s rights are human rights.” This is as clear and succinct a definition of feminism as any—Hillary Clinton famously used it in her 1995 speech at the U.N.’s World Congress on Women, in Beijing—except that Moss, too, insisted that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is “not a feminist story.”

All this smacks of some Gilead-style prohibition. Had the cast members been explicitly instructed to distance themselves from the feminism label, maybe for marketing purposes? That seems improbable, considering that in our age of pussy-grabbing Presidents and pussyhats, the word has been rehabilitated from its commercially toxic status and spun into marketing gold. You can find the phrase “feminist as fuck” emblazoned on everything from hoodies to hoop earrings; Dior is selling T-shirts printed with the sentence “We should all be feminists,” after the title of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s TEDx Talk turned book, for a cool seven hundred and ten dollars each. (Proceeds go to charity: Rihanna’s.) Then there are companies, such as the embattled Thinx, peddler of period-absorbent underwear, that proudly brand themselves feminist even as their business practices suggest otherwise. We have corporate feminism, consumer feminism, life-style feminism. In current adspeak, a feminist is someone who buys bras, not burns them.

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