The Handmaid’s Tale – emotive torture porn

In the epilogue to Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale a group of intellectuals argue whether Offred’s account of Gilead’s brutal theocracy was reliable.

There is no ambiguity in the television adaptation – so far. The viewer is given full omniscience, interspersed with fragmented flashbacks of how Gilead was formed. While this construct is effective in analogously connecting elements of Gilead with present day political idiocy and is an extremely compelling fable, it’s also a potential weakness for the show’s longevity. How long can we endure Offred’s formulaic psychological torture which combines ceremonial rapings, estrangement from her husband exiled in Canada, a forbidden relationship with Nick (the Waterford’s driver), and her seemingly forlorn quest to free herself and her daughter Hannah.

Two seasons in, and thanks to the writing, I’m invested in June Osborne’s struggle. You can only marvel at Elizabeth Moss. Her turn as Offred is a real tour de force, mostly for its physical element. At critical moments her face reveals a gamut of conflicting emotions; anger, satisfaction, remorse, defiance, resignation, fear and depression, sometimes within seconds of the other.

The contaminated Offred, Serena and Fred dynamic is a grim ménage-a-trois of threats, loathing, contempt and above all passive-aggressive manipulation. Offred’s pugnaciousness creates a growing distrust and distance between Serena and Fred, who, as equals, were of a radicalised singular mind and integral in orchestrating Gilead’s formation. Our initial disdain for Serena’s obsession with being a mother, her spiteful jealousy of Offred’s fertility and willing sacrificing of her political influence (she’s forbidden by law from reading and writing) and the freedom of all other women, starts to morph into pity when she is cowed in her attempts to smooth Gilead’s intellectual neutering of women. While she begins to have grave doubts about Gilead’s direction, Fred, in a position of ever-increasing power, thanks entirely to his gender, becomes entirely pre-occupied with displays of cruelty to maintain the domestic patriarchy. It’s June’s indefatigable persistence, focused insubordination and intelligence in resistance, ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ she graffittis on the wall before her latest escape attempt, to the manipulations of Fred and Serena, that Fred finds alluring, partly because these single-minded traits remind of him of how Serena used to be.

All of the narrative’s subjects, regardless of their strata, yield to Gilead’s totalitarianism, which combines the absolutism of Nazi Germany’s Endlosung, a Gestapo like militia named ‘Angels’, an Orwellianesque vaporisation of Handmaid’s past identities (nameless, like an unperson), a social hierarchy that’s instituted the kind of reductive misogyny you’d find in Saudi Arabia, a political structure reminiscent of North Korea’s theocratic military dictatorship, The Eyes (who spy on everyone, including Gilead’s elite) are akin to the Stasi, punishments for breaking the laws of god borrow from Stalinism’s cruelty and the Westboro Baptist Church’s loony devoutness justifies anything ‘under his eye’.

This is an absurd mixture, but without fictitious licence it would be impossible to envision such an emphatic collapse of first world values and freedoms as presented in Gilead. It’s not only the scale but the detail of the dystopia (and its cause – wide scale human infertility through pollution) that rubbishes the hypocrisies, apathy and scripted discourse found in contemporary politics that’s seen the rise of Trumps’s America, Putin’s Russia and Brexit. The vogue of right wing anxieties fuelled by a disingenuous demonisation of minority rights encroaching on theirs is a central target here. In Gilead gender traitors (their euphemism for homosexuals), Muslims, Jews and other heretics are hanged on a ‘wall’ Gilead’s citizens are made to pass. Trump’s yet to build his. There’s always an unforeseen price to pay for reversing integration and rights just to realise economic and social ideologies – in Gilead there’s no freedom of speech, no bowling alleys, takeaway pizzas, monster-trucks, golf courses, nightclubs, professional sports, internet (no online porn for you, laddie), television, gambling, cinemas, or bouncy castles. And it begs the question, just what have they done to Las Vegas? The mind boggles – carpet bombed it with copies of the New Testament? Nor are there garish public shows of hedonism, opulence or individuality. So a Trumpian alt-right wet dream it is not.

Regardless, no work of fiction is obligated to be impartial. The visual arts offer, or should offer, a method of examining the nature of politics, culture and social mores, with the diverse and partisan perspectives they contain enriching polemics. June Osborne’s life as Offred and her internal monologues serve as a cautionary allegory which criticises not only the danger of fascist tendencies going unchecked but the state (and intelligence) of moderate resolve as negligent, due to its unwillingness to challenge extremist ideas unless it’s on their terms.

The peculiar nature of surrogacy in Gilead, which ignores the realities of evolutionary biology in favour of warped ideology, is used to question whether children have a biological and psychological need to be with their mothers whenever possible. June betrays her biological instincts with her new-born baby (and endangers her own wellbeing) during an escape attempt at the end of season two. It’s a brilliant (and hopefully) inverted twist on Sophie’s Choice, and is the only likely way of maintaining June’s hopes that she can succeed in freeing both of her daughters from Gilead.

It’s a fleeting moment of choice that betrays a maxim from Aunt Lydia, Gilead’s truest believer, that Gilead’s ‘freedom from choice’ has liberated its citizens from ‘freedom to choose’. Funnily enough this quote reveals more about the modern psyche than it does of Gilead’s repugnant ideology. We would descend into anarchy without the illusion of freedom that consumerist choice provides. The cost of preferring to buy stuff than be altruistic is all too real if we’re prepared to look. While the Handmaid’s Tale plot is arresting, and Gilead cautions at the cost of blitheness and naivety, it’s not prophetic. We watch, and recoil, because it reveals that we know we cannot be trusted to choose correctly.

About Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard

Wichita Lineman Was A Song I Once Heard. 'Mediocre blogger and a piously boring and unfunny writer'. Enthusiastic purveyor of the KLF sheep.
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