On 'The Handmaid’s Tale', Bernie Sanders, And Feminism

During a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival, cast and crew were visibly uncomfortable when asked about the show’s feminist and political message

The two episodes I've seen so far of The Handmaid's Tale, which premieres April 26 on Hulu, are fantastic. The adaptation breathes new life into Margaret Atwood's seminal feminist-dystopian 1980s novel, scattering it with references to Tinder and Uber and imbuing it with a stark, gorgeously filmed realism. It's an unflinching look at a patriarchal, theocratic society where the birth rate is declining and women are indoctrinated, controlled, raped and impregnated by force, then sent to die a slow and graphic death when their bodies are no longer useful; the show is a punch in the solar plexus. If somebody were to temporarily hand me the reins to our burgeoning autocracy, I'd make it mandatory viewing.

But perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, the cast and crew of The Handmaid's Tale appear to be distancing themselves from the political and feminist notions that make the show — and its source text — so trenchant and important. On Friday night (April 21), the first episode premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and afterward, stars Elisabeth Moss, Madeline Brewer, Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes, Ann Dowd, director Reed Morano, executive producer Warren Littlefield, and showrunner Bruce Miller, among others, took the stage for a panel discussion. Like much of the show's press to date, the conversation quickly veered into the realm of the political. Almost immediately, it became obvious that most of the people onstage were uncomfortable speaking about the series in an overtly political way — unintentionally demonstrating that, societally, we may be closer to an Atwoodian dystopia than we thought we were even a couple months ago.

From the start, the cast and crew deflected notions of social resonance in favor of praising Miller's writing (or "vision"), the characters, or Atwood's source material. Moderator and Elle Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers asked Miller why he thought the book would make a great film — was it because of its cinematic properties, or because he felt that there was something really political he wanted to say? "Neither," responded Miller, to laughter. "It was because of Offred, the character. It was so amazing how she was able to keep her sanity, keep her identity, [during] her situation. It really came out of all of that." (Earlier in the week, Miller redirected the conversation similarly when speaking to the New York Times: “[The Handmaid's Tale is] sacred to me, too,” he said. “But I don’t feel like it’s a male or female story; it’s a survival story.”)

A few beats later, Myers asked whether anyone was motivated to join the project by "all the things happening with women's rights." Fiennes took the mic. "Just, honestly, Atwood, Moss, Miller, great writing," he said. "Nothing political — of course it was political, it was political 30 years ago, it's prescient today, let's hope it's not so prescient in the future. But the writing is stunning."

Myers then addressed the whole cast. "In popular culture, women are really excited about this project, and there are statistics that women are getting involved politically at a rate that they've never been involved before, and this will be a motivator," she said. "I'm curious if you think that this is a feminist story, and that this is going to be part of the conversation, and if that's what you hoped when you signed on?"

After a pause and some awkward seat-shifting from her castmates, Brewer, who plays handmaid Janine, volunteered to respond. "That's not the reason I got involved," she said. "I personally heard about the other people involved in this show, and I was like, 'Oh my god, I need to be there.' … Any story, if it is a story being told about a strong, powerful woman owning herself in any way, is automatically deemed 'feminist.' But it's just a story about a woman. I don't think this is any sort of feminist propaganda. I think it's a story about women and about humans. You see [in the pilot], the three people [publicly] hanged on the wall were all men. This story affects all people."

Later, Moss was asked whether she saw any parallels between her Handmaid's protagonist Offred and her feminist-memed Mad Men character, Peggy Olson. “Well, they're both human beings. They're the same height," she joked. "For me, [The Handmaid's Tale is] not a feminist story. It's a human story, because women's rights are human rights. So, for me, I never intended to play Peggy as a feminist. I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They're women, and they're humans. Offred's a wife, a mother, a best friend. She has a job. And she is a person who's not supposed to be a hero, and she falls into it. And she kind of does what she has to do to survive, to find her daughter. It’s about love, honestly, so much of this story. So for me, you know, I never approach anything with any sort of political agenda. I approach it from a very human place, I hope." (It's a point she emphasized again in an interview with Teen Vogue: "It’s very important people understand this is about human rights, not just women's.")

Dowd was one of the only cast members onstage who didn't seem fearful of the story's political overtones, though she too steered clear of the f-word. "What I love about this, among other things, is the notion 'stay awake,'" she said. "Stay. Awake. And don’t for a minute think [that] if you say, 'Well, I'll get involved some other time. I won't worry about this midterm election.' No, no, no. Don't wait. Just stay awake.” Nearer to the end of the panel, she added that she hoped the show would have a "massive effect on people," that viewers would "picket the White House, and I hope they’re wearing these costumes … I hope it's all over the place, and it doesn’t end. And that we never, ever underestimate the power of morons." Littlefield echoed her point, if hazily, by quoting one of Offred's lines from the novel: "'Do something.' That's the message we want to carry to the world outside."

In the audience during the panel, I was baffled. At first, I couldn't understand why the creators and stars of one of the most deeply and inextricably feminist stories to date would "all lives matter" their own nakedly political production. But considering the pervasive belief in Hollywood that stories about women don't sell, it seems plausible that these safe, non-polarizing replies were a marketing decision intended to keep men interested in the project, a strategy designed to safeguard the portion of Hulu's viewership that might be turned off by what they perceived as the exclusionary politics of feminism, or perhaps to preempt a Ghostbusters-esque backlash against a staunchly female-centric project. Atwood said as much in her Twitter response to the kerfuffle caused by the panel, explaining that actors aren't "wordfolk" and merely wanted to be "inclusive":

Moss, too, hinted at this sort of strategy in a recent interview with Time: "We wanted the show to be very relatable," she said. "We wanted people to see themselves in it. If you’re going to do that, you have to show all types of people. You have to reflect current society." This morning (April 24), Vox published an interview with Wiley in which she addressed her castmates' comments. "Of course this show is a feminist work," she said. "I don’t know if the conference got misconstrued or anything, but I think what some of my castmates were trying to say was that for people who consider themselves feminists, and for people who don’t consider themselves feminists, that there are things in this [show] that everyone can get. But I don’t want to be afraid of the word 'feminist.' I don’t want to act like it’s not [feminist]; it’s definitely a feminist work. But I also think that people who are afraid of that word can gain something as well." (I reached out to Hulu asking if any of the cast members wanted to elaborate on their panel comments, but received no response by press time.)

But what really struck me about the panel, and this generalizing impulse, wasn't necessarily the fact that Moss and her peers were loath to identify their work as feminist. (I empathize with them, in hindsight; being stuffed together on a brightly lit stage and asked complex questions in front of hundreds isn't necessarily the most fertile ground for thoughtful political conversation.) What struck me instead was the haunting notion that we've reached a point in history where an explicitly political, feminist work of art must be depoliticized and downplayed for fear of alienating the men who might feel excluded by it.

Women are not a niche interest group.

Over at The Cut last week, Rebecca Traister questions the Democratic Party's recent dismissal of women's rights in the name of progressive politics. Traister focuses specifically on the "badly bungled" Democratic "Unity Tour," during which Bernie Sanders and Tom Perez both made bizarre concessions regarding the Democratic Party's relationship to reproductive rights.

During the tour, Sanders referred to Omaha, Nebraska, mayoral candidate Heath Mello — who, while a state senator, sponsored a 20-week abortion ban and offered women seeking abortions the option to view an ultrasound first (an earlier version of the bill would have made ultrasounds mandatory) — as a "progressive Democrat" whose win would represent "a shot across the board." Perez also spoke to the negotiability of having all Democrats identify as pro-choice, and later told NPR, "If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we are going to need Democratic control over the House and Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue."

In other words, both men washed their hands of any real responsibility to their female voter base in the interest of having greater appeal, an effort that's both disturbing and, as Traister explains, a flat-out misguided strategy that's lost races in the past. Writes Traister, "There is absolutely no need to abandon women’s rights in the name of advancing progressive politics. And yet the party has done it time and again, often after losing presidential elections." She notes, too, that this sort of "third-way centrist bullshit" is even more insulting in a political climate where women are leading the resistance against our ignominious pussy-grabbing president (who eschewed mentioning Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in favor of being, yes, "inclusive").

In her weekly newsletter, The Outline's Leah Finnegan goes in on the New York Times for its recent hiring of anti-Trump conservative and ex-Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens for its op-ed pages. James Bennet, the Times's editorial-page director, told the Huffington Post that Stephens's hiring was "part of a larger effort to 'further widen' the range of views the paper presents to readers." As Finnegan notes, Stephens's views include, but are not limited to, the idea that campus rape, climate change, and institutionalized racism are a "panic" and "imaginary." (Of course, these are the same Times opinion pages that published Mark Lilla's screed on the "end" of identity politics and American liberalism's "moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing," so.)

Meanwhile, writes Finnegan, the paper has yet to hire a single woman of color as an opinion columnist, demonstrating that "further widening the range of views" actually just means "not alienating scores of conservative white men." For Bennet, the idea of ignoring the alt-right–skewed opinions of "millions" is more frightening than giving page space to a man who believes the fact that women attend college at all means that campus rape is not a real problem. The one in five women being assaulted at school need to shut the fuck up, but Bret Stephens gets thousands of words with which to lambaste them. Writes Finnegan, "It’s interesting that arguments against and/or around good hiring practices and diversity tend to come from the most highly educated white media men … Political diversity, in 2017, unfortunately means ensuring that bad opinions proliferate despite overwhelming facts that they are wrong."

In entertainment, of course, stories about men have always been viewed as status quo "human stories," while stories about women, or people of color, or queer people have always been viewed as "stories about women, or people of color, or queer people," forcing their casts to go on the defensive. You rarely, if ever, hear a man clamoring to clarify his starring vehicle as a "story for everyone"; instead, you have Chris Pratt saying he feels underrepresented as a blue-collar (millionaire) American man, enraged male Ghostbusters fans dominating the press landscape for the all-female reboot, The Advocate reassuring straight men that Brokeback Mountain is "not a gay movie … straight men may find [the film] less threatening than they fear," Moonlight is "not just about being black or gay or poor, it's about being human," Anne Hathaway reassuring everyone that The Intern "isn't a chick flick," Scott Speedman reassuring everyone that The Vow "isn't a chick flick because it's good," Renée Zellweger reassuring everyone that Miss Potter is "not a chick flick at all, I think it's far more complex than that … it's a human story," "6 Great Chick Flicks That Aren't Really Chick Flicks," and the chick flick that is me, hurling myself into a black hole.

When it comes to TV, does feminism matter?

So: Is The Handmaid's Tale feminist? Does it really matter if we refer to it as such?

Atwood herself has had a complex and often contradictory relationship with the term. In fact, Moss and Co. may have picked up the "women's rights are human rights" from Atwood herself: An April 17 New Yorker profile describes Atwood's feminism as "[understanding] women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes." In the past, Atwood's wondered aloud about her own feminist proclivities; more recently, she addressed the question of the novel's explicit feminism in the New York Times, writing, "If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are 'feminist.'"

This idea of "victim feminism" is a Naomi Wolf-borne criticism of second-wave feminism, one that conveniently ignores the patriarchal structures that keep women down and blames early feminism itself for furthering and exploiting the notion of female "powerlessness." Ironically, in Atwood's story, this ill-founded disdain is part of what allows the women on the higher end of Gilead's caste system to mistreat and exploit those whom they lord over — the misguided belief that marginalized populations are responsible for their own lot in life, that those at the bottom just didn't work hard enough to supercede their circumstances.

In a recent Guardian piece, Atwood again distanced herself from the word "feminist," writing, "The Handmaid's Tale has often been called a 'feminist dystopia,' but that term is not strictly accurate. In a feminist dystopia pure and simple, all of the men would have greater rights than all of the women. But Gilead is the usual kind of dictatorship: shaped like a pyramid, with the powerful of both sexes at the apex, the men generally outranking the women at the same level." (Again, to me, this very much reads like a feminist dystopia, with women clinging to shreds of patriarchal power and subjugating one another in its name, as well as a spot-on explanation of the white women who voted for Trump.)

But in another paragraph in the same New York Times piece, Atwood perfectly describes how the book mirrors the phenomenon of white feminism, or a feminism that isn't intersectional, that doesn't account for systemic oppression: "Yes, women will gang up on other women … Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power." And in the April 12 interview with Elisabeth Moss in Time, the two have the following (confusing) exchange, in which they seem to be just missing one another's points:

Moss: A question I get asked a lot in inter­views: Do you gravitate toward feminist roles? This is a question I struggle to answer because I don’t necessarily feel like they are feminist roles. I feel like they’re interesting women. The Handmaid's Tale is considered one of the great feminist novels. I actually consider it a human novel about human rights, not just women’s rights.

Atwood: Well, women’s rights are human rights unless you have decided that women aren’t human. So those are your choices. If women are human, then women’s rights are part of human rights.

Moss: Exactly.

Atwood: When we use that word, "feminism," I always want to know: What do you mean by it? What are we talking about? If the person can describe what they mean by the word, then we can talk about whether I am one of those or not.

Moss: I find myself getting slightly tripped up because I am a feminist, and I’m not ashamed of it. But that’s not why I chose this role. I did it because it’s a complex character.

Atwood: If it were only a feminist book, you would think, in that case, all the women are over here on the low side, and all the men are over here on the high side. But it’s more like the way human societies actually arrange themselves, which means some powerful people at the top. The women connected to those people have more power than the men connected to the bottom rank.

In the same interview, the women discuss several distinctly feminist notions, but don't refer to them as such. Regarding the feminist meme-ification of Peggy Olson, Moss says, "I’m super-proud to have been part of a moment that people can gain any inspiration from or connect with women’s rights." Moss also agrees that she's found it's harder to greenlight female-centric projects: "I’ve found that to be an issue. I optioned a book with two women in it and was told multiple times it was 'too female.' I was like, 'Are you even allowed to say that?'"

But if Atwood is reticent to call the book capital-F Feminist, she seems to understand the nuance that was lost in Friday's panel and in Miller's New York Times interview. In response to a tweet I wrote about the event, she replied, "They needed an 'only,' an 'also,' and a human rights definition of the F word, imho." And earlier this week, she tweeted out this New Republic piece, in which Sarah Jones warns of the dangers of a one-size-fits-all feminism, a sort of demented neoconservative feminism that "is only about representation, choice, or some vaguely sketched notion of empowerment," a feminism that "celebrates power for power’s sake, instead of interrogating how it is concentrated and distributed."

It's a diluted feminism, writes Jones, that will "usher us into fascism" once stripped of its meaning. "Feminism means something," Jones stresses. "Some choices oppress the women who make them, and some beliefs, if enforced, would oppress everyone else, too. Allow an antichoice woman to call herself a feminist, and you have ceded political territory that you cannot afford to lose." Atwood's relative reluctance to use the term, it would seem, stems from a somewhat dated take on it, and/or a fear of stretching it too thin.

It's not a coincidence that Offred herself isn't written as an explicitly feminist character. In the text, Offred recalls recoiling at her own mother's radical second-wave feminism in the pre-Gilead era, finding the movement distasteful and unnecessary. Once in Gilead, Offred's focus is survival at any cost, not on the empowerment and salvation of her fellow women. Not surprisingly, "any cost" includes the subjugation of her fellow handmaids — one scene in the pilot sees Offred reluctantly joining in as a group of handmaids shout, "Her fault! Her fault!" at Janine after she describes being gang-raped as a teen. In that sense, Moss isn't wrong to avoid playing Offred as a self-identified feminist; Offred doesn't realize that she needs feminism until it's too late. As she puts it, "When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution we didn’t wake up either. Now I’m awake."

But to claim that the framing story of The Handmaid's Tale is apolitical, or human instead of feminist — rather than simply being both — is a profound misunderstanding of the novel and also of what it means to be political, and to be a feminist. (And to be a human!) The Handmaid's Tale is a horror story about what happens when men seize absolute power and strip women of their autonomy, but it's also about what happens when women respond to this by scrambling for scraps of authority and beginning to repress each other.

To write a novel that warns of the dangers of the devaluation and subjugation of women is a distinctly political and feminist act. To star in a series in which the protagonist is raped, slowly and painfully, while the camera focuses solely on her face, stripped of its humanity, her eyes unblinking, her head jamming rhythmically into the crotch of your rapist's wife, is a distinctly political and feminist act. To try and say it isn't is, frankly, absurd. It's also a strange, sideways confirmation of the book's prescience about modern-day women and their uncomfortable, complex relationship to the term.

What's most interesting (and discomfiting) about all of this doublespeak and evasion is how closely it hews to one of The Handmaid's Tale's core cautionary messages. Words matter, whether you're living in a dystopia or your basic plutocracy, and in Gilead, language has been bent into both a weapon and an unsolicited shield. The Republic subjects its people to unspeakable horrors by coating them in euphemism, in inaccurate language that obscures the true nature of what's being done to them. Terrified silence and linguistic obfuscation are the twin pillars that bolster the patriarchal dystopia.

Offred and her peers are regularly raped, but it's referred to as a "ceremony." They're kidnapped, torn from their families, held against their will, their bodies seen as "hosts," their own organs used against them; Aunt Lydia, the head taskmistress of the handmaids, refers to them as "lucky," to their ritualistic objectification and sexual violence as an "honor." The opaque language of the Bible is perverted into a series of literal laws and policies, including those that ship sterile women and gay people to the "colonies" — in actuality, death camps where the reproductively useless must clean up toxic chemicals until their flesh peels off.

The careful circumlocution, the genteel genocide, works so well because it confuses the oppressed parties, keeps them second-guessing their own reactions and each other rather than the structures that oppress them. Slowly, they adjust to their horrific circumstances. "Nothing changes instantaneously," writes Atwood in the original novel. "In a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it.”

The Republic of Gilead succeeds, at least for a time, by making the abnormal seem normal. They make it seem inoffensive, benign. They make it feel safe. They make it appealing to everyone.

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