The Handmaid’s Tale: Closer to Reality than One Would Like.
In a packed LUX, a large audience gathered to get answers to the questions why the overall grim and depressing series The Handmaid’s Tale is so very popular and why it inspires political protest all over the world. Cultural studies scholar Sara Jansen was there to highlight the cinematography that has made the series so popular and to explain why the series is deemed so disturbing. Political philosopher Anya Topolski explained themes of race, feminism and intersectionality that are foregrounded by the series and how, and why, political activists make use of the series. Program manager and ethicist Tjidde Tempels and facilitated the discussion.
First, both Topolski and Jansen introduced how they came in contact with the series and in what context the series was written. Topolski explained that she read the book in high school and deemed it science fiction at the time. She also underlined why the book allowed women to talk about traumatic sexual harassment experiences. When the series became popular, Topolski felt that the book was much closer to reality than before, arguing that many “do not realise that the line between fiction and reality is so thin.” Jansen, conversely, read the series in a later stage of her life, when she was studying gender studies in Utrecht. There, Margaret Atwood’s books were deemed mandatory for any self-respecting feminist.
The discussion between Jansen and Topolski started out with Jansen explaining to us how the series uses vocalization, camera angles and a steady cam to convey a feeling of uneasiness. Furthermore, since the story is told from Offred’s point of view and the only narration comes from her through a voice-over, the audience has no way of escaping her reality. The steady cam focuses solely on the faces of the characters, creating eerily stable shots showing the externalizing of the character’s thoughts. These shots increase the isolated and claustrophobic feeling created by the narration, thereby illustrating the loneliness Offred and her fellow characters experience. Furthermore, the use of perfect symmetry depicts a perfect world, which is creates an uneasy feeling because viewers know that our world is not that symmetrical and perfect.
Comparing Atwood’s World to ours
Topolski explained that everything that is depicted in the series, even the most gruesome of things like forcing women to have babies, ritual rape, and the hanging of people, has happened in the Christian history of Western society. Conversely, The Handmaid’s Tale is not against religion, something that the series fails to touch upon. Another element not reflected in the series yet that is discussed in the book is diversity. First and foremost, in the book there are solely white individuals, individuals with another skin colour are sent to “the colonies” of Gilead. The series is inclusive, however. The makers did not use this diversity to touch upon the contemporary issue of race, according to Topolski. It could have done so by having people of colour playing certain ‘classes’ in the series and thus tackling the issue head on. Jansen explains that the producers were afraid of being accused of racism.
Thereafter an important question was touched upon. Although several scenes of The Handmaid’s Tale were shown, the ritualized rape was not shown. The reasoning was that the scenes could be too confronting for some individuals in the room, especially for those that have experienced sexual assault themselves. This did raise the question of why, as a society, we see, and maybe even want to see, violence in series. Jansen even questioned if she wanted to continue watching the series and thereby (silently) supporting the depiction of such heinous acts. Jansen and Topolski both hoped that the depiction of the ritualized rape and the discomfort it brought the viewers would open the space for discussion.
This led back to discussing the political implications of the series, for Topolski argued that although it seems like dire measures were taken to react to the situation depicted in the series, it is not far off from what is happening in our society. Atwood herself has commented throughout her thirty years of doing interviews, that a similar situation might occur if we are not watchful. Topolski argued that the situation for non-European countries, groups and individuals can be worse than depicted in the show. She gave the example of individuals dying in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach safety or individuals in Syria dying of hunger due to continuous shelling. Currently, Europeans are not experiencing such a situation, however, everyone is responsible to make sure it does not happen here either.
It is important to mention that not everyone has the same amount of responsibility to address these injustices. Humans are complicated beings and Topolski made it clear that there is no such thing as a being that is only an oppressor or only an oppressed. Individuals have different roles in different scenarios. Take the example of Serena Joy in the series: she is both an oppressor of the Handmaidens and being oppressed by the dominant men in the society. Both the book and the series reflect upon this question explicitly.
The last question posed was: “What is the main take-away from The Handmaid’s Tale?” Both scholars agree that we need to create spaces where we all feel safe, included and protected. Topolski argued that “There is something fundamentally wrong with our society, if within our society a woman cannot stand half naked surrounded by members of the opposite sex and feel protected, not intimated”. Feminism can provide a space where it is possible to talk about these issues. The first step? Topolski argued that “we need to look in the mirror and ask: What can I do to change the society that is unjust?”
This report was written by Dennis Smits & Max Stolk, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.