I feel like I could write a thousand essays on Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.
Maybe I will, as the series continues. The horror of this story has settled in my bones. But although I think the series is absolutely fantastic, a couple of issues have been nagging at me.
1. Refusing to call it a feminist show
The cast and crew have been going out of their way to avoid calling the show "feminist." You get the sense that the network has advised them against that F word, so they don't isolate viewers. It's not a show about women's rights, they tell us, it's a show about PEOPLE and human rights! Because if you use the word "feminist" or isolate women's rights from general human rights, viewers will turn away.
On the one hand, I can understand that justification. The creators and producers want as many watching the show as possible, and if they brand it in a way that people may consider "radical," they'll end up with a much smaller viewership, basically preaching to the choir.
On the other hand, fuck them. No, seriously, fuck them. The branding of the show in a way that avoids discussions of feminism is frankly an offence to the premise. "I was asleep before," the show's protagonist says, while the show's promotion panders to those who consider feminism an extremist movement, completely unnecessary, because everything is equal now. The series invokes smaller aggressions as well as larger horrors -- the coffee shop worker who feels empowered by changing society to call June and Moira fucking sluts; June's husband, who responds to her terror about all women's bank accounts being frozen with the oh-so-reassuring promise that he'll take care of her; the men who are so sympathetic, but not enough to help. The male characters range from Men's Rights Activist-types to "oh, yes, I'm a feminist -- now let me explain to you what that really means," and they all contribute to the handmaids' situation. Yet by refusing to use the word "feminism" in interviews or promotion, it denies its own real world connection.
And so it panders to the angle that says, "It's just a show. It's not real. It's all fiction." It's a message to the people who watch this series and come away without even the vaguest disturbance to their mood, because, well, it's all just made up, isn't it? Denying the feminism of the show is telling people who don't feel the resonance of the story that they're right to feel that way. It's not really about women's rights in a way that echoes modern-day society. Modern day feminism is extremist. This is just a story about humans.
And when even The Handmaid's Tale won't admit that maybe, just maybe, women have been oppressed and still face oppression, because that idea is too controversial for marketing purposes... well. I don't even know what else to say.
2. Removing the white supremacist elements
In the book, The Handmaid's Tale is an all-white dystopia. Everyone else has been "sent away." But the show decided to erase this white supremacist theme, because, as the showrunner said, what's the difference between showing a racist society and being a racist show?
Well, the difference is perspective -- the same as the show exploring misogyny doesn't make it misogynistic as a text. And by making this change, they've made the show far more generically racist than it would otherwise have been.
The show wouldn't have to have an all-white cast to explore the white supremacy theme. It features enough flashbacks that it could easily contrast the diverse, multiracial society of the past with the starkly all-white society of the present. It could follow the stories, even if just in flashback, of what happened to people of color. Look at the intersection of race and gender, as they do at gender and sexuality. In a show that clearly states "this is all absolutely horrifying," that would show a greater sensitivity and understanding, a greater depth of exploration. Misogyny is not experienced the same by everybody. The straight white women survive and are forced to live in this world. Everyone else -- well, what happens to them? Thanks to flashbacks, they don't have to be erased from the narrative, as Gilead wishes to erase them from society.
I can see the argument that using this narrative might be ineffective, because people are so used to seeing white casts that this dystopian element might not stand out, but a skilled director could have made it clear. The show already thrills in the use of contrast. And here's the thing. Four episodes in, and there aren't any major non-white female characters in this new society. The only major non-white character post-revolution is Moira, and she's gone from the story, at least so far. The other handmaids with speaking roles, the wives, the aunts... they're pretty much all white. Non-white characters are there, but mostly in the background. It just ends up looking like a lot of other current shows, where there is a non-white character or two, scattered around in another otherwise all-white cast. Which is, I think, far worse than making a point about racism, especially when we reflect it against the new rise of white supremacist movements recently. The show decided to avoid tackling extreme racism by falling into the well-worn, often overlooked racist standards of TV today instead.
3. Characters fighting back
This is just an idle wonder, but will the show remain bleak? It's so tempting for a narrative to have a strong element of "fighting back" against the oppressive status quo, but although, in the novel, characters do fight back in small or large ways, those battles are pretty fruitless in the grand scheme of things. These character can't take down this society. Maybe, if they're very very lucky, they can find some way to escape, but everyone else will still be stuck there. In many ways, The Handmaid's Tale is a story about horrified compliance -- about characters who don't overtly fight, because the ability to fight has been taken away, because fighting means torture and death and they're isolated and afraid. It's a world where rebellion really just means suicide and the narrative is not going to lie about that.
And the story is more powerful, I think, if it doesn't resolve. If it leaves it on us, the viewers, to resolve it. If we don't get a neat narrative of "they're oppressed, they fight back, they win" where we can leave feeling OK about ourselves and about our society, the story lingers longer. Its themes and ideas stick in our minds and in our bones. Resolution undermines the power of the narrative, but a lack of resolution doesn't fit well with a story told over multiple seasons. So it'll be interesting to see where the story goes, and whether the series can maintain its emotional punch as its hours unfold.