All talk of May Day might have stopped, but the resistance is here.
This article contains spoilers.
This article contains discussions of violence and abuse.
The iconic ending of The Handmaid’s Tale in season one had everyone wondering what happened next. This was largely because it was a question years in the making, as season one ended precisely how the book ended; with June being put into a van to meet an unknown fate.
The obsession with having that question answered was, to an extent, misdirection. We finally got the only answer there could ever be: grim oppression, but ultimately survival for the rebellious handmaids because Gilead still wanted to control them and ensure that they would bear ‘fruit’. It was almost a given. We just did not know how the answer would be delivered.
The ending of season one did not dictate the course of season two by its finally answered question. What set the tone was the act that led June and the other handmaids to be taken away in black vans in the first place: their refusal to stone their friend Janine. It was a remarkable act of resistance, and it was the theme of resistance which quickly set itself into the foundations of season two of The Handmaid’s Tale. It was everywhere, from start to finish. The handmaids said their real names aloud in one of the most powerful scenes yet. Before death, Eden refused to beg for mercy for the crime of loving someone. Eden had also kept a Bible with notes breaking Gilead’s laws. Serena had her own (often selfish) rebellions which cost her half a finger and finally let June take the child that Serena had stolen from her out of Gilead, as she came to accept that no daughter could ever have a happy future in Gilead. The architect of Gilead helped a handmaid escape. A handmaid blew herself up in an act of terrorism and in an attempt to murder the ruling commanders. Nick got the secret letters out from the resistance group May Day of Gilead and into the global press, which severely hurt Gilead’s reputation. June slapped the Commander right back and spoke out often. Moira stood before her rapist and shouted her real name. The marthas used their own network to try to smuggle a handmaid and a baby out of Gilead, and Emily murdered a commander’s wife, possibly a commander and then stabbed one of the central figures leading the oppressive rule of Gilead. This was in no way a season of hope, but it was something that mattered more.
“Resistance quickly set itself into the foundations of season two of The Handmaid’s Tale”
There is no hope in Gilead. There is no clear path to its destruction, and any acts of rebellion so often then are used as an excuse for the violence and oppression that follows. June was told time and again her rebellions were the cause of others harm. For a time, it seemed to break her. It was a cycle repeated again when she told Eden to chase love wherever she could find it in this cruel world, only for Eden to run off with a guardian and end up being executed for it. Yet, none of it was ever June’s – or any of the handmaids’- fault. The blame was put always on Gilead by the framing of the show, and on the monstrosities this state, and these men, choose to commit. There is no immorality to their resistance, but there is also no condemnation for those who refuse to resist; like Janine who is simply too scared and wants everyone to get along. We witness people trying to survive in very different ways and often, there isn’t even a clear or tangible point to the resistance.
Being rude serves no purpose, but it does show that one still hates Gilead as June knows. It means Gilead has not really claimed them. Her quips become her weapon. Aunt Lydia and Serena always punish her whenever she speaks out, but June does it anyway. Those university students who protested the fascist Serena getting a platform ultimately failed. Their voices are silenced in the present day, and Serena got her Gilead. The threat of failure is not a reason to never try.
Resistance comes to mean many things for each of the characters. For June, it is so often in the smaller battles and the dialogue with Serena and Aunt Lydia. Emily though wants to end Gilead and make the oppressors pay. For Nick, he finally showed his inner feelings. He’s often the most difficult to read and his story revolves almost entirely around June, but just for a second, he sounded proud that he was able to smuggle the letters out of Gilead and that it could make a difference.
It is important to note that participating in resistance does not grant complicit characters absolution. Serena is a rapist, and she only really considers the value of people if she sees some personal value to them. It gives her a narrow and selfish view of the world. She is not the hero Gilead needs. She’s often the enforcer for its oppressive rule. If ever she does turn and see the evil she has caused then she does not deserve forgiveness or redemption. She must do the right thing, and then she must face the consequences for the crimes against humanity she has committed. The same is true of Commander Joseph, who was seen as the architect of Gilead. We have not seen his guilt, although he helped Emily escape after she attacked Aunt Lydia. He is the reason women are sent to the colonies to slowly die. He is a founding member of a society that rapes (cis) women when they are at their most fertile and that will carry out brutal punishments on anyone who does not follow God’s word. His own act of rebellion does not make him a hero or undo the pain he has caused to so many, including his own wife who has been destroyed by the horrors he created. Saving one handmaid when he created a society that will oppress countless women for generations is not enough.
“Participating in resistance does not grant complicit characters absolution”
There is so much subtext to The Handmaid’s Tale that it really gives the book a run for its money. It is this depth that often makes Gilead feel truly imposing and menacing. There is a reason why the lead martha (a domestic ‘servant’) is a woman of colour. There was a reason too why Moira, a gay black woman, was trafficked into sex work and raped by fetishists every night while the gay and white Emily had her clitoris removed to preserve her ‘innocence’. These seemingly background choices carried on in the second series. It was students, largely made up of people of colour, who protested a white woman who was a fascist being given a platform. Fred looked disgusted at the promotion of a man of colour being made commander. Fred is sterile, as are most of the population and yet the people of colour in the story all of children, and some have multiple children. Moira was even able to act as a surrogate in this world that has seen a fertility disaster. This content is even more important when we look outside of the show.
Right now, America is in the grips of a moral panic because white people are having far fewer children. Not every subtle choice is making a moral point but it is designed to make us ask questions about our own perceptions, ideas and yes, privilege; such as the fact June was the other woman to a black man who was married to a black woman and she was blamed for stealing him away. There was one of the best doctors in the country who was brought in to save a baby having being forced out of her career to become a martha and serve a commander’s household. She was smuggled in by Serena, a white woman who had helped dream up Gilead. There were also questions about whether June could truly be Hannah’s mother due to the different colours of their skin. There is also the fact that Luke is an absent father – and a man of colour – and yet, this trope is turned on its head because his child was stolen from him by white men.
The Handmaid’s Tale could and should still go much further. The subtext helps show Gilead for what it truly is, but showing isn’t always enough. Some people need to be told. This is a show that is slow, and dedicated to spending more time on people’s facial expressions than dialogue. It likely won’t be hurried, but it should be. It only needs one line from the Commander about white supremacy for it to be progress for this show, so that it is not just framed upon the victimhood of white women. It’s understandable why there has not been, but it is also a mistake. All of the commanders’ wives are white. White men rule, bar the one exception who broke through. That isn’t a coincidence but we’re also at a time where we can’t risk the story being lost, and the decisions being ignored, because people didn’t see them. The choices must also be heard.
There must be more women of colour actively centred in the story too. The book risked stealing the history of women of colour without actively representing them. As the show grows, it can move beyond that legacy but it must put in the work to do so. Trans women must at some point be addressed, otherwise the show is completely misunderstanding the times in which we live. Womanhood is not defined by biology and the show may come close to inadvertently pushing that false ideology if it does not at some point examine the treatment of those within Gilead who don’t – or didn’t – conform to gender expectations and imposed roles. It’s been great with sexuality but now it must tackle the most nuanced issues of gender.
Disability had been handled well in the first season, showing how people observe it either as a punishment or a fetish and why they are wrong on all counts. This had been such a strong element to the first season but had largely been abandoned in season two. It would be good to examine invisible disabilities. Disabled people may be sent to colonies but unless that is mentioned then it just looks like a population the writers forgot to mention.
The show has constantly battled with criticisms it is too dark. If you are triggered by this show then absolutely do not watch it. It’s okay. Women and marginalised people know enough of abuse. It’s not compulsory to watch it and nor is it a failing if you don’t or can’t. It’s also okay if you dip in and out, dealing with it and processing it on your own terms. There was one occasion I seriously struggled, and wondered if it was too much as June was raped by Fred and Serena. It wasn’t, although my initial reaction was also right. I won’t watch that scene again but I also know that it is desperately important right now that there is a show that has depicted the fact that women do commit rape. It is an issue ignored in all other areas of society. My own reaction didn’t mean it shouldn’t be shown.
When it comes to allocishet white men, who aren’t triggered, but find the show boring, too tortuous or too dark, I laugh. I laugh at men. I laugh that they can watch Game of Thrones, cry about the absence of Frank in House of Cards, still enjoy a Woody Allen film and never mention the gratuitous violence in most blockbusters. Violence against women is so often the only plot-point to films, and it is almost always to give men reasons and motivations for their stories, rather than to give a story of validation to women or marginalised people.
It could be the treatment of men in this show that they simply cannot stand to watch. Men in this story are rarely given depth. They help drive action, but they don’t get complexities. Women far outnumber them on the show, and they often highlight the utter bullshit from men. Nick, who may be helping June now, was also an eye and helped uphold Gilead. Fred has used his position of power and privilege to break every law, control women, prey on women and rape women. The story doesn’t give a shit about his reasons or complexities. It shows him as he is: a rapist.
Maybe they can’t stand to stare into the sunlight. This show is uncomfortable for men, not because of how women are treated (that kind of violence is rooted in our media already), but because of how men are called out. How seemingly polite, charming men can become monsters. How men in power will use that power for their own ends. This is a show bursting with women; a show where women tell their stories, an environment where if actors are uncomfortable they don’t have to do the scenes of violence, and a show where the lead actress is the executive producer too. And yet, it is only now that men finally decide to object to violence on TV.
“This show is uncomfortable for men because of how men are called out”
Season two was a continuation, while giving us a deeper look at Gilead. Contrary to what many claim, the book was not left behind this season. Its themes were continued upon but there was also huge content left out of the book in the first season that was used in the second, such as the focus upon June’s mother. The book may not be entirely left behind in three either, but the show is transitioning onto steadier ground as it knows exactly the story it is trying to tell now. It acknowledged that when June apologised for the violence. The show tries to show the horrors of Gilead, but then tries to balance it out. It’s why June’s rape scene was not lingered upon afterward. They did not spend the whole episode depicting her trauma and pain. It cut straight to June reuniting with her daughter. It was as though the producers themselves could not stand to focus too much on the violence. They too needed some relief, and they needed to give June something so that she was not just a character who violence was done to, and the audience could focus on her again and the things that were still hers in a society that tries to steal everything.
Yet, this is not a chance to make heroes of the women. Too often history has made women who suffer heroes, rather than putting the focus on the horrible actions of men who made them suffer. We’re supposed to admire the women’s trauma and take strength in their survival. The show does not make them heroes, but it allows them to be human. It explores different ways of resistance without drawing any conclusions. The more submissive Janine is as worthy of our respect as the defiant Emily.
Fiction allows us a safe space to contextualise and examine subjects often we wouldn’t want to think of in society. It’s okay to cheer Emily stabbing Aunt Lydia, a crime which might seem shocking in reality but we have our space to process here. Lydia is a fascist leader who traffics women to be raped. She is a tyrant. Is Emily not right for her actions? We can celebrate Emily but know too that ultimately, this is about her oppression and she’s just trying to survive. Our emotions should be reserved to anger and disgust for those who seek to oppress.
The Handmaid’s Tale walks a difficult path but it is good that it set out at all. We need a story like this, and we also need the show to do better too and to keep trying. At the end of this season, it was not pain we were left with. It was acts of resistance. June refused to run to save her other daughter. She would not let her fear dictate her. She would face Gilead and win. Emily finally got out and to freedom, with June’s baby. There is hope for them, and Emily gave everything to fight Gilead’s cruel ways. Emily and June’s friendship has been one of the best elements of the show since season one, and there was finally a pay off. Both were resistance fighters in their own way. Both left each other with respect, but different journeys ahead. It was impossible really to be sad, or at least have that sorrow dominate. June has chosen her own path, and one that is right for her, and Emily has managed to try to get out. The finale was focused upon acts of autonomy, even if they caused heartbreak. Aunt Lydia was wrong. Gilead will never be within them.
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