The Handmaid’s Tale and Disavowing Feminism

Unsure if I was going to end up watching The Handmaid’s Tale, I read a ton of articles about it the week before it came out.  Aside from the articles praising its cinematography and acting (which, yes, absolutely; the show is incredibly well done from this amateur’s perspective), a lot of what I read focussed around the discussion of whether The Handmaid’s Tale as a story is feminist.

There have been a lot of big statements made by the cast and Margaret Atwood and then a lot of backtracking and qualifying and hemming and hawing and hedging.  If you look on Refinery 29, there’s a slew of articles that say yes, it’s feminist, and then no, stars say it’s not, and then, maybe stars say it is…  There’s been a big Twitter debate as well, apparently, which I’ve seen screenshotted on other sites because I don’t use Twitter.

There are many, many people claiming The Handmaid’s Tale as a feminist show, and the consensus at this point from those involved with the making of the show does seem to be that it’s a feminist show–it’s just not only a feminist show.  And I hear those qualifications, but I’d like to talk about why dithering over whether it’s only a feminist show or to what extent it reaches beyond feminism is more harmful in the long run.

First, about these qualifications.  Constance Grady did a really nice piece  in Vox on the historical context in which The Handmaid’s Tale was first written and Margaret Atwood’s complicated relationship with feminism.  And I really hear that one, because Atwood has said, according to the article, that feminism doesn’t go far enough for her and that’s her big objection.  Vox identifies Atwood’s perspective as more along the lines of intersectional feminism.

For Atwood, the burgeoning feminist community in the 60s and 70s was too much of a clique with a set of very specific ideas, some of which she supported and some of which she didn’t.  Not wanting to be grouped with a bunch of people in a totally different city pursuing a very particular kind of feminism, she distanced herself and her work from feminism as a whole at that time.

Today’s feminism, I would guess, would be more in line with Atwood’s own beliefs.  In connection with the show, Grady writes that The Handmaid’s Tale really reflects the intersectionality Atwood has long supported because it shows power as more of a pyramid structure and less of an us-against-them scenario.   In The Handmaid’s Tale, a wealthy white woman would necessarily have more privilege than a man of color, and a gay woman of color would end up worse off than Elisabeth Moss’ character even though really no one in the show is winning, per se, because that’s how power is organized in the real world.

So in that sense, I understand where she and the cast come from when they say it’s not a feminist show.  But that’s according to a definition of feminism that needs to be retired from this world.

It’s the definition of feminism that, in Atwood’s words, forbid wearing dresses and lipstick because to do so would be betraying your gender.  And the definition of feminism where men are never oppressed and only women suffer in a patriarchal society.

By those definitions, “feminism” doesn’t go far enough, in which case I could understand the temptation to start calling The Handmaid’s Tale a “humanist” story.  (Which they have done.  Which… is there a more vague term in this language than “humanism”?  And when did we stop associating humanism with men’s rights activists, anyway?)

The problem is that these are outdated.  Do people still believe in them?  Yes.  But that needs to change, and for a lot of people it already has.  Feminism isn’t what it was in the 60s, and to have that in mind when you say The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t feminist is to totally disregard the hard work that has been done for the past 60 years in the name of feminism.

By now I think we all know that men are also oppressed under the patriarchy.  To a different extent than women, of course, but a strict enforcement of gender norms doesn’t only hurt women.  And if you combined my lipstick collection with that of the other hardcore feminists I know, you could fill a bathtub to the brim.

Relatedly, a friend of my ex (who I am still friends with on Facebook in that uniquely shady way of staying connected that the 21st century offers) recently spent a year only wearing skirts and dresses to reclaim her femininity from a society that told her she didn’t have the right body to wear anything other than pants.

Is that, too, not feminism?  And for some people, if it’s not, then shouldn’t we work on changing their image of feminism rather than throwing out the label itself as not quite enough?

Feminism today is intersectional.  Feminism encompasses every expression of feminine identity, and embraces every form of gender expression (or intentional non-expression).  Feminism includes trans women and trans men, and every member of the queer community, and it seeks to dismantle toxic masculinity as much as it does patriarchal oppression of women.

Getting everyone onto that page, where the above points are a given, is why it’s especially important to call The Handmaid’s Tale feminist–to show what feminism can and should look like for those who are still a few pages or chapters behind.

Similarly, an interviewer asked Elisabeth Moss if she gravitates towards feminist roles and she said, no, she just plays interesting women.

My question is, why draw that line?  Why aren’t those interesting women feminist?  What is so uninteresting about feminism?

If we live in a world where this debate is even possible, and where people could conceivably be offended by a feminist label either because it’s too bold or not bold enough, then it’s all the more important for us to use that label.

The current political situation is one in which women’s rights are actually, seriously being threatened right now, and in which queer people’s lives are being threatened, and in which boys are being raised with toxic ideas of how to behave that reinforce the objectification and subjugation of women.  And it’s not going to change if we all sit back and go, “Hmm, but it’s not really feminist, see it’s just a human story about interesting women.”

There’s power in people uniting under and ideology, and if some of the most forward-thinking people choose to distance themselves from that ideology because it’s just not quite right yet, then where does that leave the rest of us?  Under what ideas can we unite, then?  Or are we doomed, like so many lefitst movements, to implode under the weight of our own inability to find a working definition for what we believe?




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