The Handmaid’s Tale

Spoiler alert!

I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4, and saw the final episode last weekend.

While it is good TV, I find it interesting that The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama about an invented dystopia full of sexual violence, is seen as ‘important’ TV, while something like Three Girls, a dramatisation of real-world sexual violence that tells us how and why the sexual violence was able to happen and was allowed to happen, while critically acclaimed, has not received the ‘important’ label?

You can write about, or make a TV show about, any subject you like, as long as you do it well and treat it with respect. The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly well made in terms of production values, acting etc., and it does not treat it’s subject as trivial. But I cannot convince myself that it is ‘important’.

Watching TV is not, and never will be, ‘activism’, and when what you are watching is fiction, you are not ‘waking yourself up’ to anything.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale’s popularity due to the fact that we, the audience, can get a vicarious thrill when we know that it isn’t real? But that explanation suggests that it is only entertainment after all.

Or, to be cynical, The Handmaid’s Tale is a little too slick and glossy, the locations, the interiors, the colour palates, the aging down of the Commander and Serena Joy – real life Rochdale will never be as glamourous as this particular rendering of Gilead. Also, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, a middle-class professional woman ‘just like us’ is easier to empathise with than troubled working-class girls whose lives are so removed from our own.

So what did I think of it as an adaptation? I wrote my GCSE English Literature project on The Handmaid’s Tale, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and John Wyndham’s short story ‘Consider Her Ways’, but that was over 20 years ago, and I’m not sure I have read it since then; at one point I knew the book inside out, but I can’t claim that now.

The show became more interesting from episode 6 onwards, with the arrival of the (female) Mexican Ambassador, when the story deviates from the original, and the world-building is expanded.

There are lots of good small details, like the second Ofglen saying how she is better off now than before the coup, when she was a homeless drug-addicted prostitute, and wasn’t going to mess it up.

We are also told about an Aunt defecting to Canada, and Martha’s plotting sabotage. In the book Offred is completely passive, and we only see the world from her point of view, so these changes are welcome. We see the human toll, not just on the Handmaids, but on the Wives forced into this situation as well. There are lots of these humanising moments, like Serena Joy saying “what did you think would happen” after the previous Offred hanged herself.

The environmental details are an interesting addition; the Gilead officials boast of their carbon-reduction and solar power. Do Gilead’s ‘green credentials’ make it a more ambiguous dystopia, or is this a commentary on ‘green washing’? There are, and have been, many conflicts between human rights and environmental justice in the real word, but there is no direct causal link between the human right’s abuses in Gilead and its environmental improvements – this isn’t the same as the toxic clean-up in the colonies (mentioned once or twice in the show but not shown).

I like that they showed some of the background of the coup, how vulnerable, purposeless young men could be drawn in, and also the self-serving hypocrisy of the Commanders, horse-trading over the status of the Handmaids in order to get their wives on board.

One of the most interesting details is, in my opinion, the characterisation of Aunt Lydia; she is shown genuinely caring about her ‘girls’, even when, on other occasions, she is cutting their eyes out. A ‘bad guy’ who genuinely believes in the righteousness of what they are doing is far more interesting (and informative) than one who is acting out of sadism or cynical self-interest.

Making Gilead multiracial is odd, as if there is no link between religious fundamentalism and white supremacism (which was there in the book) in the US in real life – is an ‘inclusive dystopia’ really something we need as viewers? As this article points out, making it multiracial is a way of bypassing racism without tackling it head-on.

There are changes that don’t really work; using industrial farm equipment to ‘tag’ the Handmaid’s ears is over the top; we microchip pets these days, it feels inserted for shock value only, as if the cattle-prods, amputations, and savage beatings aren’t socking enough.

There are small things like June saying she is allowed to shave her legs once a month. Why, except to give an explanation for the actress’ hairless less? Hairy legs would not fit in with the show’s aesthetics; neither would a scene of her moisturising herself with butter, so those were taken out, as were the ‘Econowives’ in their cheap stripy dresses, that wouldn’t have looked good either.

I found some of the soundtrack choices jarring and inappropriate; it’s a lazy short-cut, to get the soundtrack to do the work of the narrative, to force an emotional reaction, or an association with another work of fiction.

It makes no sense to have fertile women in Jezebel’s, when they are a rare enough commodity to be tradeable on the world market – they could cut off both hands and feet to make them biddable first (I think this threat is in the book), and there would be plenty of young, infertile women to fill the ranks at Jezebel’s – which brings us to another problem (with the book as well) why not just lobotomise them all to begin with? It has historical precedence, but then there would be no story in the first place (there is no story without some contrivance)!

It’s good that they didn’t sanitise Jezebel’s (I was going to write ‘didn’t glamourize’ but I think it was as ‘aestheticised’ as the rest of the series), didn’t play into a ‘happy hooker’ narrative (which would have been easy to do – the Commander says the women prefer it there, but the women don’t actually look happy). The fetishisation of the stump of a woman’s severed hand, and June catching a glimpse of two women dressed up as a Handmaid and a Wife, showed the contempt the men really felt for all women, even the ‘good’ ones. Jezebel’s also has the one and only appearance of an obese character, a woman doubly objectified, first by being dressed in fetish gear, second by only being shown from behind.

Some things have been updated since the 1985 publication of the book. Luke is picked up by ex-army women on the run to Canada; this is another good addition, and another example of showing women not being passive victims. (But I found Luke’s ability to hike through winter forests after being shot in the stomach and surviving his ambulance plunging off a bridge to be ridiculously macho.)

Shutting down all the women’s bank accounts, in our globalised age, would, I imagine, be very difficult, but it is a vital plot component.

While it’s good that the TV show includes more acts of women’s rebellion, I think they overdo it with the Handmaids, with the ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ voice-over, and calling them an army in uniform, and showing them marching in formation. It doesn’t fit with the totalitarianism shown elsewhere.

The big act of rebellion in the final episode is moving; in the book, June is completely passive, and at the end of the series, she is still rescued by men, the same as in the book.

“Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world”

Whitehead said that landing the £2,017 prize – the winnings are adjusted annually to match the year – was wonderful, and that The Underground Railroad “could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature”. A Guardian review of the novel said that “it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America”.

“Way back when I was 10 years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer,” said Whitehead, whose previous novel Zone One featured zombies. “If you were a writer, you could work from home, you didn’t have to talk to anybody, and you could just make up stuff all day. Stuff about robots and maybe zombies and maybe even miraculous railway lines. Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”

Colson Whitehead adds Arthur C Clarke award to growing prize haul

“All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense”

But in one respect, the world of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is just as traditionally fantastical as the worlds of Grandfather Tolkien, Pious Uncle C. S. Lewis, and Skeptical Cousins Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin. The books’ pleasures are not just narrative and political, but cosmological. All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense: they are interested in the organizing principles of their imagined universes, and the moral and historical meanings of their elements and landscapes. Magic works as more than a deus ex machina or literary CGI effect in their stories because it bodies forth these principles: it is part of the physical and moral laws of a somewhat different world. Fantasy is partly interested in other ways of imagining ice and fire — and earth and sea, rock and wood, summer and the coming of winter. Both the books and the show have, so far, put cosmology at the center while leaving it mysterious, with many open questions about what sort of world this is.

Jedediah Purdy

“Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance”

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

Jill Lepore, A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction, in The New Yorker

“A Lovely Art”

The only means I have to stop ignorant snobs from behaving towards genre fiction with snobbish ignorance is to not reinforce their ignorance and snobbery by lying and saying that when I write SF it isn’t SF, but to tell them more or less patiently for forty or fifty years that they are wrong to exclude SF and fantasy from literature, and proving my argument by writing well.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in the interview “A Lovely Art”, published in The Wild Girls, from PM Press.

Steve Rasnic Tem Interview in Interzone 269

Writer Steve Rasnic Tem is interviewed in issue 269 of the SF magazine Interzone, the below is an extract:

UBO is an exploration of the roots of violence. Why does this theme intrigue you? What are the benefits, to both you as a writer and to your readers, of exploring violence?

I hate violence, the way it warps and diminishes us. Violence against ourselves, against each other, and against the environment. It’s what disturbs me most about humanity. And we are all affected by it in one way or another. And yet it’s not something I’ve written that much about. In my short story work I generally focus on subtle, more ghostly effects (the major exception being my collection Ugly Behavior), and my novel Deadfall Hotel certainly reflects that. Violence occurs in my southern gothic/horror novel Blood Kin, as you might expect, but except for a rather horrible scene witnessed through a crack in the door it’s mostly off stage violence. With UBO I wanted to write a meditation on violence – my biggest fear – in all its forms. I wasn’t proposing to “solve” anything exactly – I’m a writer of fiction, not a social scientific genius – I just wanted to take the reader through an interesting journey where we could contemplate some of the dynamics involved.

As for the benefits of such an exploration, well, that’s always hard to say isn’t it, when we’re talking about a work of fiction? On one level you’re trying to entertain with an intriguing story. And certainly that’s enough. But especially as I get older with fewer books I’m going to be able to read, and fewer books I’m going to be able to write, I want a little more out of my fiction. Most of us would rather avoid violence. Most of us – myself included – live our lives in ways to keep violence away from ourselves and our loved ones. For myself I keep violent people out of my life – I want nothing to do with them.

The reason to confront violence – as with all unpleasant subjects – is that you can’t really successfully avoid it. Violence will touch you – in small ways for most of us, in profound ways for those of us who are unlucky. At some point you have to find a way to deal with it. Violence touched me when I was a child, and it touched the lives of my adopted children before I knew them – and we still have to deal with the shockwaves of those experiences. And it touches all of us when our governments are involved in violent activities.

Our society isn’t great at empowering people. We’re generally not that great at raising our children to feel empowered. People who feel they are helpless against change, who feel they are denied the positive drama of love and accomplishment, tend to turn toward the ready drama of violence – whether they commit it themselves or they commit it via a surrogate (games and entertainment are one such surrogate, but politics and government are also surrogates, as are our tendencies to destroy and exploit the environment). The first step toward preventing horrifying things in ourselves is learning to acknowledge them in ourselves and others.

Actors often speak of the stress they experience when taking on “difficult” roles. Is there a similar toll on you as a writer when you try to get inside the head of people like Himmler, Jack the Ripper, Stalin etc? How do you cope with that sort of pressure?

The writing of fiction is often very close to the art of acting. So there is a similar toll when you climb inside the heads of some of these characters. And when I really started working on this novel every day we had two small children at home. So I’d spend hours inside the heads of these awful people, and then I’d go play and read stories with my four and five year old. It was too much. After a while I couldn’t do it anymore and put the book aside. After I picked it up again within a few months our son Anthony died, and I put it aside again, this time for decades (although I was always thinking about it, working it out in my head). I think it’s no accident that I didn’t finish UBO until both kids and grandkids were out of the house.

As far as coping, I’m generally a positive, optimistic guy. That may sound like a contradiction for a horror writer, but that kind of balancing act is what keeps me sane. I tend to see the world through a filter of humour, and I devour comedy – movies, stand-up routines, humorous writing etc – it’s a rare day that I don’t laugh out loud at least once.

I really didn’t want to write/think about A Little Life any more, but reading this interview, it was so striking; Rasnic Tem is a genre writer, a horror writer, and his take on violence is so much more intelligent and insightful than Yanagihara, a supposedly ‘literary’ author, who tells us how fun it is to write evil characters, that she ‘inhabits darkness joyfully,’ and makes grandiose claims about her ‘duty’ to write about child rape and self-harm in explicit, titillating detail.

I had never heard of Rasnic Tem before reading this issue of Interzone, the review of UBO does sound interesting (it calls it ‘required reading’), but I am not sure if I want to read it – if I do, it may turn out that I don’t like it, or don’t feel its violence to be justified. Rasnic Tem’s short story in the same issue of Interzone ‘The Common Sea,’ which I did like, is a gentle tail of environmental collapse, which doesn’t give any real clues about what UBO will be like to read.

It is also interesting to note that, in his guest editorial, Rasnic Tem uses the opportunity to talk about the environment and climate change. Yanagihara, on the other hand, uses her much wider platform to disseminate her dubious ideology about mental health and suicide.

I have serious doubts about the value of art, about its ability to affect the world. This is not something I have just started thinking about, but global political events over the last few years have made these doubts stronger. Reading A Little Life, ‘award winning literature’, that was garbage on every level, makes me doubt art has any real value at all, if it can ever be anything other than entertainment, escapism.

The famous Kurt Vonnegut quote about the Vietnam War illustrates my thinking perfectly:

During the Vietnam War, which lasted longer than any war we’ve ever been in – and which we lost – every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.