Is The Handmaid's Tale Trying To Make Us Empathize With A Wife?
Tara's not a crackpot. She just thinks 'A Woman's Place' may be the most explicitly feminist episode of the series so far.
"A Woman's Place" continues The Handmaid's Tale's methodical Gilead world-building by showing the effect on the Waterford household of an actual geopolitical event: a trade delegation from Mexico is coming, and everyone everywhere has to be on their best behaviour. The challenges of pulling off an international summit send Mrs. Waterford into reflections on her life before Gilead, giving us a clear view of how constricted her existence is now by comparison. If the point is to bring Mrs. Waterford's character into three dimensions by showing us that, like June, she's been robbed of any chance at happiness, it fails...which is why I think the episode's trying to make a different point entirely.
I am not a crackpot. I just think this episode is a scathing indictment of the idea that women can be conservative, or that conservatives can be feminist.
We've already had some hints, earlier in the season, that the little Mrs. Waterford has to do on any given day -- tend to the garden; direct domestic upkeep; arrange illegal procreative trysts -- has left her intellectually under-stimulated; we got a brief flash in "Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum" when Commander Waterford complained about a damaging Canadian newspaper report and refused even to entertain her attempt to suggest how he might contain the damage, shutting her down by telling her, "We've got good men working on it." But in "A Woman's Place," getting a glimpse of the former Serena Joy at the peak of her powers makes that dismissal all the more brutal. Serena was an essayist on women's issues...like Phyllis Schlafly was an activist on women's issues; her book, A Woman's Place, advanced the idea of "domestic feminism." We see that she worked closely with Fred, developing the ideas that motivated the coup that destroyed the United States; even when they're just hanging out, eating popcorn and waiting for a movie to start, she tells him she thinks she knows what she wants her second book to be about: "Fertility as a national resource. Reproduction as a world imperative."
Seconds later, Fred gets a text saying that the coup is on.
After it's been pulled off and the other members of his cadre are working out policy amongst themselves, Serena wears a natty suit and a pussy bow and anxiously shuffles her index cards, preparing to go in and share her expertise, until Fred comes out with bad news: "They won't let you speak. I'm sorry." She swallows her humiliation: "It is what it is. Thank you for trying." In case there was any doubt as to what exactly disqualified Serena from participating in the new government, one of Fred's confederates emerges to dispel it: "This is our fault. We gave them more than they could handle -- put so much focus on academic pursuits and professional ambition, and let them forget their real purpose. We won't let that happen again." We never see what Serena does to keep it tight, but knowing these kinds of conversations are happening without her, and about her, it's not hard to imagine full-body rage kegels are what maintain her perfect figure.
But here's how Serena played herself: she used her drive and talent to promote a philosophy that could only lead to her undoing, the "it" of "It is what it is" the logical conclusion of constructing a quasi-intellectual justification for the subjugation of women. Before, Serena Joy could assess society's ills and offer a prescription from her privileged position: don't give women equal pay, protections from harassment at the workplace, or safe access to all their reproductive rights. Instead, value women as the heart of the family! Keep God alive in the home, everywhere, at all times, including when you're sneaking in a frantic marital quickie before your 4 PM conference call! "Never mistake a woman's meekness for weakness"! (That line is quoted to Mrs. Waterford by Mrs. Castillo, the Mexican ambassador, who prepared for this visit by rereading A Woman's Place on the plane.)
We may reasonably surmise that Serena's vision for Gilead didn't include criminalizing female literacy. We don't know how much time passed from that hallway discussion between Fred and his fellow misogynist and the moment when getting caught with a stack of note cards would mean Serena lost a finger, but we may also reasonably surmise that any of Fred's fellow-conspirators who'd ever tried to debate her knew enough to keep her and her note cards out of any plenary sessions: they feared her ability to steer the consensus away from their more radical proposals. Even if Serena knew all along that "'better' never means better for everyone," she surely never bothered wondering what would get worse for her -- not from her lofty position as the equal partner to one of its plotters. Serena thought that if she could align herself with power, she wouldn't be subject to its abuses. Serena thought she could be a conservative and a (certain very specific kind of) feminist. Serena found out she was wrong.
So the story of "A Woman's Place" is that of Serena's specific complicity in turning conservatism's most appalling, beyond-retrograde, misogynist fantasies into the real rogue state in which she now lives. When she excitedly told Fred her idea for "fertility as a national resource," it was just a concept. Given the man she married and the coup she helped organize, it probably wasn't a concept she'd try to explore by proposing such democratic-socialist policies as universal health care, universal child care, generous parental leave, or workplace flex time. Maybe, Serena might suggest, female high-school graduates should have to register for a surrogacy draft. Maybe fertile undocumented women rounded up by ICE can earn citizenship through surrogacy. Maybe it's a babies-for-welfare scheme. All of these notions are still grotesque and dehumanizing...and yet as you read them, they didn't seem like they were really outside the realm of policy our current-day GOP might propose, did they?
Anyway: Serena's "fertility as a national resource" was probably not supposed to end in her facilitating the trafficking of fertile women to less fortunate nations by coolly telling an Aunt to "remove the damaged ones" because "you don't put the bruised apples at the top of the crate." But it's partly because she's always had so little empathy for other women whose lives were different than hers that she didn't just become a conservative but stayed one. She made what seems to be a very comfortable living sketching out policies that would make other women's lives increasingly unpleasant. She helped overthrow a government so that her husband and his buddies could play in their theocratic clubhouse full-time, never considering that she wouldn't be allowed to join them. Her reward for it ended up being a wardrobe of slightly nicer uniforms than her Handmaid's; a chance to put together a multi-day state visit without even being allowed to write a single to-do list; and, of course, a new role as the accomplice to rape in the hope that it will eventually result in a child, conceived in misery, for her to raise.
Just like everyone else in Gilead, to greater and less degrees, Mrs. Waterford's life is one of unrelenting pain and deprivation -- and yes, the episode makes clear the irony that she helped do this to herself. But it should also be required viewing for Tomi Lahren and Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham and Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders and even Sarah fucking Palin so that they can maybe start to get the tiniest inkling of what the political philosophy they espouse and promote actually has as its endgame. Any woman who thinks she can participate in political life without actively working against patriarchy is just working against her own interests, and those of all her sisters. She might be able to convince herself, temporarily, that she can elevate herself to the top of a reactionary power structure if she just stands on the hands and backs and necks of enough other women. But that just means her inevitable humiliation in a pussy bow hasn't happened yet, not that it isn't going to. I am not a crackpot.