The Handmaid's Tale Needs To Start Killing Men
Tara's not a crackpot. She just thinks this most feminist of TV series needs to quit confining its violence to female victims.
It's strange looking back from the season finale of The Handmaid's Tale to the premiere, and what I had thought, after watching the first three episodes, were potential trouble spots in what was generally a gripping and extremely effective series launch. Some of my concerns have, in my opinion, unfortunately proved very prescient: the series did get renewed, and definitely will cover new material in its second season, given that the Season 1 finale, "Night," ends pretty much exactly as the novel does; the cloak-and-dagger processes of Mayday's resistance activities did take up much more screen time and get explored in much more detail than the book allowed. But there was one area I didn't think to be worried about, which has become an increasingly obvious problem as the series has unspooled, and which was eloquently crystallized on Twitter last week by the brilliant Alena Smith.
These Handmaids better start killing some of these dudes instead of just getting raped by them or I'm not watching anymore
— Alena Smith (@internetalena) June 7, 2017
Alena is not a crackpot, and neither am I: I just think this show needs to kill a lot more men.
Credited series creator Bruce Miller must have believed he had things to say about female subjugation, both historically and potentially, or presumably he would not have embarked upon this project. But as the season has gone on, I have felt that the portrayal of violence -- primarily sexual; entirely perpetrated against women (and, admittedly, sometimes by women) -- has ceased to shock the viewer. Violence against women is, after all, the sea most TV series swim in. Assaults against women are the weekly subject matter not just of shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit but basically all crime procedurals at all levels of quality (hence the Kroll Show spoof "Dead Girl Town," to name one). What this viewer craves is some violence against men. Other than that showy Particicution in the series premiere and Emily's vehicular assault, where is it?
Don't misunderstand: in real life, I am a peaceable socialist who understands that violence only begets more violence and solves nothing. But in pop culture, violence is an essential element of storytelling and can be extremely cathartic to watch. Think of three recent feature film examples: Imperator Furiosa destroying the acolytes of Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road; Laura dispatching dozens of amoral mercenaries in Logan; Diana killing hundreds of German WWI soldiers in Wonder Woman. What do all these stories have in common? RIGHTEOUS WOMEN KILLING TERRIBLE MEN. And yet over here in The Handmaid's Tale, absolutely lousy with righteous women and men for whom "terrible" would practically be a compliment, women are still the only victims we see.
"But Moira probably killed that client with her toilet shiv!" Well, you have to say "probably" because we didn't actually see it. "But the women have to keep being victimized over and over again or maybe we'll forget how bad they have it!" I guess I don't think sexual violence against women -- not just confined to Handmaids being forced into the Ceremony but also women being trafficked into unpaid sex work, as at Jezebel's, when the "alternative" is hard labour, or female genital mutilation -- is something I or any other woman or any other sensible person of any sex is likely to forget, either in the context of Gilead, or in reality. "But in the finale we see Commander Putnam lose a hand in penalty for his crimes against Janine!" By surgeons, under anesthetic -- plus it's his left hand, so it might not even be that debilitating! "But men aren't killed in the book!" Moira doesn't escape to Canada in the book. Luke doesn't live in the book. Janine doesn't try to kill herself in the book. Confining themselves to the events of the book is something producers stopped worrying about a while ago.
I thought some men might finally get theirs in "Night," when the Handmaids in the district are all called to a Salvaging and find out that the convict they're supposed to stone to death is Janine.
Many of these women would have been, like June and Alma, in the same Handmaid "class" at the Red Center as Janine, making this especially horrifying for them; even Aunt Lydia seems to be emotional about it. But as far as we can tell from her interactions with Offred so far, the new Ofglen went through the Red Center at a different time and presumably only knows Janine from having seen her at the few gatherings Handmaids are permitted, and yet she's the one who comes forward first to say they can't do this, getting a gun butt to the jaw for her troubles. It's at this point that I remembered Offred's narration from the top of the episode: "It's their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn't want us to be an army." Surely this would be the moment for Offred to look around at her sisters, notice that they're all armed, figure out that they have the advantage of numbers on the few Guardians on site, and try stoning them to death instead. After all, Handmaids are a non-renewable resource the Gilead regime is currently trying to monetize; it's very possible that Guardians have been prohibited from using lethal force against them. Furthermore, what the Handmaids actually do -- drop their stones and refuse to comply with their orders -- results in their arrest anyway. And given the examples of both Janine and the Waterfords' last Offred, at least a few of these women are probably suicidal to begin with. Turning their stones on the pigs might lead to their deaths, but if they can take down a couple of Guardians in the process? What a way to go. As it is? Not much of an army.
Of course I get that Gilead is an oppressive regime in which women have no power or agency and that even back when women were allowed to choose their own wardrobes, political uprisings were quickly and violently put down. I also acknowledge that we hear tell of plots by women that have (again, off-camera) been quashed. I even grant that the woman who wrote the book on which the series is based didn't include much violence against men. On that last point, though: the novel, unlike the series, steadily increases a sense of dread before drawing to a somewhat ambiguous but not especially hopeful conclusion. The novel's Offred loses both interest and faith in Mayday as she falls into an affair with Nick that's described as the only narcotic available to numb her despair about the future; the show's Offred is a committed resistance operative who achieves a tangible victory.
The show's producers have chosen to extend the story outside the bounds of the book -- a sci-fi perversion of a claustrophobic domestic tragedy -- by making it, in many ways, more conventional. It's a crime story, if one on a country-sized scale, with female victims and (mostly) male perps. It's a spy thriller. It's a romance.
And because the show is so conventional, it feels like Bruce Miller, the man who is running it, has had a failure of imagination about how to make it more hopeful, which one assumes it will have to be if it's going to keep going past the downbeat end of the book. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson also created a show about rape this season, or rather, she created a show about retributive vigilante justice delivered to rapists within a system that favours the rights of perpetrators over those of survivors. What could someone with her imagination have brought to this project?
And what aspects of the season finale are supposed to excite me about the second season, or even to inspire any trust that producers are going to be able to tell a satisfying story once they're entirely untethered from the source material? I already think Luke is kind of a scumbag for starting his relationship with June when he was married to someone else, so the prospect of their reunion: eh. The odds of Offred recovering Hannah seems too remote to contemplate, and the progress of Offred's pregnancy might actually keep me away. Moira's transformation from sex worker to refugee to political activist is the only storyline I can kind of imagine investing in, and I know she won't be front and center. Instead, we're probably going to linger on Offred's torture in custody and, if she's returned to the household to which her fetus officially belongs, see her plot against the woman who's already psychologically tortured her with a glimpse at her daughter and physically attacked her on multiple occasions. I never would have thought it at the start of the series, but it seems like we're going to see a Handmaid kill a Wife well before any kills a man, and I can't help thinking a female showrunner would know better how her oppressed female characters would be straining against their slavery: by fighting the real enemy. I am not a crackpot.