JUNE 16, 2017
This week on Dear Television: we wrap up our coverage (admittedly a little spotty—SORRY!) of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale with Sarah Mesle and Jane Hu on the season finale, “Night.” If you haven’t watched all the way through, you should be ashamed. You should then let that shame motivate you to drop whatever you’re doing, go watch the finale, and then come back to read these reviews. (Because there are spoilers.)
Who Will Braid Offred’s Hair?
by Sarah Mesle
I had two favorite parts of Wonder Woman. One was the start of Diana’s run into No Man’s Land: not the full battle, not the whole cool shield thing, but specifically the start, when she leaps out of the trenches and runs straight through the mud with glorious determination, flicking bullets off her wrists with beautiful focus. Power accessories!
My other favorite part, and this will be a surprise to exactly no one who has read my thoughts about Game of Thrones, was the Amazons’ hair. The best hair was obviously Antiope’s (mohawk with a fishtail braid) but every Amazon’s hair was pretty spectacular, both visually and, I would say, thematically. If you think about these braids as actually a kind of world building, as I tend to, and not just a bit of make-up art, you have the great pleasure of thinking about the movie’s fearsome warrior women getting ready for battle practice by hanging around in their Amazonian sleeping hall or wherever, sitting between each other’s knees with combs and hair bands, gossiping and braiding. I totally believe these women do this, that they braid each other’s hair, which is also obviously the reason that once Diana leaves Themyscira her hair is down all the time. The flowing locks are not just to impress Steve Trevor, she wears her hair down because she has no one to braid it for her.
I bring all this up not only because I’m interested in hair as reality effect (though, certainly, I am) but because hair and battle are also the things that interest me most here at the end of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale and Wonder Woman have nothing and everything in common. From two very different visual media, and against the expectations of very different genres, and with very different conclusions, both stories think about how women might fit into men’s violent worlds, what kind of resistance might be meaningful or even possible, and how love matters to what we do and strive for. Both stories also get a lot of work done with hair.
I’ll come back to the hair, but first let’s mention that both stories also have the same problem, which is their inadequate solutions to the task of telling, right now, a heroic story about “women.” Responses to each have pointed out the different ways they’ve tried to balance the task of using a narrative focused on a white woman to say something about women more broadly. Is that project a failure from the get go? Maybe. Can you use a white woman’s suffering to describe women’s oppression? Can you use a white woman’s strength to talk about women’s resistance? What if the white woman is from Israel? What if she has a black best friend? (I ask these questions as a white woman critic.) What does it mean for a woman to be a hero, anyway?
This is partly a question of genre, one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In superhero stories, the narrative structure of the world is fundamentally reduced to good and bad, a villain for the hero to kill in the third act. This is a problem for Wonder Woman, who somehow has to very lovingly kill a super villain. Dystopias have different problems: in dystopias, good is harder to parse and find. They explore autocratic evil, the kind that gets inside you. If it’s really a dystopia, nobody gets off free. How do you fight the evil of the system that you’ve become? How do you fight it when, for example, you’re Offred, pregnant, with the system growing inside your body?
Of all the departures between Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its Hulu adaptation, Offred’s pregnancy is the most fascinating. I love that, here in its final episodes, the show clicked in to think — even in rudimentary ways — about mothering, colicky babies, weird lady power struggles about the appropriate number of blankets. Pregnancies and babies are forward-looking, but from a practical level, their numbing repetitiveness can make for bad TV. Where is season two going to pick up? I’m both hopeful and concerned. Offred with morning sickness? I would love that! Lady bodies!
But my concern is that the show will sanitize motherhood—use some Hallmark idea of mother love to pry a pure sort of goodness, something beyond complexity, out of the insidiousness of its dystopic world. And also: motherhood is almost always the way white women try to universalize their womanhood. It’s an old move, and it almost always goes poorly; anyone paying attention can see that not only is motherhood not the place where gender trumps race, it’s in fact usually the place where race erupts most violently. So given that The Handmaid’s Tale already seems myopic in its treatment of gender, I’m not sure Offred’s pregnancy is a narrative move I trust the show to make with much sensitivity.
But, concerns in place, let’s think about this. Dystopias ask: can there be resistance? Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel, and like many dystopic novels, the answer to that question is not secure from the beginning. In fact, it’s not secure at the end! We know that Offred escapes because we have her tale, but we don’t have anything else: what we do know is that Offred steadfastly refused to resist, choosing instead the pleasure of sex with Nick, and that it was really this movement towards pleasure (rather than any resistant act) that probably lead to her freedom.
But The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu is serial TV, gunning for season two, and the real question we were asking all season was not will Offred learn to resist, but rather what will lead her to resist, and how. This show, from its beginning, wanted a superhero — a more complex woman, maybe, than Wonder Woman, but a superhero nonetheless. And it got one! How? Offred’s trajectory had to do with sex, with the news about Luke, with the suffering of Ofglen…and finally with the decision to refuse to murder Janine.
As many have noted, the salvaging in this final episode of The Handmaid’s Tale offered a careful narrative closure: in the show’s pilot, Offred leads the charge in a brutal state-sanctioned murder; in this final episode, she refuses. It’s elegantly done, and carefully shows the growth of her character over the course of the season.
But I kept thinking of Wonder Woman’s charge into No Man’s Land while watching The Handmaid Tale’s final episode, that scene particularly. Wonder Woman can escape a barrage of bullets because she is not real. Even in her own movie, she is otherworldly, magic. When I watched her flick away bullets, I did not think I was watching something that was supposed to model for me a practical mode of existence. I was reveling in something that was offered to me exactly as a fantasy and that delighted me on precisely those grounds. Imagine!! A beautiful woman, shutting all that brutality down!
I want to be clear that I love, love, heroic narratives of resistance. I love underdogs, I love stories, fantasies and more convincing ones, of fighting against the machine. I want to believe that friendship and love and solidarity between women can, if not change the world, at least make us whole.
What I didn’t totally love, or at least felt somewhat uncomfortable with, was the implication that we were supposed to feel like Offred’s rebellion in “Night” was realistic, rather than a fantasy. I’m not saying that it was completely unbelievable. You can do some strange accounting to make the narrative math add up: Gilead needs the handmaids; it can’t gun them all down; Aunt Lydia was herself ambivalent; the soldiers really would listen to Aunt Lydia over their implicit directive towards constant violence. But, on the other hand: really? Really? This is the same episode that insisted on Gilead’s willingness to indulge in all sorts of strategic violence—the tagged ear, the taser, the (WHOA SHIT!!!) amputated arm—and we’re supposed to believe that all those soldiers would just let all those women walk away?
Earlier in the episode, Offred voice-overs a line that’s meant to be a battle cry: they shouldn’t have given us a uniform if they didn’t want us to be an army. It sort of made me want to cry. I don’t disbelieve that the character, as they’ve drawn her for us, believed it as she said it. And I don’t disbelieve that resistance is possible. But oh man, did it also seem like a cop out. We can either take the show seriously in its portrait of the insidiousness of terror, in which case Offred’s army thoughts are sure to lead to horrific, just horrific, things happening to her. Or we can forget all the show—and our world, our daily world, right now—knows, and start thinking that all uniformed women form successful battle squadrons. What kind of story does this show want to be?
All this is sort of negative, which frustrates me some. I guess I land here at the end of the season at a place close to where I began: with the sense that this is some flawed TV that you should definitely, definitely watch. Dear Television! In the last three episodes, I gasped, multiple times! I started texting friends! “I know you stopped watching!” I said. “BUT SERIOUSLY YOU MUST CHECK THIS SHIT OUT!”
Really, you should watch this show. It is really trying, trying to do something that matters, and it is gorgeous and weird, and if it’s torn between indulging my fantasy desires for hot chauffers with Michigan steel mills in their backgrounds (I mean: that is some real wish fulfillment right there) and stimulating my political and intellectual awareness of gender oppression, which it is — well, I guess it’s not finally The Handmaid Tale’s fault that there are just so few shows that take women seriously, that it feels like it has to have it all. Which is not to say that I don’t think we should continue to hold it to its own (very high) standards — but just that, a show can fail and still be worth our time. This one definitely is.
And one reason why—don’t think I forgot—is the hair. As any hair scholar will have immediately noticed, hair is another place Hulu’s adaptation diverged from the book. TV Gilead has leg shaving, in the most excellently fucked up way, whereas novel Gilead definitely does not. Also, at Jezebel’s, TV Offred’s hair looks amazing—the commander insists—whereas the novel’s narrator makes sure to tell us “there was nothing to do about my hair.” What to make of this? And what to make of the decisions about hair—Serena’s transformation from pre (flowing hair) to post (always tied back) revolution hair, for instance—where the show had freer reign? What to make of the decision to give Offred such gorgeous hair, blond and angelic, so different than her other most famous roles?
That June would have to tie up all that beauty under her bonnet is a smart visual metaphor for all that Gilead demands she give up; that the commander would try to claim it for his own is an apt metaphor for all the ways he wants to control her. And we might say something similar about Serena’s complex and elegant updo’s: their perfection teaches us about her, about the expanse of time stretching around her in the awful world she made. Her hair always looks so amazing, and the unused talent and drive it speaks to help to explain how she could become so perverse, so cruel.
The Handmaid Tale’s hair, like the hair in Wonder Woman, is maybe not worth close reading. You could say it’s just extraneous eye candy. But isn’t that what women’s lives in general often are, in heroic stories? When you look at hair, you think about what women know, what they care about, how they relate to each other. These are the same things for which we don’t have a good genre. The Handmaid’s Tale is trying to figure one out. Doing so, it’s not quite venturing into a narrative no man’s land, but it’s still a dangerous journey. I’ll stick around to see which bullets it deflects, which it doesn’t; what it learns about how to do the right thing in a brutal world.
I am so happy about Luke and Moira,
Don’t Cut To The Feeling
by Jane Hu
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between pop music and nostalgia recently, especially as both relate to historical fiction. Partly because I’m working on an essay about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (a 2005 novel set in “Britain, late 1990s”), which takes its very title from a (fictionalized) pop song that gets heavy airtime over the course of the plot. And partly because of the nagging feeling that some of the best writing about The Handmaid’s Tale—even in the wake of its season one finale—remains to be about its soundtrack. That, for all the show’s thematic interestingness, cinematic precision, and serial adaptation, very few critics have actually managed to reckon with it as television. As Sarah writes in her conclusion on this first season, The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t perfect—indeed, perhaps more often than not, it was deeply troubling—but it’s also television worth watching and pondering. So why has it felt so much more fruitful to attend to what it does sonically and with its soundtrack—that is, its extra-diegetical effects—than what it does at the level of content and literal representation?
For a show that has been repeatedly touted for its brutal realism, these questions and criticisms about its soundtrack bear an aspect of frustrated redundancy: why add ironizing music when images of constraint and silence already say so much? They also seem to protest—along with the soundtrack—a little too much. I’d argue that all the attention to the use of pop music is key to understanding what Sarah describes as the show’s “inadequate solutions to the task of telling […] a heroic story about ‘women.’” And that this also relates to Aaron’s initial concerns about the show’s televisual expansion of a text that is premised on the claustrophobia and foreclosure inherent to the first-person novel form. As Judy Berman has already so sharply pointed out, The Handmaid’s Tale clunkily blares out its pop music refrains in ways that draw away from, rather than add to, the horrific drama at the heart of the show. If the plot of the novel is about eliciting the slow burn of dread, then the show’s music supervision cuts to the feeling a little too much. If the soundtrack is meant to say everything visuals and voiceover can’t (and, for the record, I’m not sure how well first-person-narration-as-televisual-voiceover is working here anyway), then something is getting muddled in this displacement.
One of the most obvious problems of The Handmaid’s Tale soundtrack occurred to me while reading criticism on it, which is that most of its hallmark pop songs carry not just affective atmospheres, but historical textures as well. Often played at the end of episodes or during climatic scenes (you can tell because these also often occur in slow motion), these songs rush in with their decade associations: from the sixties (The Monkee’s “Daydream Believer,” Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Nina Simone, LOTS of Nina Simone), seventies (James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”), eighties (Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Perpetum Mobile”), 2000s (Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away,” Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head”), to even the 2010s (The Knife’s “Wrap Your Arms Around Me”). Perhaps most egregiously, there was the Blondie and Philip Glass mashup of “Heart of Glass” (so, uh seventies pop meets contemporary classical meets…the present??). More recently in the finale: Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” (1965) and—here’s the kicker—Tom Petty’s “American Girl” (1976). With this manic range of musical moods, who’s to say where or when The Handmaid’s Tale roots itself? Not only do these various pop songs tempestuously unmoor each scene they occur in to dissonant emotional registers, they also thrust the show—and often Offred-as-viewer-surrogate’s perspective—among disparate historical consciousnesses.
Funny enough, it’s the nineties—the dystopic near future that Atwood’s 1985 novel historically purports to represent—that gets more or less elided in the show’s soundtrack. Almost as if the nineties were somehow too close—or even too legible—as a historical moment or mood, the show demurs instead of cathecting to it. There’s “then” and there’s “now” and, well, then there’s the nineties. The pop musical texture of the nineties: from Wilson Phillips’s “Hold On” to Cher’s “I Believe,” from the number one single of the year 1990 to 1999 respectively. I’m not saying the nineties were coherent; just that that decade represents, at the present time, an historical moment that feels both nostalgically “past” and yet still “very recent.” Francis Fukuyama didn’t locate his “end of history” and the beginning of liberal democracy thesis in the post-1989 nineties for nothing. On or around 1990, pop music history changed. For someone born in 1989 and who came of pop music age during the following decade, however, this ellipsis in The Handmaid’s Tale soundtrack feels like a real missed opportunity.
Another aspect of the nineties—which the show has so far elided, but which I found endlessly interesting about the novel’s conclusion—is the appearance of the cassette tape. Atwood’s novel concludes with a short chapter titled “Historical Notes” (which essentially functions as both epilogue and exegesis to “The Handmaid’s Tale” that precedes it). In this concluding chapter, which is paradoxically structured like an academic lecture (Hi, Dear TV!), we learn that the text we’ve just read was not originally composed as a written text, and no less a novel. Instead, The Handmaid’s Tale in our own hands is a transcription of a series of recorded tapes that were discovered after the fall of Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale is historical archive, multimedia artifact, intercepted message, stitched together after the fact—not unlike the pile of notes Offred and Moira retrieve from Jezebel’s in the show’s final episodes. One might say that The Handmaid’s Tale is in a way all audio—a voiceover with the visuals emptied out, if one can even fathom a voiceover without the thing it sounds over. A first-person vocal track that the television show undoes, inverts by prioritizing image before sound, and then layers over with a world of other sounds.
In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (2010), Simon Reynolds connects the media format most strongly to the eighties: “On the mass level, the pre-recorded cassette was that decade’s quintessential format, how most kids would have listened to music.” But it’s a technology that lasted well into—and crucially became obsolete during—the nineties. In other words, nostalgia collects not only around pop music, but the very medium through which Offred’s tale is first recorded. What happens to our engagement with technological mediums of cultural documentation (cassette, novel, television, or otherwise) when the very devices grow dated? One thing that is interesting to note is that when Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, the cassette tape, with all its wonderful D.I.Y. affordances, was not yet an old or nostalgic medium. Last week I bought some cassette tapes to test their warp and wear today, but I also had to buy a used tape player given, well, my lack of having one anymore.
As I’ve mentioned, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is on my mind—a novel that features the cassette tape, the Walkman, and a single precious pop song. If it hadn’t been for writing about (and rereading) The Handmaid’s Tale, however, I doubt I would have thought very much about the relationship between Ishiguro’s and Atwood’s novels—a relationship that, once perceived, seems too obvious to mention. Does Ishiguro’s dystopic bodily instrumentalization of child clones draw from Atwood’s representation of surrogate motherhood? What is their historical connection in the shared anxiety over reproductive futurity? Why do the handmaids revolt, while the child clones hardly give revolution a thought? What is the difference between 1985 and 2005? What does it mean for these science fictional representations of late 20th century American imperialism to have been penned by Canadian and Japanese-British novelists? If Ishiguro’s narrative content was more explicitly American, would they’ve made a Hulu adaptation by now? What would its soundtrack be?
There’s a kind of hope, it seems, even in futility,