We Have Questions
by Jane Hu
When Phil first asked if I’d like to participate in recapping The Handmaid’s Tale, I felt it was a point of national pride and duty to say yes. I’m Canadian—wait, no, I’m Chinese Canadian—and if there’s one thing that America takes less seriously than China, it’s Canada. Rarely does a Canadian cultural import get so much attention in America as The Handmaid’s Tale has these past months, and I was ready to let my chauvinist freak flag fly. (For starters, can I use Canadian spelling in my recaps?) Look, I wrote my Grade 11 History class presentation on Margaret Atwood’s canonical Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), so I know a few things about Margaret Atwood, and even a few more things about CanLitTM. And though this object choice for a History presentation was already pretty clear evidence of my limited capabilities, it took a year of college before I finally ditched pre-med and resigned myself to the beginning of the end, which has landed me in an English PhD in, where else, fucking America. In other words, I was made to recap Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the Age of Trump. I even reread The Handmaid’s Tale for this. But, Dear Television—
I have so many questions.
My questions range from those related to adaptation, to ones about the basic internal logic of The Handmaid’s Tale: Tee Vee Edition. As Sarah and Phil brilliantly observed in last week’s post, any questions one might have for the TV series won’t and can’t be answered immediately, so I guess we’ll just have to keep watching (Hi Dear TV!). Unlike Phil, I know how the book version ends (verrrry open-endedly), but given how unevenly the show has been following its source text so far, I’m not sure that means I’ll know how this TV adaptation will end. If anything, reading the novel has incited more questions than answers, so maybe that was a dumb idea too. And so, some questions:
If Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) hadn’t already set its totalitarian hellscape in America (or some version of it), would the American TV adaptation still take place in America regardless? This is an ongoing question for me (though perhaps more so now that I’m living in California). It’s of course significant that arguably the most famous living Canadian writer sets her Reagan-era dystopic fiction not at home, but abroad. But I’ve also always wondered: do Americans reading The Handmaid’s Tale find all the references to America and its culture (football!) strange, or too naturalized to notice? The references that the TV series makes to the distance between the two countries are interesting too, not least of all because the show is filmed in Toronto.
Who makes all of Offred’s cute outfits? I know this isn’t the point, and the instrumentalization and imprisonment of Offred’s body is beyond horrifying, but it’s also a body that fits nicely inside her huge closet along with multiple sets of her handmaid’s outfit. So. Who is making all these outfits? Who is washing them? Is sassy Martha seriously the only person doing all of the chores in this entire house, because, hell, I’d be grumpy too.
Why is Nick the only one who does non-routinized labour? I get that shoveling cement is hot as hell, but really, WHO ARE YOU NICK?
What’s with all the anachronistic aesthetic choices? Costumes aside, why does every building in this show look like it comes from a different century? Is this late-late capitalism? Commander Fred’s house reminds me of a Dutch realist painting (except for Fred’s steampunk office), whereas the Warrens’ rings of spacious Regency-era grandeur. Outdoor spaces cite Brutalism and Soviet realism (or, y’know, Toronto). Hospitals and supermarkets…look like how hospitals and supermarkets look already, except more sterilized. The aesthetic citations are so vast and varied, that it seems hardly possible that an enclosed society just trying to get itself off the ground would be able to sustain all the international imports that such stylistic collaging would require. (See this excellent thread on economies of post-collapse fictional societies.)
What exactly is the relationship between shadow state Gilead and the rest of America? The most outdated and deepest fantasy of The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 seems to be the notion that America can still wall itself off so totally from the rest of the world.
Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale has technological updates such as Tinder and Uber, but it takes someone to physically run away to Canada in order to leak what’s up in Gilead? I’m not buying it. The Commander still (and only) reads the newspaper at breakfast!
I appreciate the reference to global economic systems and Fred’s piping in about keeping up the British pound (which, ahem, isn’t doing so great right now anyway)—but, in that case, where is Asia in all of this?
So many smart pieces already on the significance of the postracial America of The Handmaid’s Tale, but seriously, where are all the Asian handmaids? Given the show’s rhetoric of concubines and its reflection on outsourced female labour and reproductive carework, postracial America is strangely devoid of any Asian women.
What is the relationship between beauty and cruelty in The Handmaid’s Tale? Phil’s last post mentioned the camera’s “punishing style of attention” at the end of episode 3, which wonderfully describes so much of the show’s aesthetic. Hulu’s adaptation is gorgeous to look at, which is meant to make the scenes of blood and violence all the more shocking. Yet, the show doesn’t render gore gruesome so much as exquisite. Which leads to my tedious list of sub-questions about how the TV series adapts the novel’s plot, most of which can be distilled to:
Why does the show make the already punishing book all the more explicitly punishing? Part of the answer to this surely lies in Sarah’s insight about how “The Handmaid’s Tale is trying to tell a story about being bored without telling a boring story.” So many gruesome events take place in the pilot that don’t occur in the novel until the end, but do TV narratives differ so much from novels that they need to resort to front-loading shock factor so as to build momentum? The show’s heavy reliance on gratuitous displays of physical brutality grows redundant, protests too much. It telegraphs to exhaustion: “BAD DYSTOPIAN WORLD IS BAD.” (For more on the sonic version of this, see Rahawa Haile’s smart reading of the soundtrack in The Handmaid’s Tale.) Who knows how it’ll all evolve. So far, the violence has steadily ramped up with each episode, and perhaps there’s something to be said for relentless terror (like in certain horror films), but it’s hard to tell what the long game is right now.
Finally, all bets are off because The Handmaid’s Tale has been renewed for a Season 2?
There’s more to ask and say (Phil, Joseph Fiennes literally can’t get it up in this episode!!), but I’ll leave it there for now.
Is “bitches” an appropriate sign off?
We Have, Actually, It Turns Out, More Questions
by Aaron Bady
Oh, Jane, thank you for giving me a frame for all my nagging discontents and dissatisfactions: I have so many questions too. And “questions” is a good way to flag an unworthy complaint, as in “I’m just asking questions,” which is how I feel when I say that something—no, a lot of things—about this show are just not doing it for me. Because that feels wrong. This show is so important, timely, and, I mean, Margaret Atwood is in it, her own self! Feminism! Trump! Dystopia! IT’S THE GODDAMNED HANDMAID’S TALE! I mean. It’s been overdetermined that this was going to be The Important Television ever since the first commercials for it aired, as Sarah observed, and when we learned that PEGGY was in it, and my god, RORY, and POUSSEY… And yet, and yet, and yet!
Why is the future dystopia so damned post-racial? How can a eugenicist theocracy be indifferent to racial difference, and what happened to the Islamophobia that, in the book, explicitly provided the conditions for the Gilead coup? What has happened to the U.S.’s non-white immigrant population? What is the theology of Gilead besides the subjugation of handmaids (do these people have a bible with only one verse)? Where is the narrator’s mother? How did people in the show not see Gilead coming? How can you be faithful to a novel written and set in the 1980’s by writing and setting it in the age of Tinder and Trump? How could this country—defined by an ethos of consumption and performative pleasure—come to revere ceremonies, formulaic phrases, and neo-puritanical joyless affect?
It might be that reading the book (for the first time), just before the show aired, has ruined the show for me, as Phil suggested it might. This is because the book, I don’t mind telling you, is very, very good. And you are welcome for that incredibly original insight. But it is, it really is a very good book. It does amazing things with the silence of subjugation, and with the oppressive boredom of her life; we see her mind desperately chewing at every and any scrap of the world that it can grasp—every phrase, every texture, every tiny moment of difference—and while it allows flashbacks to the before time, it never allows us the solace of forgetting that the real world, the real thing, is here and now, in the hellish dystopia of Gilead. In the show, Offred can seem to get lost in her memories, to float away from her body and the present to a time before; in the book, it is clear, there was no escape.
In fact, one of the smartest things about the book is that it doesn’t really let you ask questions about the larger world; its claustrophobia forecloses it. The show is much less claustrophobic. It’s scrupulously faithful to the book in so many particulars, but in the book, Offred’s memories of the U.S.’s overthrow and the rise of Gilead are distant, fragmented, and confused, because she didn’t personally witness very much of it. She had her head in the sand. There were marches—and it’s mentioned that the army gunned down marchers—but she wasn’t there to see it happen, as she is in the show, where her participation is, at every stage, much more direct. In the book, Moira runs away from the Red Center alone; in the book, when her money is first taken away, it doesn’t lead to a shouting match (and isn’t accompanied by the leering hateful gaze of various random misogynist people on the street). In the book, when she is fired, other women protest and demand answers, not her; she is confused, stunned, and obeys. In the book, she doesn’t tell Luke that he’s being patronizing, not out loud; she thinks it, and then rejects that thought as unworthy, and tells him she loves him.
It happens quietly, in the book, because she wasn’t paying attention. It’s the sort of thing you could almost overlook as it happened to you, in the book, because she’s working so hard to overlook it. This, in the book, is the point: her apolitical perspective stems from a juvenile distaste of her mother’s very clear capital-F feminism, from when she was fourteen, when her mother was out brawling in the streets with anti-abortion militants, and it embarrassed her. This means that the big changeover from normal to the new normal can mostly happen offstage in the book; because she wasn’t interested in it, because she mostly averted her eyes from it all. Her mother and Moira give her advice she doesn’t listen to or heed.
The show doesn’t give us an embarrassingly feminist mother; it doesn’t give us an 80’s kid embarrassed by her mother’s 1970’s radicalism. Instead, it gives us a world of post-feminists, women who take for granted that they should have jobs and money and autonomy, and who—-when they lose all of it—subsequently make no sense as characters. Thirty years is a long time, and the book’s “present day” was thirty years ago, an especially long time when the 19th amendment is not yet a hundred years old. This means that, in the book, Offred’s feminist mother was from the first generation to have been born with the right to vote. But in the show, Offred’s complacency stems from an inability to imagine her gender’s subjugation; it comes as a surprise because no one remembers it being otherwise.
What makes the novel work, I think, is that it keeps us at arm’s length as it mashes up real historical experiences. As Atwood has always explained, everything in the book really happened, somewhere, and it’s true. She took what is—formally and generically—a very recognizable slave narrative (and if you’ve read more than a few, especially by women, you recognize it immediately), and she produced a story about gender slavery by placing it against the backdrop of some version of the Iranian revolution and the East German police state, using New England’s history of puritanism (filtered through Perry Miller’s particular and peculiar version of Puritan America) for an example of homegrown theocracy, and alluding to Reagan-era Moral Majority theological politics to make it all feel urgent and plausible. If you look close at how these elements fit together, in the book, you might start to object that they don’t quite fit together, and you might start to get picky about the book’s historical plausibility; you might start thinking about how revolutionary Iran, East Germany, Puritan New England, and the antebellum U.S. don’t overlap as much as this novel would make you think they might (or that Perry Miller’s Grand Unified Puritan Theory of America has mostly been bypassed by most historians of the U.S.). The novel doesn’t let you do that, quite cannily refusing to let you look closely enough at it to start to ask questions. Filtering the narrative through its narrator’s obliviousness keeps all the elements from clashing, making it just realistic enough; we can’t ask questions, because she doesn’t give us enough to work with.
The show’s dilemma, by contrast, is that it wants to give us the larger world, too, to tell the same story, but to tell it in more detail, more comprehensively. Atwood succeeded so well because she had more modest ambitions, and so thoroughly fulfilled them. But the show has much grander ambitions. It wants us to think that it’s all plausible, because This Show Is So Timely and Prophetic. But Atwood had a much more realistic sense of what her creation was: by basing it on things that had already happened, the novel can make us much more fearful of what could happen, but without ever imagining that it would happen exactly this way. All the discourse around the show, all the overdetermining talk about how Timely and Important it is, takes away its ability to be simply speculative.
And so those questions start to burble up, start to push themselves onto your consciousness. For example, the novel took race off the table by presuming it, by starting with an offhand reference to the total white-supremacist ethnic cleansing that precedes the present-day of Gilead; the show, on the other hand, wants to include black people, so it makes race a huge, glaring, dissonant question mark. This is only going to get worse, as the show runs out of book and has to start to get more inventive. As happened with The Man in the High Castle, which used up its source text in season one, it looks like season two of Handmaid’s is going to be almost original, extrapolated from the novel but not faithful to it. We are going, in other words, to a place where more and more questions will be askable, and which we won’t be able to avoid asking.
Waiting for something,