Why the Female Villains on The Handmaid’s Tale Are So Terrifying

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Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy, and Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

Close your eyes and imagine rows of racially diverse young women clad in blood-red robes and stark white bonnets, spread out upon a lush green field. Their movements are carefully tracked by guards armed with machine guns, heads bowed in respectful devotion as they await what soon becomes clear will be an execution. This is Gilead, the totalitarian dystopia built on the ruins of what was once the United States by a far-right Christian force in the wake of terrorist attacks. In the Hulu series, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale presents a world with a strict caste system, where each of its members are color-coded to denote their station. Lead character Offred (an excellent Elisabeth Moss), a Handmaid brutalized into forced surrogacy for the men in power, known as Commanders, is the anchor who situates us in this strange new world. But it’s Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) — an “Aunt” whose role it is to keep Handmaids subservient — who crystallizes one of the show’s most trenchant observations: the ways women, particularly white women, are complicit in patriarchal structures in order to hold onto what little power they’re afforded.

Watching Aunt Lydia during the execution scene in the series premiere, something vital becomes apparent. While she explains the crimes of a man the Handmaids will soon be asked to rip apart with their bare hands, she says, with tears gleaming in her eyes, “You know I do my very best to protect you.” It’s these tears that made me realize Aunt Lydia’s role in Gilead isn’t conditional. She doesn’t bow her head in false piety like Offred and other Handmaids. She’s a true believer. It’s easy to imagine her as a woman who would picket abortion clinics or virulently refer to women as “sluts” for expressing the merest hint of control over their own bodies, thereby contradicting the will of the God she believes in. Speaking to the Handmaids onstage, detailing the crimes of the man about to be executed, Aunt Lydia is in her element. She’s most comfortable making room in the world so violence can flourish. Actress Ann Dowd takes full advantage of the role, heightening Aunt Lydia’s zealousness to a point where it almost seems like a caricature. Just when it hits that point, she pulls back with a stern glance and a tightened visage to communicate brutality.

Aunt Lydia is carved in the lineage of villainesses like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Wilkes in Misery, and Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. Cold, brutal, and obsessed with their proximity to power, these women turn to violence not just for the sheer thrill (although that’s part of it), but in order to remake the world in a shape they feel is just. But it’s Aunt Lydia’s obsession with the sort of power Commanders freely have access to that brings to mind how real-life white women have historically used their place in America’s hierarchies of power to brutalize those below them. It’s this obsession with power — maintaining and wielding it — that makes a future like Gilead possible.

It’s easy to rest the blame of the horrors of Gilead solely at the feet of men like Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). But no system this deeply entrenched and high functioning could survive without help. Fred and other Commanders need women to internalize their doctrine so they police themselves. The very people suffering from oppressive systems become the most valuable tools of enforcement by those in power. The Handmaid’s Tale is at its most potent when it interrogates the ways women participate in systems that exploit them, holding onto power that is ultimately transitory. Much has already been made about how characters like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy feel like heightened analogues of real-life conservative women like Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway, who are all too content to watch the world burn if it means consolidating their own power. As Sarah Jones writes for The New Republic, “America is rich in Serena Joys.” The Handmaid’s Tale’s exploration of female villainy, fueled by privilege, is startling in how clearly it mirrors a pernicious brand of internalized sexism. But Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia, and their real-world doppelgängers could not exist without a proximity to whiteness. The show isn’t just indicting how women sometimes collaborate in their own oppression — it also exposes how white women are especially equipped to do so (arguably inadvertently, given what the creators have said).

From the moment she’s present onscreen, Aunt Lydia is horrifying. In the premiere she’s introduced holding court in the Red Center, the training facility for Handmaids before they’re assigned to Commanders. She’s quick to resort to violence, using a cattle prod on Janine when she talks back. Janine is later seen fresh from a surgery that removed her eye, a punishment also at the behest of Aunt Lydia. But no women in Gilead have real power — only a delusive version that allows them to keep other women below them in line. That Aunt Lydia believes every word she’s saying only makes her more horrific — but the extent of her belief isn’t understood until episode four.

In “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum,” Offred thinks back to her time at the Red Center, including when she tried to escape Gilead with Moira. While Offred still wears her traditional Handmaid wear, Moira dons the stolen uniform of an Aunt. That Moira is able to escape shows the extent of freedom Aunts are given to move through Gilead. Offred, meanwhile, is captured and sent back to the Red Center to receive punishment. “The most painful thing isn’t the betrayal of trust, June. Do you know what’s most painful?” Aunt Lydia asks Offred (whose real name is June). “The most painful thing in this entire ugly incident is the ingratitude. Don’t you realize the opportunity you’ve been given? You were an adulterer, a worthless slut. But God found a way to make you useful.” Framed by the light coming in through the window behind her, Aunt Lydia neither flinches nor blinks as she watches Offred’s feet whipped until they’re bloody. What makes this scene, and Dowd’s performance as a whole, so effective is how it shows Aunt Lydia’s comfort with violence. She isn’t such a biting portrait simply because of how she wields violence, but for how she witnesses it. Her stillness in the face of such savagery suggests an undercurrent of madness that Dowd capably exhibits throughout the series. Of course, no portrait of female villainy of this strain would be complete without a character like Serena Joy.

Showrunner Bruce Miller and his collaborators chose to make Serena Joy younger than she is in the source material. Doing so puts her in more direct competition with Offred, especially when it comes to fertility. Serena Joy bristles when Offred calls her “ma’am.” She carefully eyes Offred’s reaction when she first meets Fred. “He is my husband until death do us part. Don’t get any ideas,” she warns. In the first few episodes, Serena Joy is somewhat of a cipher. Her tools of power are shallow — things like controlling the bounds of the “ceremony” and locking Offred in her room until the Handmaid is a delusional wreck. Her power extends only as far as Fred will let it. Is she a true believer like Aunt Lydia or a woman so desperate to protect herself she’ll say and do anything to maintain the appearance of godliness? It isn’t until episode six that Serena Joy comes into focus.

The flashbacks in “A Woman’s Place” give us insight into the precise nature of Serena Joy’s marriage and her role in what would soon be known as the Republic of Gilead. Fred and Serena Joy share so much passion for one another, it’s difficult to draw a line from the people they were in these flashbacks to the distant couple they are today. Her role as a right-wing speaker, hoping to ameliorate a society she considers undone by sin, is a world away from the prim, uptight wife always decked in blue. It soon becomes apparent that Serena Joy was more an architect of Gilead than Fred. She assuages him when he seems hesitant to carry out a series of attacks in order to wrestle control of the government. As actress Yvonne Strahovski said in an interview with Cosmopolitan, “We find Serena Joy living in this cage that she spent a lot of time constructing herself.” She believes the rhetoric of Gilead so thoroughly because she helped create it. The episode title even takes its name from the book she wrote, which proposes the ideas undergirding the society that now damns her to quiet servitude — she thought she’d be the exception, not the rule. Watching Strahovski hide her well of anger and passion beneath an icy demeanor made me think if she was born in another time, she’d be a pitch-perfect Hitchcock blonde.

Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy’s most meaningful interaction is nestled near the end of episode six. They’re preparing for a grand feast in front of the visiting delegate of Mexico, Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara), a woman with actual power who serves as a brutal reminder for Serena Joy of what she lost in making this future come to pass. Serena Joy demands that the Handmaids exhibiting any sort of defect — missing eyes, bruised faces, hands hacked off at the wrist — not be allowed to attend the formal event. They would destroy the image she and Fred have presented to Mrs. Castillo, of Gilead as a healthy, admirable culture. But Aunt Lydia protests. “Whatever punishment these girls had to endure was for the greater good. They deserve to be honored just like everyone else,” she demands. It’s a surprising flash of sympathy, but it’s still married to her troubling ideology. Serena Joy, of course, gets her way after likening the scarred handmaids to ruined apples. This exchange contextualizes the kinds of female villainy that work in tandem to keep Gilead alive. Aunt Lydia believes her actions, no matter how heinous, are working toward a greater good for everyone. Serena Joy has no such illusions. She knows the terrifying horror brought upon Handmaids benefits a select few, of which she isn’t fully included.

The systems that men like Commander Fred Waterford run and benefit from would never survive without women like Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy. The latter’s attractive, blonde image — a look America has forever regarded as aspirational — obscures her brutality and grants her the ability to the look the part of a woman this world exalts. For many, The Handmaid’s Tale speaks to our era more than the one it was born into in 1985. But that’s only true if you haven’t been paying attention, a luxury that I, as a black woman, cannot afford. I know Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia aren’t just nightmares housed in dystopias and reams of celluloid. They aren’t just the conservative blonde celebrities sporting empty smiles as they spout noxious beliefs in recent decades. They have existed throughout American history. They are the master’s wife turning away from the slaves routinely beaten so her household runs smoothly. They are Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who, in 1955 Georgia, lied about the young Emmett Till whistling at her on that fateful September day. Her complicity in the racially segregated system and ease with which she relied on the image of white female fragility sealed Till’s fate. They are the young white women whose faces contorted with hate as they trailed Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, on her first day of school in 1957. They’re the feminists of the anti-porn movement, unwilling to reckon with how their rhetoric aligns them with the very conservatives that seek to keep women powerless over their own bodies. And they’re the white women who proudly wear shirts emblazoned with the word “feminism” while ignoring how their economic and social practices add to the subjugation of women of color.

Much of the conversation around The Handmaid’s Tale has become a feminist war cry, but there is something disconcerting about this sort of groupthink. It is easy to indict men like Commander Fred Waterford or the brutality of those that make up Gilead’s police force. It’s easy to rest the ills of Gilead and the real-world dynamics it clearly reflects solely on conservatism. It is easy to treat Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia as warped mirror images of conservative women. But it isn’t primarily conservatism that creates women like this. It’s a cultural obsession with whiteness that has plagued this country since its beginnings — particularly the brands of white womanhood that Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia represent. It’s the disease whose name dare not be spoken even within the series, which means The Handmaid’s Tale’s commentary on it can only go so far. (This whole analysis, for example, may only be a byproduct of the colorblind casting of the series, not a result of its authorial intent.) This is the question that haunts the otherwise incisive series: How can The Handmaid’s Tale indict the world it’s created, and the real one it reflects, if the spectre of white womanhood isn’t fully critiqued?

The complicity of white women within patriarchal structures need not always be marked by blood. Sometimes it takes the faces of women like Offred, who only seems to care about oppression when it knocks on her door, and holds onto the illusion that the world will revert back to its previous shape until it’s too late. There are times when a flicker of sympathy even seems to wrench Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia from their typical actions. But it never lasts long enough for them to reconsider their positions or their existence in gilded cages. Perhaps if they stopped for a moment and turned their eyes to the world around them, they would see their decisions aren’t just oppressing Handmaids, but themselves. That’s what makes The Handmaid’s Tale image of female complicity and villainy so blistering. It shows how futile it is. As Fred says to Offred at one point in the series, “Better never means better for everyone. But it always means worse for some.”

The Handmaid’s Tale: Why the Female Villains Are So Scary