The Handmaid's Tale
Luke is alive. June is alive. It’s a miracle: We saw both of them dissolve into tears at the realization that their loved one had been resurrected from the dead. It’s the sort of revelation that inspires religion, that transforms that world, that should change everything.
Except that it doesn’t, not on the ground. June is still fucking Nick, still creeping into his bed to feel something, to feel anything. It’s great to know that Luke isn’t dead, sure, but that knowledge changes nothing. Love doesn’t put food on the table when you’re hungry for any scrap of humanity you can find. It doesn’t pay the bills, emotionally, when everything you are has been repossessed. It feels like a betrayal to say that it’s not enough, but it isn’t. Love does not turn water into wine, does not make you walk on water, does not split the temple that jails you with a bolt of lightning.
“I can say these are acts of rebellion, a fuck you to the patriarchy, but those are excuses,” says June. “But I’m here because it feels good and because I don’t want to be alone.”
You can’t survive on love, which is a cruel and inescapable truth when you live on the edge of despair, when every moment is a high-wire act between you and death: On one side, the many ways they want to kill you; on the other side, the many ways you want to kill yourself.
Nick is still a cipher to Offred and to us. We know that he is an Eye, a spy for the upper echelons of Gilead, but one who is at least empathetic to her plight. He is sorry, so sorry, for what she is going through. He wishes things were different, he says, even as he benefits profoundly from harm it causes her.
His beginnings were humble, we learn in a flashback: He was out of work, struggling to make ends meet with a deadbeat dad and a brother who was a scammer at best and an addict at worst. It’s hard to hold down a job when you’re the only thing keeping your family together. A white man in a black suit at the local unemployment agency decides to do the Christian thing and take him out for coffee, listen to his problems.
Of course, the man understands what Nick is going through: “It’s hard making it in a society that only cares about profit and pleasure.” If only Nick could come to their Sons of Jacob meetings, to see the better way they have on offer, the one that can give him so much more than the corrupt failings of modern society. If only they could go back to the days when things were simpler for men like them. When everybody knew their place.
This is something that cults do, that men’s rights activists do, that white supremacists and religious extremists do. They look for the people on the fringes who feel powerless and lost, unable to fulfill the destinies they believed were theirs to be claimed. They offer a solution that is both seductive and familial: a community where they can be accepted and empowered and restored. The trick, of course, is that the power they offer is built on oppression, ripped away from others along lines of race and gender on the pretense that somehow they deserve it more. It’s an appealing message, one that has inspired everything from religion to YA literature: the idea that you have been chosen, that you are special, that you deserve better. Why wouldn’t you want that? Why wouldn’t you buy in?
When Offred gets back to her room, the Commander is sitting on her bed. The moral boundaries that are supposed to separate them have broken down somewhere between the triple-word scores and the vague innuendos about fashion magazines. He seduced her into this, with flirtatious notions of a space where she could be more like a person: more playful, more human, more unafraid.
In theory, the rules of Gilead are supposed to protect her from precisely this moment. Whatever else she might be in the context of his household, she is not supposed to be his concubine, his toy, his mistress. But of course, that was never really the point. Gilead has never been about female honor, about female purity. It’s always been about what men want and how they get it, and the ways they learn to dress it up in the right clothes before they fuck it.
“I thought we could do something different tonight,” the Commander says. Monopoly, she asks? But his notion of games has evolved significantly, and dangerously. Tonight is about a fantasy he has, and how he wants her to be an enthusiastic participant. He gives her a gold sequined dress that jangles with a metallic shimmer, a pair of heels and a bag of makeup. He shaves her legs, inch by inch, with the finesse of someone who has done this before — he has done all of this before. What does it feel like to be a concept instead of a person? The latest and greatest, the newest and most accessible plaything that is defined not by who she is, but by how she can make him feel?
There is a particular type of man who likes to proclaim female sexual liberation as some sort of personal ego boost, as a tool for feeling good about themselves. For all his talk about how he wants her life to be bearable, it’s increasingly clear that their interludes are not about her at all. They’re about what he wants, how he wants to feel. And he wants to feel like a Nice Guy, the man who has come at last to set her free. “Aren’t you enjoying yourself?” he asks, danger simmering in his eyes, as they cross threshold after threshold.
This is why structural inequality and the systems of our cultures are so important: By and large, they determine how monstrous we become. There was a time when the Commander probably couldn’t imagine enslaving and raping a young woman, a time when turning her into a living sex doll would have seemed repugnant. How did we get from there to here? By creating a world that told him that women belonged to him, that they were here for him, that he was the sun and they were the stars.
Her wraps June in the green-blue cloak of a wife, takes her beyond the border, where women are not supposed to go. He calls her “Mrs. Waterford” as they fake their way past the guards, then follows it up with a little bit of kink: “Tonight, you aren’t you.” He has turned his everyday, run-of-the-mill Handmaid into contraband, because that’s what gets him off. Surely, that’s exciting to her too? What a fun game to play with someone who could die if they get caught!
We get another flashback: the men planning Gilead, laying the plans for the social annihilation of the Handmaids. One of them suggests that these girls should be treated honorably — that this is somehow important — and another one shuts them down: “We can’t afford all that window dressing.” Efficiency is what is important, that “all remaining fertile women should be collected and impregnated by those who have superior status.”
The men theorize about the possible religious smoke screens for their economic and political supremacy, and land on something that the wives will “eat up”: the scriptural basis of Rachel and Leah, the presence of the wives in the Ceremony, the glaze of honor that they confer to it all. That’s sounds godly enough, right, to get their buy in on human slavery?
This is the reality: It is not about protecting women, it is about controlling women. It is not about protecting women, it is about controlling women. IT IS NOT ABOUT PROTECTING WOMEN, IT IS ABOUT CONTROLLING WOMEN. Surprise, surprise, the literal interpretation of religions founded 2,000 years ago in incredibly misogynist cultures are appealing to men who want to roll back the clock and call it God.
And so we find ourselves at Jezebel’s, the brothel of brilliant women who have been reduced to prostitution because that’s the only place left for them in Gilead. The Commander tells June that it’s okay, in their hotel room, to be loud, to express herself sexually however she wants. What freedom! What freedom she has to make him feel good in the precise ways that he enjoys.
Later, when they’re all back at home, Serena Joy gives June a box, one that opens with a key. Turn it and a ballerina dances for you. Isn’t that the fantasy, a woman who will dance for you any time and any way you want? That they have been waiting and waiting for your emotions and your desires to make them real, to make them anything?
A friend of mine told me recently that watching The Handmaid’s Tale frightened her in a way she hadn’t expected. It made her wonder how many men in her life had the potential to become the people that she saw on the screen — the ones that were sorry, so sorry — but would never stand up to be anything better. We all want to believe that we would be heroes, but studies show that this is rarely true: Every fascist, xenophobic regime is made up of people who consider themselves good people. No one wants to be a monster; no one believes that they are.
But that is exactly what we are, over and over and over again.