The Unerring Power of ‘This Woman’s Work’

Elisabeth Moss in the Kate Bush–backed Handmaid’s Tale scene. Photo: Hulu

Spoilers below for The Handmaid’s Tale season two.

“This Woman’s Work,” a ballad originally written by Kate Bush for a 1980s John Hughes movie, has appeared many, many times over the years in film and on television. Unlike other songs that suffer from pop-cultural overuse — like “Hallelujah,” in all its incarnations — this gut puncher about trying to summon strength in a moment of profound weakness never loses its power. Instead, it has accumulated additional, profound layers of meaning.

Most recently, “This Woman’s Work” shows up in season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, during the horrifying opening sequence in which June (Elisabeth Moss) and several other Handmaids realize they are about to be executed. As each woman is shoved toward a noose, the first, delicate trembles of Bush’s voice break through the silence. Suddenly, with “This Woman’s Work” laid on top of it, a moment that is already terribly sad becomes utterly devastating. That musical choice injects the scene with a sense of futility — “All the things we should have done though we never did” — and also a tinge of irony.

“This woman’s world / Oh, it’s hard on the man,” Bush sings, even though the bleak dystopia these women inhabit is run by men, and it’s monumentally harder by the longest of long shots for women. “I know you’ve got a little life in you yet,” Bush continues. “I know you’ve got a lot of strength left.” That may be a message that June and her fellow women are trying to convey to themselves, even as they appear to be facing the end, but it’s also one sent from the show to those of us watching. June’s got more than a little life in her yet, it says. You’ll see after she and the others survive this moment. Indeed they do, as the floor beneath their feet never drops away and they escape the gallows, shaken but still alive.

“It was shattering and perfect,” Bruce Miller, creator of The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation, told Vulture’s Maria Elena Fernandez about the track. “One of the things I really like about the song is that on its face, there’s a bit of very interesting lyrical play. It’s nice that that’s going on while you’re watching.”

That kind of lyrical play and juxtaposition wasn’t something that Kate Bush necessarily envisioned back in the ’80s. As she explained in a 1989 interview with the BBC’s Radio One, she wrote “This Woman’s Work” specifically for a scene in the John Hughes movie She’s Having a Baby, about a couple, played by Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Montgomery, navigating marriage and the imminent birth of their first child. Originally, the track was meant to underscore a moment of crisis and reflection for Bacon’s character, as he waits to find out whether his wife and about-to-be-born baby will make it through a potentially dangerous delivery.

“This is actually the moment in the film where he has to grow up. He has no choice,” Bush explained in the BBC interview. “There he is, he’s not a kid anymore; you can see he’s in a very grown-up situation. And he starts, in his head, going back to the times they were together. There are clips of film of them laughing together and doing up their flat and all this kind of thing. And it was such a powerful visual: it’s one of the quickest songs I’ve ever written. It was so easy to write. We had the piece of footage on video, so we plugged it up so that I could actually watch the monitor while I was sitting at the piano and I just wrote the song to these visuals.”

It’s obvious while watching that scene that it was designed to sync up with its story and emotional beats, which makes it a little on the nose, but still certainly moving. Yet Bush’s lyrics are so brilliantly universal that the song has proven to be applicable to an array of significant pop-culture moments.

In the years since She’s Having a Baby was released, “This Woman’s Work” has provided the soundtrack for: other men having breakdowns (the Party of Five episode “Hitting Bottom”); young men and women grappling with abuse and what it means to be a victim (the second act of the Felicity two-parter “Drawing the Line”); double agents grappling with grief over the loss of their fiancés (the second episode of Alias); longtime friends having sex for the first time (the movie Love and Basketball, which features the Maxwell cover); and, of course, for women having babies. That last one happens in an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, of all things, that opted for a cover by Swedish musician Emma Ejwertz. The FXX comedy isn’t known for its sentimentality, but when “This Woman’s Work” popped up in season six after Dee delivered a baby in what turned out to be a surrogate pregnancy, a normally absurd sitcom about classless dopes actually got sweet for a couple minutes.

When there’s an element of irony involved, Bush’s otherwise cathartic, ultraserious ode to pain and regret can even succeed at scoring laughs, as it did in the season one finale of You’re the Worst, when a deflated and drunk Lindsay sang a karaoke rendition of “This Woman’s Work.” As played by Kether Donohue, Lindsay did so beautifully, sincerely, and with absolutely no awareness that she’s never done any actual work in her whole damn life.

But in the past year or so, “This Woman’s Work” has more often been used to reflect the mood and mind-set of those fighting injustice, or those just trying to find shreds of hope in hopeless times. That trend may have started because of the way that Maxwell — who first covered the song for MTV Unplugged in 1997, then recorded it on his 2001 album Now — began to frame it during his 2016 live shows, flashing images of lives lost, often to police violence, on the screen while he performed. “As this violent year draws to a close, this song became protest, dirge and battle cry,” a writer for the Economist put it in October 2016. “Night after night, by juxtaposing black and white, man and woman, today and yesterday, ‘This Woman’s Work’ has been reborn as a plea for social change and an olive branch of inclusivity.”

It made complete sense, then, when Maxwell’s take on the song was featured in a trailer for Fox’s limited series Shots Fired, which explored racism and police brutality. In that context, the song captured exhaustion and trauma of seeing the same tragedies play out over and over again (“Make it go away”).

When Spike Lee used it in the penultimate episode of She’s Gotta Have It, again within a story line about cops and racism, it had a similar effect. Maxwell’s cover slips in after the protagonist, Nola, insists on being taken into custody after an uppity white neighbor accuses her homeless friend Papo of spraying graffiti on the steps of a Brooklyn brownstone. Both Papo and Nola, who tries to take responsibility for the infraction, end up getting arrested and head to the station while Maxwell, again, insists in that desperate falsetto that they can find strength. To an even deeper degree than it does in that admittedly brief Shots Fired trailer, the song communicates how tired Nola is of having to defend herself and her friends, again and again having to do the work of a black woman living in a gentrifying neighborhood.

Now that we’re two years out from Maxwell’s 2016 concert tour and his reimagining of the subtext for “This Woman’s Work,” it’s obvious why the song resonates even more now. “Pray God you can cope” isn’t just the first lyric of this beautiful dark night of the soul set to music; it’s what people whisper to themselves in 2018 before they check their news feeds. “Make it go away” is what we say once we start processing what’s there. There’s a sense in the air that the country is stuck in some limbo between despair, surrender, and stubborn perseverance. All those feelings are conjured up by Kate Bush’s song, which was originally conceived to capture a moment of profound personal crisis but works just as well at capturing a social or political one.

That makes it just right for a drama like The Handmaid’s Tale, which is often received as if it’s the worst-case scenario of America’s future. In every episode, June and her fellow Handmaids are trying to summon the fortitude to press on, to get to a place where they don’t feel like they should be hoping, but where they can just hope. By placing “This Woman’s Work” in that near-hanging sequence at the beginning of season two, the show emphasizes through music that the possibility of death always hovers over June and her Handmaid sisters, but their fight to find a little life — not just by bearing children but by someday being free enough to build lives for themselves again — is going to continue. In other words, this woman’s work is never done.

“This Woman’s Work” is also a fitting in the Hulu drama for an simpler reason: Once again, a song that Kate Bush wrote just a few years after Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale is being used to convey just how scary it is when a pregnant woman finds her life in danger.

The Unerring Power of ‘This Woman’s Work’