Last week, as I was watching “A Woman’s Place,” the sixth episode of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I was struck with a realization: I had not watched a single episode of the show without flipping through the social media feeds on my phone or my laptop simultaneously. So I started to think about why…Why might I might be avoiding focusing myself entirely on this show, a show that I gave high praise to and found fascinating for so very many reasons?
The answer was deceptively simple: I was, in fact, avoiding focusing myself entire on this show in order to avoid the trauma of doing so. As a woman, the show terrified me. So I did what I do when I need a distraction…I pulled up a social media feed that I could passively scroll through or easily put aside while I was watching, redirecting my attention when my psyche could not (would not) devote itself to the images on the screen.
I promptly expressed this opinion on Facebook with a short status update, written while I was watching that sixth episode. And then something happened. Other people (mostly, though not entirely, women) start expressing similar opinions. They also had a difficult time watching the show, and some of them felt unable to watch at all. It turns out, there were quite a lot of us who agreed that the show is well done, the story well plotted, but perhaps so well plotted and shown at such a frightening moment in American history (though not just American, I’m reminded, as I see the news of the Manchester attack, so obviously an attack on girls) that to actively watch the show is to feel an open wound be poked and prodded for approximately an hour at a time.
To watch The Handmaid’s Tale, we must confront our current situation, must confront past atrocities, too. Although in some ways the premise of HT is speculative fiction, casting forward and asking “what if” questions, in other ways the work is a reflection of past horrors. Atwood has said as much:
I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents.
To watch The Handmaid’s Tale, I must confront a world in which all of these things have happened, are happening, will happen.
And maybe it’s selfish, maybe it’s just human, I don’t know…It’s most certainly indicative of my position of privilege and my position in history that I don’t regularly worry about these things…But as I watch, I do wonder. I wonder what I would do if it were my child torn away from me; if it were my husband shot by police, presumed dead; what if it were my body forced to endure the cold, casual rapes of the Ceremony and bear children in a world where most births result in death.
In Gilead, there is only room for the white and the privileged, the able-bodied. I’m inclined to also attribute the overwhelming whiteness of the community to this kind of thinking as well, but as Angelica Jade Bastien points out in an excellent piece for Vulture, it’s a bit difficult to say if this is intentional or just a result of the “colorblind casting of the show.” In a more concrete way, we are assured of that differences are not welcome in Gilead when Ofglen is caught in a same-sex relationship. She is called a “gender traitor” and forced to watch as her lover is executed, then sent to be tortured. Ofglen isn’t executed because, as a childbearer, she is too valuable to execute. We are again assured of Gilead’s low-tolerance for differences during the banquet scene in “A Woman’s Place.” Serena Joy forces Aunt Lydia to send home the girls who bear obvious marks of their punishments, the “bruised apples,” refusing them admission to the party in order to preserve the appearance that the handmaids don’t mind being treated like walking wombs.
And that is a difficult thing to focus my attention on. My medical history of severe preeclampsia, delivery by C-section at 32 weeks, makes it likely that any pregnancy would involve similar issues. At a time when maternal deaths in the U.S. are on the rise and healthcare is becoming more and more difficult for women to access, the idea of another pregnancy is, frankly, terrifying. My first pregnancy could’ve easily resulted in my death or the death of my child. Almost did, in fact. The specialist I was sent to in my 30th week not only did not send me to the hospital when he found that my diastolic BP was over 200, but he did not even report this to my OB. When I tested positive for protein in my urine and told her what my BP had been, she had me go directly to the hospital, where a group of nurses hovered over me and pumped me full of magnesium sulfate, administering steroid shots that would develop my child’s lungs enough for him to breathe without assistance when he was born almost a full 8 weeks before he was supposed to be.
In a place like Gilead, where medical care is next to nonexistent, my child and I would not have lived. In this world, as it exists, if I did not have access to the medical care that I was given, my son and I would have died. As it was, we were lucky enough to have a good doctor and for me to have good insurance that covered almost all of my birth expenses, leaving us with less than 2K to pay off from my hospital stay and surgery. The bills for my son, who spent 5 weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit, would have been astronomical, but we were lucky that he was eligible for assistance. One set of parents were not so lucky–they had been billed for hundreds of thousands in medical bills for the one of their twins that had died shortly after delivery and were caring for the twin who clung to life. Another baby, almost ready to go home one day, was back on a ventilator the next day. Those were days of tiny triumphs and gaping sadness, the NICU a place that was all at once beautiful, fragile, resilient, clinical, and strange. And that NICU was a place that would not exist in Gilead.
There is no room for the fragile in Gilead, no room for those who need a little help. No room for difference, either. There’s no room for art or books or magazines or medicine or technology. Offred’s claustrophobic world, her vision literally limited by her bonnet, metaphorically by the strict parameters governing where she can go and when, those things leave no room for what does not fit the status quo. It is this claustrophobia, this insistence on woman as womb that is perhaps the core of the issue, the reason I cannot focus my entire self on the entire show. But this is indicative of something the show is doing right rather than something it is doing wrong. I should be frightened of that, and I am.