image courtesy of Hulu
A recap: The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian America, in which a fundamentalist patriarchal cult has taken control. Dwindling fertility means that some fertile women are forced into the role of handmaids to commanders – the high status men of power – and their wives. These handmaids are used to bear children for the commanders and their wives in a twisting of the Old Testament use of concubines.
Several big events last week that dominated Australian social media. Semi-finals of the FIFA world cup. State of Origin. NAIDOC week. And the finale of the second season of The Handmaids Tale. The two first events are men’s football games. And both came under fire this year for research which has shown that on the nights of these events, domestic violence increases. English research around the FIA World Cup discovered a 26% increase in reports of domestic abuse when England won or drew, and a 38% increase when England lost. Australian research about State of Origin found a 40% spike in domestic violence.
In an interesting juxtaposition, posts about both the events themselves, and the associated domestic violence, sat alongside posts about NAIDOC week, which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year it has the theme BECAUSE OF HER, WE CAN! celebrating the role that women play. This was a good positive counter to the other stories, reminding us of the strength women possess.
But then, there was another significant stream of posts. They were about the finale of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). To the uninitiated, this must have seemed odd. Why is all this strong emotion being expended on this fictional dystopia, when we could use it to fuel action to combat domestic violence, or to address the continuing oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? On that note, I think we certainly do need to be aware of the temptation to invest emotion in the fictional as an escape from the real problems we should be addressing. However, story is important for how we understand ourselves and how we envisage and enact change. Margaret Atwood, the writer of the book on which the series is based, has said “Storytelling is part of being human — you can’t separate it from being a human being.”
And this story of THT is one that has resonated with the cultural moment we are experiencing. It is a gruelling show to watch, relentless in its depiction of the ways humans can inflict horror on each other. But we are living in a world which is at times relentless in its horror.
There has been some controversy over THT. Some who have found it anti-Christianity – for instance in this article. I think this misunderstands what the story is saying about religion – and that became clearer in the second season. More to the point have been critiques of it as colourblind, ignoring the way it appropriates the experiences of women of colour. I hope that the creators of the show do more to address that valid criticism in the next season.
So, there are flaws to this story. Sometimes I have wondered whether it is what some have called it, torture porn, presenting female suffering for our entertainment. Is this story one which not only depicts horror, but can motivate us to change the narrative?
I had some hope that it was doing so in a piece I wrote for Ethos earlier this season. Although in the episodes since then, I wondered whether I had indulged in wishful thinking, with the show serving up tidbits of hope only to poison them in the next episode. But the finale has brought us to a place in which that hope has been made manifest in acts of rebellion.
In that previous article, I made reference to the Godspeed uttered by the man who helped June in an escape attempt from the oppressive regime of Gilead. I suggested this may be indicative that his aid is due to faith in God. In the finale, June, the Handmaid of the title, attempts to escape yet again. The repetition of this farewell to June by those who aid her in that escape suggest this is a rallying call within the Underground which smuggles people out of Gilead. It is a word which claims God as the helper of the oppressed rather than the maintainer of tyranny. As the Marthas, female servants, help June and her baby daughter flee under cover of darkness, they whisper “Godspeed.” Most surprisingly, as Commander Joseph Lawrence, an architect of the regime, helps June and another handmaid Emily to escape, he also says Godspeed.
The importance of God as aid to the oppressed was strikingly evident in the bold bid for a change of law by the privileged wives of Gilead. Concerned for the future of their daughters, they used their status to ask for the ban on women reading to be partially lifted so that women could read the Bible. As part of that, Serena, the wife of June’s commander, read from the Bible, from John 1. This seems to have been a restatement of the legitimate power of God against the legitimate power of God against the illegimate power of these men. For her pains, they remove one of her fingers. While this bid is unsuccessful, it highlights the revolutionary power of the Word of God – in the hands of evil, it can be used to oppress, but it does not lend itself well ultimately to being a tool of the oppressor. For in its pages are words of solace for the oppressed, and judgment of the oppressor.
In the first few episodes of this season, the words of the Bible are twisted in the mouths of the oppressors. But in these last couple of episodes, the Bible’s subversion of such power became clear. In the second last episode, as Eden, a 15 year old girl, is about to be drowned for adultery, she quotes from 1 Corinthians 13. Love is patient, love is kind. While they punish her for an illicit love, her words show that in the way they treat people, they are completely lacking in love. Later that episode, shocked by the drowning, Serena quotes from Isaiah 49:25: But this is what the LORD says: "Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save.” Serena, as she moves away from her own role as a complicit oppressor, turns to the Bible as support for her rebellion.
Back in the final episode, it is again Serena who quotes the Bible. As she gives up the baby to escape to safety with June, she speaks over her the blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. Bless has been used as a pious word of oppression right throughout the series, uttered in the formula required of all in submitting to the regime “Blessed Be”. But in saying this blessing over her/June’s daughter, she reclaims blessing as God’s prerogative in which he acts in justice and compassion.
The title of the finale, “the Word”, is thus weighty with significance. The power in the last two episodes has been God’s word spoken by female voices. Thus, THT sees the struggle not as women against religion, but as women speaking out God’s truth against a twisted human version.
This then explains the ending that had some of us disappointed. Though June’s daughter and friend Emily make it out, June decides to stay behind. The season ends with a shot of her determined face, and then her cape swishing out behind her as she walks back into Gilead. The cape has been transfigured, from uniform of coerced subservience, into the costume of a superhero. June chooses not to back down. The regime had demanded of her a sacrifice that negated who she was, that reduced her to a walking womb. But June gives herself instead to a sacrifice that reclaims who she is, a freely chosen decision to be an agent for justice. In this sacrifice is a self-giving joy in working for the freedom of others.
This final episode then, has given us reason to persevere into the next season, despite the flaws of this one. More than that, we have been reminded to persevere as women. We are reminded that we do not serve God in submitting to injustice. June and Serena stand here in a line of bold women of the Bible: Deborah, Esther, Rahab, Mary the mother of Jesus, to name a few. Women whose voices and actions were bold in the service of God. A reminder, too, to both men and women, that just like Serena and Commander Lawrence, we can choose to turn away from previous complicity in injustice. And, while I’ve found THT a motivator to action, it is also a reminder of the greater power and perfection of God’s Word.
Women, let us read our Bibles. And speak the truth therein boldly.
In alphabetical order, Megan is a daughter, friend, mother, pastor, teacher, twin and wife. These relationships and roles are central to her sense of self, all of the relationships informed by her relationship with God. She is currently doing a PhD in theology, and is wondering why she wasn't warned off by her experience of two previous honours theses (one in literature and another in theology). She longs to live a grace filled life and asks for your grace with her in her repeated failure. You could also call her fickle and unfocused in her pursuits but she would rather you call her a renaissance woman.