Refusing To Call ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ A Feminist Story Does Us A Disservice

Trigger warning: this post contains discussion about rape, sexual abuse and mistreatment of women.

She’s special. She’s a princess. She has magic powers. She’s fertile. She has something they want and she’s locked up.

Women in captivity fascinate us. In ratios somewhat disproportionate to real life, subjugated women drive the plotlines of movies and television. Browse lists of the most acclaimed and most popular entertainment and you will surely find the theme of the caged woman. Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, Ma in Room — heck, even little Eleven from Stranger Things fits the profile.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, yet again, a woman imprisoned, this time by an oppressive and religious government, is the protagonist in the brilliantly-crafted offering from Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Like a good feminist, I read Margaret Atwood’s chilling novel. Truth be told, the book disturbed me so much that I couldn’t finish it. I found the story bleak enough that I abandoned it just before the last 30 pages and read the Wikipedia plot summary to find out the ending.

Being kidnapped, held against my will and raped is one of my strongest fears. I consider this fear nearly every single day, certainly every time I’m returning home late at night. Why? Because I have to. Because I was raped. Because I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Because as women in this world, my fears aren’t irrational; they are real threats.

It’s been stated extensively in the coverage of this series that the very reason The Handmaid’s Tale is so eerie is its plausibility. The circumstances seem familiar because they are familiar. We live in a patriarchal society. Women are currently enslaved, worldwide. A notorious abuser of women is the leader of our country. It isn’t unimaginable that we could return to a time in which all American women are treated as chattel, traded, controlled. In fact, part of the tale’s effectiveness is that it reminds you how little time we’ve actually been “free” and how, in many ways, we take our rights for granted — as if freedom, once won, need never be fought for again.

I found it unnerving when I read that the cast, and even the producers, were diluting the message about female oppression. “I don’t feel like it’s a male or female story; it’s a survival story,” said showrunner Bruce Miller. Bullshit, I say. The show’s lead, Elisabeth Moss, told Vanity Fair that, in her opinion, the show is “not a feminist story.” She justified her statement saying, “It’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights.” But she’s not quite right is she?

Hillary Clinton and other women use the phrase “Women’s rights are human rights” as a rallying cry for a reason; declaring our equality loud and proud isn’t stating the obvious — it is an attempt to point out the injustice women currently face. For similar reasons activists yell, “Black Lives Matter!” These social movements call out the gaslighting to which we are subjected. Women’s rights are under attack. Black people are not treated equally. We march and scream because we know that oppression is real — even if those in power swear and up and down that it isn’t.

So, why are female characters always being locked up? That’s a question I’ll discuss in my next column, which explores the fear of female sexuality.

I’ll be blogging about The Handmaid’s Tale each week. See you next Thursday, and until then, I’ll meet you on Twitter.

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