The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

Curator's Note

On April 26, 2017, Hulu released the first 3 episodes of Season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale, a television adaptation of Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel. This work of speculative fiction, a dystopic story of life under a dictatorship in which women belong to the state, delivers messages from a shared history and present. Available in Canada (Bravo TV, 4/30/17) and the U.S., the lead-up and series serve as both a cautionary tale and something of a survival guide.

The Handmaid’s Tale feels imminent and connects us across borders. It feels custom-made, constructed out of our recent experiences of threats to Planned Parenthood, protests in the form of the world-wide women’s march of January 21, battles for rights of the LGBT community, and legal challenges to access to reproductive health care. Atwood is positioned as both feminist prophet and vehicle for Hulu to build audience, not only in terms of paying subscribers but also as an authentic producer of original content that matters. While predictive algorithms increasingly drive content development, what remains compelling is where the resulting Handmaid’s Tale series crosses from the page to the screen and into the streets, framing social media conversations and activist efforts.

On screen, we watch as Offred and other handmaids are paraded and prepared for ritualized rape in the service of reproduction, bullied and forced to adhere to religious doctrines of behavior. We watch as resistance is met with violence, death by hanging on the wall, or banishment to the colonies. In the streets, cosplay is marketing and a tool for public opposition.

Binge-watched in anticipation of this discussion, it seems disturbingly crucial to consume The Handmaid’s Tale, once again. The fictional narrative has crossed over into real life, transporting audiences from futuristic fiction and Hulu sponsored promotional events to real-life court decisions. However, if contemporary streamed television is a record of our culture, Atwood’s vision of a dystopic future represents a part of our collective cultural experience, a moment when we can chose to simply watch or to act.


Dr. James, you've beautifully addressed a key part of the construction of this program: The producers of this show wanted us to feel that it could actually happen here and now. In many ways, as you articulate, it already has. Issues with healthcare, equal pay, the concept of "women's work," and even dressing "like a woman" are part of our everyday experience, particularly as evidenced in the first 100 days of 45's administration. The violence that we experience as a response/backlash to activism is both obvious and subtle: it is evident in our culture's perpetuation of rape culture (victim blaming, "proving" rape and/or sexual assault), and other misogynistic yet culturally accepted norms (infantilization of women in popular culture, gender conformity, and even paying tax on "feminine hygiene" products). We can take action in bold ways such as in marches, yet also in more intimate ways such as in personal relationships and our use of inclusive language. Thanks for a provocative post on this important topic.

Thank you for highlighting the issue of activist backlash in relation to our public lived experience, in contemporary terms (And, thank you, for the new to me reference, 45). I am finding it fascinating how backlash is subtlety woven throughout our popular culture. I would add that simply living as we choose, wanting more, questioning authority are presented as sources of social dissonance. Turning my attention to matters of the gaze (Laura Mulvey), in which we the television audience are 'invited' into private space with the promise of pleasurable voyeurism - in particular, sexual intimacy and personal freedom. Here, pleasure is replaced with dread as Offred slowly and methodically undresses for the bath, or escapes her bedroom for a moment outside on a warm summer night. Taking a moment to absorb episode 1 and to further ponder the idea of internal dialogue as forbidden currency of memory.

The gaze... How powerful that the male gaze, which normally objectifies the woman, is in these scenes sad and, as you say, replaced with dread. Wouldn't it be amazing if the male gaze would come to mean understanding situations that for women are filled with dread and anxiety rather than serving to mask the female space as exclusively pleasureable/pleasuring?

A colleague of mine (Ellie Walsh) passed along a recent blog post by Gail Dines accessed here Dines compares 'made for women, by women' porn with Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. Here, women's humanity, sexuality, trust of one another and 'traditional societal norms' are explored in two media texts to reveal the power of neoliberal ideology that "rebrands the sex industry as female sexual empowerment." Given that porn is one of the most lucrative businesses in the world, there is no getting away from women's porn as a servant to a capitalist framework constructed for the consumption of women. Yet, I cannot let Hulu so easily off the hook. While espousing the danger of allowing the take-over of an oppressive state, albeit via a fictional story, we are still consuming women's humiliation, degradation and sexuality for visual pleasure and entertainment along with noticeably gender targeted commercials (Feeling depressed ladies, there is a pill for that.). We paid our subscription fee to watch and join those 'in the know,' after significant paid and free media promotion. Therefore, I would argue, THT is also a bit of a hijacking. This is commercial media that would not have been made if it did not promise (And, deliver? Remains to be determined.) economic returns.

Certainly THT, its production, paid subscriptions, and paid actors, are problematic in neoliberal context. I did see Gail Dines's piece, and agree that our culture "uses" women and adulterated "fempowerment" for consumption and profit, and that's just bad news. However, I think the messages in the THT series are a slap in the face in terms of the necessity to wake up naysayers or even those who think that they are immune to the need for women's issues. Why do we need feminism? We need it because of the very notion that THT is even a series, and the concepts are manifesting before our eyes given the current political climate. Our culture is a mediated one: the best way to get the message out is to use broadcast. Unfortunately, the irony is that we ride the coattails of the very system that produced this problem in the first place. And to your point, Debbie, it's a hijacking, so Hulu and our hegemonic culture are absolutely not off the hook. Still, I have hope, and look forward to addressing this on Thursday.

I agree that it is detrimental that this was released in such a heavily (and proud) patriarchal time. A little uncanny how it can be interpreted so well with America's current political climate. But again, I have not been that in depth of women rights until of late. As well as the article that compared THT to female runned porn made me wonder if there are any shows (particularly 2010-2017) out there that do not use the female characters solely for the use of sexualization and are they as powerful than THT? I was also wondering for both of your inputs on the timeline of the show. In the flashback it could be deciphered it is in the present times. But just like that in the future dystopia, Offered/June remains ageless? Do you think it is trying to show how quickly things can change when people are desperate or am I reading too much into it? Sorry if my answers are everywhere!

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