“Feminism is for everybody”: Atwood and Moss on The Handmaid’s Tale

Curator's Note

Lead actor Elisabeth Moss caused a stir in advance of The Handmaid’s Tale’s premiere on Hulu by stating that the film “is not a feminist story.  It’s a human story because women’s rights are human rights.” Rather than approaching the series with a feminist agenda, Moss reported approaching it with a human agenda, citing Offred’s roles as a mother, friend, and wife, all of which she sees as speaking to the human – rather than the female – experience.

Social media didn’t take well to the perceived rejection of feminism in the series, and suggested that actors ought listen to Atwood, who openly asserts the inherent feminism in the book and series.  Atwood swooped in via social media to quell the ruckus, stating via Twitter that users should be kind to the actors as they wanted to be inclusive. Atwood further clarified that feminism can sometimes infer “Hiss Boo” or “Yay Cheer” – in other words, feminism can be vilified, or it can be celebrated. 

Having viewed the first few episodes of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s hand in the series is evident.  While it can be argued that the series, in neoliberal context, “uses” feminism and the plight of women to sell media, there are at once frames in the series which suggest that the feminist agenda is actually well played out: violation and control of a woman’s body is inhumane, homophobia is destructive, and patriarchy is controlling and violent. 

Though disturbing, the series mysteriously meets, in Atwood’s recent words, “’Feminism ‘Yay Cheer.’” The dystopic effects of patriarchy are hauntingly represented, and the series has the potential to convince “Feminism ‘Hiss Boo’” that we must look not simply toward equality but, as feminist theorist bell hooks argues, toward ending “sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” 

The series is more than a contemporary repackaging of the age-old plights of a patriarchal culture. Although presented in context of neoliberal ideologies of consumption and "female empowerment," the series can also be a turning point for a more nuanced understanding of the necessity that, as Offred does in the series, choosing love is the first movement toward freedom (hooks, 2000).





I think the reference to hooks is appropriate here. hooks suggests that forms of oppression exist not just from above but from within whereby the subordinated group might produce internal divisions and tensions, what Kennedy referred to as horizontal hostility. We see this in The Handmaid's Tale, where oppressed women act against other women, thus deflecting their attention from the overall system of oppression to others' experiencing different forms of oppression. For example, in the first episode we see Serena compare a handmaid to a dog and Aunt Lydia abuse the handmaids. All are subjected to a system that controls them, yet the system is such that it creates divisions between women, subjects certain groups of women- the marthas, the handmaids, the aunts and so on- to varying forms of submission. The result is that women cannot act in solidarity with each other. It's not difficult to see how this materialises today.

Thank you, Sarah, for this thoughtful comment which addresses a very important issue in the struggle to address sexism. The "system" - whether it is in THT or in the current political climate - perpetuates hegemonic thinking and does not easily make room for solidarity. The caste hierarchy in THT (wives, Marthas, Handmaids, castoffs to the colonies) inherently pits women against women as a means of survival. At present, Ivanka uses her own privilege to write about "work" (and made the unfortunate mistake of equating herself to a slave -- who are her editors?!). Looking forward, intersectionality is a key element in constructing meaningful and helpful thinking and talking about oppression and shared struggle.

In reading your post, Sharon, what has occurred to me is how Moss' statement - presenting the idea that this is a human vs feminist story - has presented us with an opportunity to debate this issue. Atwood shows us the way, to some degree, by contradicting this premise in a public forum. Perhaps, we might consider these 'cracks' in the wall between celebrity/mass media/PR and an engaged viewing public, at this particular time in history, as opportunities or guides for meaningful discussion. To argue THT as a feminist text, demands we look deeper and beyond the screen for a more inclusive and nuanced meaning. And, discuss we must if we are to reveal women's actual lived experience, and refute comments in main stream media such as Ivanka's assertion of 'work,' as representing a dominant reality. To that end, I wonder if your post highlights something of a watershed moment in the evolution of social discourse on the meaning of popular culture texts. Does THT represent a media event where we the 'audience' share (albeit, not equally) in determining meaning? We need more complicated and compelling texts, such as THT, to debate. And, a free and open Internet. This discussion has encouraged me to think differently about a related research problem.

**Spoiler Alert!! I didn't watch the episodes and am just going on what I know from the book!!** Solidarity is always what seems to break the back of resistance groups - whether "the left" generally, feminists or others more specifically. Neoliberalism certainly prefers individuals looking out for themselves and conflating individual success and power with success and power for broader groups. In reading the book, and the comments here that have prompted me to think about resistance, I remember individuals acts like stealing the butter to use a face cream/body lotion; or, the somewhat group acts of the women at the "club"using their sexual empowerment to help themselves while also protecting one another. Even women's resistance is framed through the body. Women are reduced to just "sexual vessels," as Gail Dines asserts in her recent work comparing THT with Netflix's "Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On." Her conclusion, women's true role is to be fucked. And while solidarity among women is definitely needed, the product of that solidarity must be to create a new language and way of seeing and reproducing the world around us. To paraphrase clunkily from Laura Mulvey - it is impossible to fight the unconscious structured like a language, from within the language of the patriarchy.

Having read the book and closely watched Moss navigate the current #MeToo climate, I am struck by how her initial response echoes the years and years of celebrities claiming to be "humanist not feminist" in their attempts to avoid controversy. It's the equivalent of "I'm not a feminist, but ..." mentalities that have been so pervasive in public discourse. However, as the show circulated through paratexts - and as social media responses and critiques abound - the opportunity to discuss (as Deborah rightly points out above!) seems to have shifted Moss' own relationship with feminism. By the time she won at the Golden Globes, her speech was heralded as a significant feminist moment (see here for example: https://slate.com/arts/2018/01/elisabeth-moss-quotes-margaret-atwood-in-...). It has been compelling to witness not only Moss' shift from standard celebrity rejection of "feminist" label to ardent supporter of #MeToo in such a short time - it does seem to indicate that this is one more example (#BlackLivesMatter being the other that I am researching) in which public discourse and social media pressures can possibly contribute to educating and swaying celebrities towards solidarity with social justice movements.

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