A fine line between dystopia and torture porn
THERE’S a scene in the newest season of The Handmaid’s Tale (be warned, vague spoilers and many trigger warnings ahead), in which a character has a cloth placed over her face, and while watching it I thought “What’s next? Waterboarding?”
And then, yes! It was waterboarding.
By then, the episode had already included a grisly fingernails-and-pliers scene. The character had already been locked in a box and hit in the face and shamed and berated and gaslit. What else was left?
A show that began four seasons ago as an exploration of life under a fictional patriarchal theocracy now in season 4 (streaming on Showmax) sometimes feels more like an extended game of Bad-libs:
“(Child bride) encounters (man who participated in her gang rape) while plotting to destroy (underground sex-trafficking ring), which is naturally run out of (swanky erstwhile country club).”
The early seasons maintained a strong sense of purpose well apart from the shock of violence. We followed one character (June, played by Elisabeth Moss) learning about the routine she followed and the household to which she had been assigned. Much of the horror was left to the imagination, often to great effect.
The most chilling scenes were sterile flashbacks in which the handmaids trained for their futures as rape victims – dozens of women sitting through classroom lectures where the curriculum is government-sponsored sexual slavery.
The new season seems more interested in the what: what’s another way that women could be terrorised? What are some more ways after that? Have we had any scenes set in crisis pregnancy centres yet, where a woman
seeking an abortion is pressured with scare tactics to keep an unwanted pregnancy?
No? Okay, let’s throw one of those in. What about reappearances from villains who no longer serve the plot, but the actors are so great we can’t bear to fire them, so we just make them more cartoonishly evil?
Nothing is left to the imagination. We see it all.
The go-to defence for The Handmaid’s Tale has always been that it’s only reflecting reality. Women are raped, women are trafficked. In interviews, Atwood has said that all of the violence in her book had historical precedent; she kept files of news clippings and source material. But as the umpteenth bad thing happens to the jillionth sad woman, a viewer gets less wrapped up in the story itself and more in the ethics of watching it at all. When are we learning, and when are we leering?
I don’t mind violence on television. I don’t mind violence against women on television when it’s used to illustrate something profound about who we are as a society.
I do mind it when the viewer most likely to get something out of the show is a serial killer jotting down ideas for his vision board.
Part of the issue here is that our protagonist June has become defined by the traumatic things that have happened to her, and her bravery has become defined by how she, alone can kick trauma in the gonads. She is trapped, she escapes; she is attacked, she fights back.
There are bombs, there are missions carried out under hails of gunfire. She lifts her red handmaid’s hood like a superhero’s cape, she glares into the camera and lives to fight another day. It’s inspirational, and it’s exhausting.
When a woman’s pain is presented as the most interesting thing about her, her storyline requires the pain.
So it is with June, who during the first three seasons turned down multiple opportunities to escape to Canada. The stated reason is that she needs to remain in Gilead to search for her older daughter; the real reason seems to be that the show might not know what to do with a liberated June.
Recovery isn’t as cinematic as struggle. It’s messy and slow and doesn’t often involve doing a hero’s run away from the exploding capitol of a totalitarian regime.
Maybe my frustration with The Handmaid’s Tale is that the show is giving us waterboarding scenes while other scripts move the conversation about women violence and society into new areas.
Toward the end of the available episodes, something happens to June that puts her in a different spot than she’s been in for the bulk of the series. She is finally in a place where she might be able to recover, and I found myself wondering… would the show let her? Would the remainder of the series do the hard work of showing June at rest? Or would she again throw herself into a lion’s den?
The thing is: whether your show is a sci-fi dystopian drama, a dark revenge comedy or a prestige limited series, it’s actually not difficult to concoct scenes of women in peril.
It’s much harder to come up with scenes of women being left alone.