The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the finest dystopian novels ever written, and it is, inescapably and fundamentally, about women’s oppression under an ultra-conservative regime. The much-anticipated Hulu series based on the book doesn’t shy away from the original subject matter; it couldn’t, really, and remain the Handmaid’s Tale. Which is why it’s so curious that in a recent panel discussion, the cast of the show studiously refused to admit that it’s a feminist story. It brings to mind the way Handmaid’s star Elisabeth Moss has, for years, cheerily dodged questions about her lifelong membership in Scientology and the alleged abuses within the church.
The screeners of the show I’ve seen are excellent: gritty and tense, every shot as spring-loaded with meaning and menace as the novel. The drab, washed-out color scheme and touches of modernity in the world of Gilead lend it an air of cinéma vérité that’s as creepy as it is effective, a feeling that it takes place in a moment just around a lurking corner from our own. It feels, as many people have said, horribly relevant and unpleasantly timely.
Except if you’re a member of the show’s cast, who, for the most part, have remained anxiously laser-focused on how “universal” the show’s themes are. MTV’s Rachel Handler wrote a long and excellent piece about Handmaid’s Tale premiering at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month. During a post-screening discussion, she wrote, the cast “deflected notions of social resonance,” choosing to steer their answers away from politics or feminism or current events and back on just about anything else about the series: the skill of the screenwriting, or the “resilience” of Offred, the main character played by Moss.
Madeline Brewer, who plays the Handmaid Janine, even reassured the audience that the show isn’t “any sort of feminist propaganda. I think it’s a story about women and about humans.” She added, “You see [in the pilot], the three people [publicly] hanged on the wall were all men. This story affects all people.”
To insist that the goddamn Handmaid’s Tale has no special relevance for women is, of course, intentionally obtuse in a way that suggests that the people shaping the show’s marketing campaign are worried. It seems like someone, somewhere, is concerned about the ratings implications of being accused of Committing Feminism, alienating the precious 18-34 male demographic and dooming the show to be shown only in a backroom at that feminist bookstore from Portlandia on a dreary loop forever. Showrunner Bruce Miller told the New York Times, “I don’t feel like it’s a male or female story; it’s a survival story.”
Disappointingly, even Margaret Atwood herself gave the NYT a terrible answer that fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the term “feminism,” seeming to mistake it for a political philosophy where women can do no wrong:
Ms. Atwood, on the phone from her Toronto home, interrogated the phrase. “When you say ‘feminist’ do you mean: Should women have the same rights as other human beings? Then, yes. But what else do we mean by that term? Do we mean women are angelically more perfect than men? Well, no. Women are human beings. That can be a plus or a minus.”
A recent New Yorker profile outlines Atwood’s sometimes prickly relationship to the concept of feminism, which she associated, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with being policed on what to wear or how to present herself:
In the sometimes divisive years of second-wave feminism, Atwood reserved the right to remain nonaligned. “I didn’t want to become a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs,” she said. “Having gone through that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick—I never had any use for that. You should be able to wear them without people saying you are a traitor to your sex.
As The New Yorker saw it, it’s not that Atwood resists being called a feminist, so much as she wants to be clear about what that means:
Given that her works are a mainstay of women’s-studies curricula, and that she is clearly committed to women’s rights, Atwood’s resistance to a straightforward association with feminism can come as a surprise. But this wariness reflects her bent toward precision, and a scientific sensibility that was ingrained from childhood: Atwood wants the terms defined before she will state her position. Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes.
Moss took the same tack at the Tribeca discussion—women’s rights are human rights, and Handmaid’s Tale isn’t a feminist story, but one with broad human implications. But she pushed the concept much further, as Handler wrote, into a totally apolitical realm:
“For me, [The Handmaid’s Tale is] not a feminist story. It’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights. So, for me, I never intended to play Peggy as a feminist. I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They’re women, and they’re humans. Offred’s a wife, a mother, a best friend. She has a job. And she is a person who’s not supposed to be a hero, and she falls into it. And she kind of does what she has to do to survive, to find her daughter. It’s about love, honestly, so much of this story. So for me, you know, I never approach anything with any sort of political agenda. I approach it from a very human place, I hope.” (It’s a point she emphasized again in an interview with Teen Vogue: “It’s very important people understand this is about human rights, not just women’s.”)
This is a baffling, almost brain-melting answer that gets worse the longer you look at it: playing Offred as a feminist is opposed to playing her as “a wife, a mother, a best friend”? Embracing the story’s “political agenda” means ignoring the elements of it that are about love, survival, and memory? Why couldn’t those things co-exist? (One of the parts of the book that has stayed with me since first reading it as a young teenager is a banal dream Offred has: she’s wearing earrings, and one of them has broken. “Nothing beyond that,” she thinks. “Just the brain going through its back files.” It’s a razor-sharp moment, a reminder of how stubbornly Offred’s old life clings to her, the needles of longing that hit her in the softest, most unexpected places.)
But this is, frankly, not a surprising show of cognitive dissonance from Moss, who seems like a nice, smart, hardworking person, and who’s stubbornly refused to talk about Scientology, a deeply problematic religion in which she was raised and reportedly remains a member of to this day. As reporter Tony Ortega points out, Moss completed a course called Expanded Grade III in 1999 that would put her, even then, fairly far along the “bridge” of time and money spent in Scientology.
Moss has defended her refusal to talk about Scientology as a matter of privacy, as she put it in a Guardian interview last year:
“It is weird for me to be put in the position where I am like, ‘No, I can’t. I don’t really want to talk about this.’ You feel kind of like, I am a nice person who likes to talk about stuff. I also get the curiosity. I get the fascination. I become fascinated with things that are none of my business as well. I am just fascinated when someone breaks up with somebody. I want to know all about it. I am very interested in what people are wearing, and all of that kind of thing, but you have a right to your privacy.”
She did the same thing back in 2014, talking to Willa Paskin at Vulture, again mysteriously implying that people who judge Scientology harshly just don’t know what they’re talking about:
We are almost at the ocean when I bring up Scientology, the church Moss was raised in. Her affiliation with the church remains the strange, odd fact of her biography, the thing that does not belong in her regular-chick story. “I’m not going to talk about it anymore,” she says firmly. “I said what it meant to me, and anyone can go and look at that if they want to know what I feel. But now it’s private, off limits.”
She has previously spoken about how the church is personally helpful to her, not anti-gay, and “grossly misunderstood by the media.” But Moss does not talk about Scientology even with friends and seems very comfortable with how uncomfortable it makes other people. “I would feel the same way, honestly,” she says. “I think if there was something that I didn’t know and didn’t understand, I would probably feel as opinionated. You know how you’re opinionated about when someone breaks up? Celebrities break up and you just feel like you know what happened?”
That would all be fine, sort of, if the book and documentary Going Clear, a recent A&E series by ex-Scientologist actress Leah Remini, and a growing chorus of personal stories by people who have left the church didn’t contain such disturbing allegations. Ex-members have described patterns of coercion, control, and even physical abuse by church leader David Miscavige (all things that Scientology representatives have denied). Miscavige’s wife Shelly hasn’t been seen publicly in years. Disobedient members of the Sea Org are reportedly disciplined at a horrific prison camp known as The Hole, which the Tampa Bay Times described in a 2013 story as a place of “confinement and humiliation.” (Scientology, again, has said that reports of conditions at The Hole are exaggerations and mischaracterizations delivered by embittered ex-members.)
There’s also the rather confused matter of how Scientology views women: L. Ron Hubbard wrote in the ‘50s in his Scientology: A New Slant on Life that a woman’s place was in the home and nowhere else: “A society in which women are taught anything but the management of a family, the care of men, and the creation of the future generation is a society which is on its way out.” More recently, those passages were removed from updated versions of the book. (Update: Ortega pointed out that the passages remain in new versions of 1951's Science of Survival.)
But women who have left Scientology detail a series of abuses against women: a Tampa Bay Times story in 2010 detailed an alleged pattern of forced abortions for women in the Sea Org; a lawsuit against the church by one woman who says she was forced to have an abortion has been mired in complicated court proceedings since 2009. More recently, the public learned that celebrity Scientologist Danny Masterson is being investigated for sexual assault; all three women making the accusations allege that they were pressured by Scientology not to publicize what they say happened to them. (Masterson has denied the sexual assault allegations and a representative for him called them a scheme to boost ratings for Remini’s show.)
It’s fine that Elisabeth Moss doesn’t want to discuss her religion, or the many alleged abuses within it. (It’s possible that she’s never seen a single unpleasant thing in the church, given that celebrities reportedly receive kid-glove handling.) But it combines in an unpleasant way with her refusal, and that of the rest of the Handmaid’s cast, to have even the most basic conversation about politics or feminism in the context of the show. From here, it starts to look less like making the show “universal” and more like an anxious, fearful whitewashing.
To promote the show, Hulu recently sent a handful of women reporters, including me, a signed copy of the novel and an enormous sweatshirt, red with a white hood. It reads “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” in black all-caps, the nonsense-Latin phrase of inspiration and defiance that Offred finds scratched in the closet of her room-cum-jail cell. The package also contained an invitation, written by Moss, to join a Facebook group called #Maidez, which vaguely promises to discuss the “injustices” of the day.
In the letter, Moss refers to the rights of “women, LGBTQ people and those of diverse faiths” being eradicated “by a newly formed theocratic dictatorship,” which is an accurate and—for her, unusually pointed—description of the show. It is, she adds, a “story as relevant now as the day it was first written.” Then Moss invites all of us to talk solutions, in language as carefully stripped of political meaning as anything else she’s ever said: “Our goal is to facilitate positive discussion among solution-oriented people who believe in the power of sharing ideas and personal connections.”
I don’t know what that means, but I hope it works. I also don’t know why anyone who loves this book would want to dress like a Handmaid. And I fundamentally don’t understand the impulse to shove the meaning of the novel as far away from oneself as possible.
In short, I guess, I don’t understand who the Handmaid’s Tale cast is afraid of, who they think they’re answering to, or where they think disavowing feminism will get them. We all inhabit this new reality together, whether we like it or not, and pretending like this is just any show or any time in history won’t save any of us.