Starting today, a television adaptation of author Margaret Atwood’s genre-defying classic The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu. Elisabeth Moss (Mad Man) stars as Offred, a Handmaid in post-apocalyptic Gilead who has had her identity, life, and agency stripped away from her until she is nothing but a viable womb for the theocratic elite. Set in the near-future of America, The Handmaid’s Tale has felt over the years like science fiction and, more recently, like a cautionary tale from a parallel universe.
No matter what though, The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist story. Full stop.
Like Marvel’s Jessica Jones last year, The Handmaid’s Tale tackles decidedly female issues. Where Jessica Jones delved into the individual psychological damage left by abusive relationships, The Handmaid’s Tale is a macrocosm of that story. What is the world like when the government is Kilgrave? Atwood’s novel and the Hulu adaptation deal with themes of how the patriarchy hurts everyone. Women are reduced to servants, wives, or wombs. Men are forced into rigid masculine roles and mandatory military service. Homosexuality is considered “gender treachery” and is punishable by death in a society whose main goal is repopulation the Earth. In the original novel, minorities were considered inferior, either shipped off to labor camps to be worked to death or given free boat rides to their home countries that more often than not mysteriously sank. Yet despite clear fourth wave/intersectional feminist undertones, somehow the cast and crew of The Handmaid’s Tale have been avoiding the word “feminist” like it would set them on fire.
Elisabeth Moss, in particular, caught a lot of blowback during the Tribeca Film Festival when she said the following:
“[F]or me it’s not a feminist story—it’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights. I never intended to play Peggy [from Mad Men] as a feminist; I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They’re women and they are humans. Offred’s a wife, a mother, a best friend. She has a job, and she is a person who is not supposed to be a hero 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. For me, I never approach anything with any sort of political agenda. I approach it from a very human place, I hope.”
Yes women’s rights are human rights, feminism is the idea that women are people (and not, say, viable wombs to be passed around to men in power willy nilly), so Moss’s argument fell flat with both Tribeca’s audience and fans of Atwood’s original work. It was also an oddly obtuse answer given Moss has self-identified in the past as ‘card-carrying feminist.’ It was so out of character, in fact, that in a follow-up interview with The Huffington Post, the actress has clarified her position.
“I wanted to say ― and I’ll just say it right here, right now ― OBVIOUSLY, all caps, it is a feminist work. [The Handmaid’s Tale] is a feminist show. […] Anything that brings feminism into the spotlight, anything that brings reproductive rights into the spotlight, is a great thing. Whatever that is. We should be talking about it.”
So what happened at the Tribeca Film Festival? If I had to guess, publicists. The answers given by Moss and the other members of the cast during that panel smack of overly coached responses to what people with clipboards might think is a controversial statement. But, of course, the only really controversial statement here is thinking The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t feminist.