We Are What We Feel And Give Attention
Why “The Handmaid’s Tale” does more damage than good
I just started watching The Handmaid’s Tale a few days ago. I don’t often get into shows, and this one in particular I avoided (I rarely like dystopian futures), but at the urging of my colleague, I gave it a shot.
No more than an hour in, I already had some major concerns with what’s happening as audiences engage with this material.
Because: it encourages us to identify with negative roles and feelings.
And no real power comes from either one.
We lean into whatever we’re defined as
In 1936, Dale Carnegie published a little book that included the following passage:
“If you want to improve a person in a certain spect, act as though that particular trait were already one of his or her outstanding characteristics… assume and state openly that other people have the virtue you want them to develop.
If you want to excel in… changing the attitude or behavior of others… Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.”
And because this is true, the opposite is true as well. You can also change the attitude and behavior of others just as easily by giving them a grim identity.
There is an old saying:
“Give a dog a bad name and you may as well hang him.”
Give a person a bad reality, and you may as well do the same.
People step into the roles we assign them. We assume the expectations that are set, good and bad.
“But this is already happening!” / “It’s a warning!”
Yeah, I get it. I understand that. I get that this was the intent.
But what I’m saying is that the brain doesn’t work like that.
By focusing on the thing, we’re focusing on the thing. It doesn’t understand “don’t do this;” it’s a simple creature — effectively Baby Groot — and it only understands what you feed it in raw form, not complexities.
Meaning, all it takes from “not this” is: this. this. this.
We become what we think about — and feel…
Here’s my biggest problem with this show: it stimulates unproductive, negative feelings.
Feeling fear, anger, and shame are major objectives of the show — producers want viewers to feel this way, and viewers who like the show agree that it’s “the point.”
But no great outcomes are based in fear, anger or shame. These aren’t where good things happen.
The viewers who like this show went in already scared, or used the show to get there. People who watch and create it were already anxious about the future, already imagining worst-case scenarios, worrying and agonizing over “what if?”, looking to fuel this so that they can feel validated in their anxiety. They want to see things — the show and reality alike — as “scary.”
As Laura Hudson wrote,
“Its portents are so terrifyingly familiar.”
Which means the fear was already there.
And when asked whether he was “at all nervous about the responsibility,” Bruce Miller, showrunner of the show, shared,
“I’m nervous about everything… who the hell do I think I am? Of course I’m nervous. I’m nervous all the time.”
Miller also said,
“I always feel like the show is hopeful because our world is not Gilead.”
Which, ironically, is the exact same logic used to repress women in Gilead, where leaders constantly threaten them with “worse“ — i.e., the colonies, or death.
Fear isn’t where change happens. Ever.
Bruce Miller, showrunner of the show, shared,
“It always makes me feel like, wow, if Offred could make a stand and try to change things in her world, what am I doing sitting on the couch? I should be able to change things in my world.”
He ties this back to his own experience, as a white man in media during the #metoo movement,
“It’s our friends who were being victimized and our friends who were being accused and having their careers shortened.”
(Which… That right there is very weird language.)
But that aside. He adds,
“I feel like an idiot. You feel like all this stuff was going on in front of your eyes and you didn’t see it… like, how much did I miss?… I go through a lot in my life thinking ‘what an idiot you’re being’… It makes you feel like you’re blind to the stuff that really matters … the first feeling for me was just shame.”
He also adds,
“The road to hell is a lot scarier when you realize you had this chance to get off of it at some point and you didn’t recognize it. I’m sure we’re not trying to instruct people on what to do, but… This is what happened to Offred because she acted in a certain way. That’s the only lesson I can try to lay out.”
He then adds,
“That I think people extrapolate [from] and generalize to their own lives, is something I don’t feel comfortable doing. That feels like I’m mansplaining the show, trying to shove it down their throats in a certain way and I would hate to do that.”
Really? Because frankly, I think he was speaking more genuinely the first time.
At the end of the last episode I watched, Offred/June stares at the ceiling and repeats to herself, with no direct coercion whatsoever,
“My fault. My fault. My fault. My fault. My fault.”
And of course, we’re still being asked to identify with her (and her feelings) here.
Not that many viewers need help on either front.
But again: power does not come from guilt or shame.
SADNESS AND HOPELESSNESS
Same. These never inspire power.
These emotions are the exact opposite of empowered.
Audiences think this is the saving grace, but it isn’t. Anger isn’t a good basis for action, either. Especially if we’re simultaneously feeding ourselves with themes of fear and shame and torture to inspire it.
The wrong audience is watching — and for the wrong reasons
The only people watching and “enjoying” (as much as anyone can enjoy) The Handmaid’s Tale are those who already felt these things, want to go on feeling them, and want reasons to believe those feelings are right.
At this point, I’m just watching for the gorgeous cinematography and costuming. (And, spoiler: the seductive power of both is deliberate, and part of the reason it’s beautiful…)
There is no “glory” in watching gruesome imagery
There are no points for this, and in fact engaging too deeply — and priding ourselves on that — can be really, really damaging (see above.)
War movies, or films like “Passion of the Christ,” are the same. It’s bizarre and barbaric that we sit and watch people die and call the thing “entertainment,” and it’s even weirder when we call it “important,” or “good.”
It reminds me of that scene (trigger warning) in “Precious” where the protagonist is sexually abused as a child. When her mother confronts the man (her husband and Precious’ father) about it, his response is:
“It’s good for her.”
In the same sense, it’s like viewers think engaging with material such as The Handmaid’s Tale is “good” for them, like through exposure they might somehow gain some pious perspective. As though, if they sit with their eyes bleeding, forced to watch gruesome imagery, they’ll come out better for it on the other side.
But no. It isn’t “good” for us. It isn’t “good” for anyone.
Arielle Bernstein wrote,
There is a pressing feeling among many feminists that watching The Handmaid’s Tale is important, despite the fact that, like many shows on television, each hour-long episode catapults the viewer into a world where violence against women is constant.”
We are being asked to view ourselves as victims. We are being fed this imagery and urged to accept it as a “very possible reality.” Or, rather, the reality.
Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred, describes how she sees turning away from the show because of its violence to be a kind of cop-out.
“I hate hearing that someone couldn’t watch it because it was too scary,” she said. “Not because I care about whether or not they watch my TV show; I don’t give a shit. But I’m like, ‘Really? You don’t have the balls to watch a TV show? This is happening in your real life. Wake up, people. Wake up.’”
Yes. Okay. But that doesn’t mean we need to engage in torture porn.
I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t force myself to watch footage of animal torture.
There aren’t bonus points for this.
And there are a million other, more impactful things to do than sit and endure this imagery, getting off on “getting woke.”
Arielle Bernstein wrote,
“I find it frustrating (sexist, even!) that women who have to endure misogyny every day are then scolded for not wanting to see it unfold onscreen.”
She also writes,
“It saddens me that The Handmaid’s Tale has become the quintessential feminist text of 2018 when so much of its ethos is about making women feel angry, sad and guilty… many said they should be watching it, even though the experience of doing so left them feeling completely and utterly hopeless. Others explained that they had to parse it out, watching each episode as if they were taking a horrible yet necessary medicine. Is this the sign of a successful feminist enterprise?”
She offers the alternative:
“Imagine a world where it’s female pleasure, rather than suffering, which is utterly and completely normalized.”
And sure, “pleasure’s” fine. Great.
But then imagine a world where power is normalized, too.
Give me strong women
Arielle Bernstein wrote,
“Since its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale has been upheld by many women as a rallying cry for the feminist resistance… as celebrated as Rosie the Riveter”
Get the hell out of here with that.
If this is our “rally cry,” I’m not answering. Find someone else to echo the call.
Give me strong women. Give me The Riveter back. Give me empowered.
Game of Thrones has done more for women in a single character than The Handmaid’s Tale has done with its entire series, and although GoT has prostitution and rape (to say the least), they also created some incredible female characters and storylines; ones that fill an audience (all genders) with excitement, power, engagement, love — not shame, anger, or fear.
Here are some other strong fictional woman to watch:
Lisbeth Salander, Mulan, Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, The Bride (Kill Bill), Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road.) And seriously, almost all of the main female characters in Game of Thrones.
(Bonus points: all of their wardrobes involved being fully clothed for the most part, which is more than I can say for Wonder Woman.)
These are the women we should be watching. These are the images we should feed ourselves. These are the feelings we should feel.
We become what we feel
And power — and change — comes from believing that we are empowered, that we are capable, not victimized. It comes from feeling brazen, not angry, and confident, not ashamed or scared.
Change comes from having a good name — a fine reputation to live up to.
And if nobody else is willing to give it to us, we can’t hang ourselves with our situation.
Because right now, we get to choose what we engage with — what we put in our minds. And it’s up to us to choose: will it be scare tactics? Feelings of victimhood, rage, shame, fear?
Or will it be imagery and feelings of love, power, and change?
Or clap or follow!