No One Decides Which Films And TV Shows Are Feminist

Elisabeth Moss in Hulu’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ (credit: Facebook)
Ideas like the ones presented in The Handmaid’s Tale are either feminist or they are not; they do not need buy-in to be part of a movement.

Recently, some of the cast of the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy for saying, emphatically, that the story is not feminist, but humanist. The author of the source novel, Margaret Atwood, responded by saying The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t only feminist but also humanist. None of these statements draw too much ire from me, considering that the import of an author or actress’s take on sociological principles weigh on me approximately the same amount as a stranger of any occupation or platform. Let me put it this way: I’m equally interested to hear what a teacher or stylist or nurse has to say about feminism, and perhaps even more so, than hearing from someone who’s being asked because she’s learned how to make her facial expressions bend convincingly.

What was more strange to me was the reaction from the media. They called the actress’ opinions “bizarre,” and seemed personally offended at the statements, especially those from Elisabeth Moss, who has played a string of strong female characters, including Peggy Olsen from Mad Men. Whenever people act personally offended about something sort of trivial, there’s always a reason, and usually it speaks to an uncomfortable truth.

Many women believe that feminism doesn’t exist until we think it, act it, and live it into existence or popularity. It’s part of the reason that people often ask entertainers whether or not they consider themselves feminists. It’s as if they are gauging whether or not this club of gals is really worth joining. Feminists themselves use these instances as litmus tests to assess whether a person or piece of art is worth giving our stamp of approval to.

None of this is inherently bad or wrong, it’s just a wasted emotion. Pieces of art are feminist when they are so thoroughly convincing as arguments for equality or indictments against inequality that society sees them as such. Why do you think that people just assume this story is feminist? Because it is. It makes people deeply uncomfortable watching a representation of women as nothing more than wombs that are harvested and vaginas that are penetrated. It is eerie because women have experienced the feeling of being trapped by laws and regulations against them, in big ways and in small. It is disturbing to see the seemingly innocuous beliefs of conservatives played out to their natural end; the place we suspect many rich and powerful men would steer us to had they unfettered control. And, of course, it is triggering to men who are defensive about their stance on women and progress.

This is the reaction to a feminist piece of artwork. It is occurring.

Pieces of art are feminist when they are so thoroughly convincing as arguments for equality or indictments against inequality that society sees them as such.

Margaret Atwood can’t change that. Elisabeth Moss sure as shit can’t change that. In fact, perhaps Moss doesn’t know that “women’s rights are human rights” has been a feminist mantra since there have been feminists; the idea remains even if she’s actively eschewing it.

The anti-feminists will harangue Handmaid’s Tale for being SJW propaganda, and the women who see it as feminist will watch the series fervently and soak in the scary reflection of the subjugation they feel inching ever closer in real life. This speaks to the indelible feminism of the piece; it has been decided by the artwork itself.

Here’s a funny thing that happened with the gay rights debate that is emblematic of a larger cultural shift that applies here. As decades upon decades of legislators, orators, pundits, and preachers spoke of gay people as pedophiles, zoophiles, and amoral abominations, everyday citizens were getting to know gay people through shows like Will and Grace and celebrities like RuPaul, as well as through friends, families, and colleagues who were coming out in larger numbers. The stark contrast between what they were being told by the media and what they were watching on television and learning in real life became too great a divide; the idea that took root — regardless of the narrative — is that gay people are just like anyone else. Some random sporting player or comedian being anti-gay can only do so much to diminish the impact of a broader shift in societal beliefs.

Is the country ostensibly anti-feminist? Yeah. No doubt about it. But The Handmaid’s Tale (or, for that matter, any progressive content, from Bad Moms to Orphan Black to The Hunger Games) only exist because feminist ideals are already so thoroughly intertwined in the hearts and minds of the nation. Each day, with each project, feminism becomes the default in our culture, no matter how many people fight it with their words. That is the power of entertainment and the birthright of an idea. Investing in the opinions of artists or allowing them to take power away from the art itself is something we enable them to do. Let’s stop it.

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