Offred Won’t Save You: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Was Never About That

Viewers and critics want Offred to be a freedom fighter, serving neither the character nor the plot.

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Hulu's "The Haidmaid's Tale" simply isn't the kind of story most critics are trying to force it to be.

First, spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the second season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and you like to be surprised by popular entertainment, you might want to watch before you read this. If you cannot believe that you live in the same world as bigfoot porn, you might want to keep reading. This is for you.

The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale takes us into uncharted territory, the future beyond the end of Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel. It has also begun to rack up critics among the progressive base that it cultivated in its initial season in the wake of Trump’s entry into the White House. It isn’t intersectional enough: It’s an ode to white feminism. There aren’t any transwomen in Gilead. You get the picture. It’s always the same picture,  after all. What these critics seem to miss is that The Handmaid’s Tale was never a story about society, systemic oppression or even the dangers of growing fundamentalism. In fact, fiction need not be a political treatise at all. Art merely in the service of a myopic worldview frequently ceases to be art of any quality. Misogyny in The Handmaid’s Tale is a mere plot device (and that’s OK!). Atwood’s novel and the TV program it spawned were always Offred’s story, a probing, murky rumination into the mind of a single woman stripped of everything except her own thoughts. It is a meditation on the stories we tell ourselves, on what we are willing to give up, to ignore, to rationalize. In this, Season Two is the best the franchise has managed.

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We’ve lost the right to a place away from politics.

And it is for this very reason that The Handmaid’s Tale has attracted criticism in this most un-self-reflective of ages. Offred (or June — we do learn her name in the TV program) is not a revolutionary. “I want everything back, the way it was…,” she confides in the novel. And there is no reason (except for the very end of Season Two) to believe that our TV June is any different. June is like most of us — all of us, I suppose, if we are really honest. She doesn’t want the revolution to create a better world. She wants to be allowed to resume life in the world she knows. The trouble is that, like June, we pursue this desire within the framework of history, with its relentlessly abstract coursing onward. I worry that the final scene of Season Two does not bode well for the rest of the series and that June will be turned into the freedom fighter as the audience seems to demand.

But June the Warrior is much less useful than June the Thinker. If there is a way to rank what we have lost in this moment, the right to our private lives, a place away from politics, seems one of the most substantial. In her most brilliant and thought-provoking form, June represents this loss. Hers is an ordinary life stolen by the brutality of brutal age. It is a common tale, one that perhaps has not received enough consideration. For the revolutionary, this theft is the first step in the creation of a new comrade. The conversion stories of political radicals are, after all, as full of victimization as their Christian counterparts are of sin. Just as the saint must know sin to be saved, the freedom-fighter must first know the bitter taste of oppression. Yet, the wholeness of history suggests that instances of this radical miracle are seldom true.

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“The Handmaid’s Tale” is really about Offred/June’s (Elisabeth Moss) inner perspective.

Most people want only to be left alone, to live their lives without fear of their fellow human beings. When this doesn’t happen (and oh, how frequently it does not), the response is very seldom a transformation into a latter-day Spartacus. What is the fate of these people in the face of social upheaval? What is their value? That is why I don’t want a woke Season Three of The Handmaid’s Tale. I want to know what happens to everybody else. I want to know about the wife and mother kidnapped and raped by an authoritarian theocracy who isn’t turned into a freedom fighter, who remains a victim. What is the place of the passive subject? My sense is that this will not happen, because it doesn’t fit the narrative. And that is a loss for us all.

Which brings me back to that bigfoot porn — in case that’s what you were sticking around for! Late last month in Virginia, the internet lost its collective cool, Harambe-style, when Democratic congressional candidate Leslie Cockburn accused her Republican opponent Denver Riggleman of liking bigfoot porn. Now, whether or not Riggleman has a thing for hairy hominids, he’s got problems. For example, he has close ties to white supremacists. For those of you who can recall what now seems like the far and distant past of three years ago, this used to be really rare and universally regarded as really bad for a congressional candidate — or basically anyone. Simply put: liking bigfoot porn is not the worst thing about Riggleman. But it is really fucking weird. Unfortunately, a segment of the Progressive Morality Police decided that pointing out that Sasquatch erotica is bizarre constitutes kink-shaming. Yeah, right?

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Here is the moral of the story: jerking off to bigfoot constitutes a strange, possibly comical, aberration. And that’s OK to point out. Likewise, most people, should they find themselves in a dystopian autocracy, are just going to want to save themselves and their maybe their family, whatever that looks like. This is not inspiring. I know that. It may not even be good, but it is. And in its being, the ordinary, uninspiring, sleeping human experience is worthy of artistic consideration. It is worthy of contemplation. That was the brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale, the brilliance we shall inevitably lose.