*TRIGGER WARNING: LGBTQIA VIOLENCE, DESCRIPTIONS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE, AND TALK OF DEPRESSIVE EPISODES
Last night, I finally streamed episodes 1-3 of Hulu’s exclusive adaptation of one of my favorite works of literature, The Handmaid’s Tale.
And all I have to say is: What. The. Hell.
It’s not that the show was bad or poorly done…in fact, aesthetically, I felt the producers did an incredible job across the board in portraying the essence of Margaret Atwood’s vision of the theocratic dystopia Gilead: both in terms of stellar casting and ambience, which in partnership created a brilliant portrayal of the pictures that formed in my mind while reading the book for the first time.
No, my “what the hell?” reaction is not meant to reflect any type of disappointment with the technicalities or depictions of content from the novel: it’s in response to the horrific, heartbreaking, sickening, excruciating, and nasty (honestly I can’t even be bothered to form fancy words anymore) story of Ofglen, a secondary character who, while definitely important to the plot, was not terribly dynamic in the book. Not only was her depiction in Hulu’s adaptation brutal and raw, her backstory was completely and totally added in by the producers of the show. If it wasn’t, I’m not sure I would’ve tuned in to see some of these things in living color.
I know I added this in the title, but I feel like now’s the time where I need to mention it again: THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE, FOLKS. If you have yet to watch the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and wish to not have the ending spoiled for you, stop here. Go watch it, and come back. If you’re mentally ill, have any kind of history with trauma, or are just plain sensitive, maybe be careful with episode 3. That’s all I’ll give away before sending you off to your streaming endeavors.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of my distress (I know, the suspense is killing you), I feel like I owe the readers who are not familiar with the Handmaid’s Tale plot (and who are ultimately uninterested other than reading my take on the show) a brief synopsis of what the story is actually, you know, about. Written by Margaret Atwood in 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale is written from the perspective of Offred, a handmaid in the theocratic (former United States) Republic of Gilead. On the cusp of the switch from democratic government as we know it to a pure biblically-based, cult-like dictatorship where women cannot own money or property and are assigned a ranking in society, Offred is assigned as a handmaid, chosen for her fertile ovaries to carry out the task of repopulating the republic through means of ceremoniously copulating with the Commander in which she is assigned, with the obligation to bear he and his barren wife a child before being transferred and “stationed” in the home of another needy Commander and his wife (The name Offred literally means “Of Fred,” as handmaids are stripped of their real names and given over to the ownership of their current Commander). The book is brilliant, and rather than serving as strict anti-Christian propaganda (though some will undoubtedly interpret it as such), it brings to light the many injustices faced by women around the globe and brings to the forefront the dangers of extreme fundamentalist ideologies, particularly when proposed as a means of government.
All of that is gut-wrenching enough, especially when recreated for television with a moving soundtrack and awesome actors and actually seeing it happen.
“But wait! There’s more!” cries Hulu. Enter this girl:
(image: Mashable/Take 5/Hulu)
This girl. Ofglen (well actually it’s boss-lady Alexis Bledel, but her role here is a far cry from her Rory Gilmore days). Offred’s fellow handmaid, who goes from being a secondary character (at best) in the novel to embodying on screen, quite literally, everything that could possibly go wrong and terrible in a woman’s life EVER. (That realization actually came from my boyfriend, who sat and watched this stuff unfold right alongside me in utter disbelief).
In the book, we don’t know a whole lot about Ofglen, other than that she is Offred’s partner on shopping days (handmaid’s are only permitted to walk outside in groups of two) who is eventually revealed as an underground member of the resistance who tragically commits suicide before she could be taken away in a black van by “the Eye” (the folks in charge of policing the general population). Undoubtedly this is a tragic end for Ofglen, and NO part of me wishes that they would have shown her suicide on screen. But what the producers did decide to do with Ofglen, rather than having her meet this type of quick, simplistic (off-screen) end, is arguably worse. Much, much worse.
In short, Ofglen’s character in the series is incredibly dynamic, unlike her novel counterpart. The producers created a backstory for Ofglen of her identifying as a lesbian (obviously a serious crime in Gilead, with outed members of the LGBTQ community being labeled “gender-traitors” and sentenced to death), who, other than being a secret member of the resistance, carries on a forbidden relationship with her household’s Martha (In Gileadean society, Marthas are the cooks/housekeepers in homes of Commanders).
Somehow, this is discovered, and after a difficult scene where Offred is being tortured and questioned about her knowledge of her former shopping partner’s sexuality, the show cuts to reveal Ofglen and her partner in court, after having had their tongues cut out of their mouths, and each receiving a different sentence: Ofglen, while deserving of death, is spared because of her fertility and the need for as many handmaid’s as possible. The Martha, on the other hand, is sentenced to the mercy of the state. What follows is a gut-wrenching van ride where the two can’t speak to one another (you know, no tongues and all), but can only cry into each other’s hands. When the van stops, the back doors are opened to reveal a single noose in the distance. The Martha is ripped from Ofglen’s hands, dragged over to the noose where a guard places it over her neck, before being suspended in mid air by a crane-like contraption and suffocated to death right in front of a screaming, heartbroken Ofglen. The scene, which lasts for an excruciating 25-30 seconds, ends with the doors of the van slamming shut with Ofglen’s lover still visibly hanging and writhing to death in the background, Ofglen still screaming her devastated, tongueless head off at what she was just forced to witness.
Phew, that was hard. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE.
The final scene of episode three opens with Ofglen waking up in a hospital bed. Having difficulty standing up, she lifts her gown to reveal a large white bandage over her nether-regions. The “Aunt” enters the scene (one of the women in charge of training and overseeing the handmaids) and informs Ofglen that “the stitches will come out in a few days. You will still be able to have children, of course, but things will be so much easier for you now. You will no longer want what you can’t have.” THEY CUT OUT HER CLITORIS. That’s right, the award for most tragic character goes to Ofglen, who, after being robbed of her ability to speak, seeing her lover being savagely murdered in front of her face, and having had her child taken away years prior (she mentions to Offred in the second episode that she had a son and a wife in the days before Gilead), and now having to undergo genital mutilation, officially can be said to have experienced, over the course of two episodes, every horrific thing that has and could ever happen to a woman.
I am writing this now after having spent a restless night of sobbing, nausea, hyperventilation, and uncontrollable shaking. This started with the van ride, was solidified by the hanging scene, and by the time we learned of Ofglen’s “surgery,” I was too numb to even take in anything else. It’s like my brain couldn’t take any more, so it shut off. I should also mention that I can scarcely recall the last time I experienced this kind of reaction as a result of a television show or movie. This was beyond tears for Marley and Me or Me Before You… this felt traumatic. Like I had just witnessed these events in real life, rather than on a screen.
I understand that there are multiple sides to the television censorship debate. I’m not here to say that if you can watch a scene like this and not be affected, that you’re somehow a desensitized psychopath. I’m also not here to be called a sensitive, over-dramatic snowflake, so please go somewhere else if that’s your intention. I can’t control how I react to things, and this content was particularly traumatizing for me. I still have no appetite, purely from this stuff. I’m writing this because I’m wanting to warn others who are aware of their own sensitivities to possibly reconsider diving into this show: a responsibility which, in my opinion, ought to have been taken up by Hulu.
Reminiscent of the Netflix book-to-series original 13 Reasons Why, we’re learning more and more how far producers are willing to push the envelope to achieve a level of shock value amongst viewers. Sure, you can throw a TV MA warning on there and assume that that will suffice for any content that may be expressed therein, but at what point does content become so traumatic that even “mature audiences” will be pushed passed their breaking point?
Shane showed me an article by Hollywood Reporter last night titled ” ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Rape, Mutilation, and That Shocking Death Scene Explained.” In it, Bruce Miller, one of the shows lead producers, explains why they chose to execute (sorry, definitely no pun intended) the hanging scene in the way they did:
“It was a hard decision and a big discussion. We all had trepidation about doing it because it’s incredibly harsh and brutal. But all the reasons you’re afraid of doing it are why you should do it in the first place.” -Bruce Miller, The Hollywood Reporter
Well, yes. And no.
This is where my internal conflict comes to fruition. As Miller also stated, everything that occurs in the screen rendition of The Handmaid’s Tale has ACTUALLY happened to women, somewhere, at some point in history. Ought we not to be brutally honest about these experiences to give them legitimacy? Yeah, these are serious issues that should make us all uncomfortable. Women have been and are still having their tongues cut out, both figuratively and literally. Female genital mutilation is an ongoing problem in various areas of the world. Forced sexual encounters are way too common. And slowly but surely, women are being stripped of their reproductive rights. Yet none of these depictions in the show traumatized me quite as much as Ofglen’s experiences, particularly the scene where the Martha (her lover) is hanged. Did this scene traumatize me because it’s not something that I, as a straight cis woman, have to fear on a daily basis? Is my straight, white privilege the reason that I wanted to call up Hulu and be like “No, this is too much. THAT takes it too far.” Am I being made uncomfortable in the same way that white people are uncomfortable with the black lives matter movement because it’s bringing representation to something that they themselves are not directly affected by?
After a sleepless night pondering these things, I have come to the conclusion (a hazy one, but a conclusion nonetheless), that no, this has less to do with my privilege as a straight woman (though undoubtedly that privilege exists) and more to do with the fact that this scene is BRUTAL. Most of the content in this show is highly unpleasant, as it should be. Like I said, I am all for on-screen honesty and forcing people to become fired up about relevant social issues. But if you’re going to construct a scene this way, showing every last excruciating second of a murder, rape, suicide, overdose, or what have you, particularly when it’s a veer-left from the book and completely unexpected by viewers, a trigger warning, at the very least, would be appropriate.
Again, I’m not arguing whether the producers of The Handmaid’s Tale should or should not have done the scene. Personally, my boyfriend and I feel that there were SO MANY ways that they could have gone about this that would have been significantly less traumatic to watch, and that perhaps that would have been a better choice. We don’t feel this way because we want to shy from these issues, however: we’re simply concerned, again, with the welfare of the mentally ill, LGBTQ community, and others who have experienced similar trauma that may be taken to an awful place after being blindsided by such a raw depiction. At the very least, streaming websites especially ought to be more specific with their warnings *see trigger warning at the top of this page*.
“I’m all for on-screen honesty and forcing people to become fired up about relevant social issues. But if you’re going to construct a scene this way, showing every last excruciating second of a murder, rape, suicide, overdose, or what have you, particularly when it’s a veer-left from the book and completely unexpected by viewers, a trigger warning, at the very least, would be appropriate.”
And as a side note: before this pops up in the comments, no, trigger warnings were not a thing “back in the day.” That’s true. What isn’t true, however, is the backwards assumption that people were “tough, less sensitive, able to handle it” back then. No, actually, they weren’t. It just felt that way because mental illness and trauma were kept secret, leaving the folks who could have greatly benefited from a trigger warning here and there to suffer in silence.
Honestly, as contradictory as it sounds, I most likely will continue to watch The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a riveting depiction of a fantastic novel that isn’t afraid to reveal the problematic ideas that exist in the world today for what they are. However, I’ll definitely be more cautious, which I hope this article prompts others in potentially similar positions to do (before you end up like me: having to stand under hot water just to stop your muscles from convulsing out of pure terror).
Perhaps this article will prompt a healthy discussion about websites such as Netflix and Hulu taking their shock value too far, possibly prompting them to be more mindful of the content they choose to include. If not, I hope that it at least helps to keep someone safe.
Finally, in true Handmaid’s Tale fashion, I feel obligated to leave you with this message: ladies (and gentlemen) who have experienced oppression of any kind,
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.
*featured image: fouronesixlit.com, c.2017. http://www.fouronesixlit.com/2016/03/24/the-analysis-of-language-in-the-handmaids-tale-and-how-it-influences-writers-style/