The Relentless Torture of The Handmaid’s Tale

The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale has just begun, yet each new episode brings fresh dread. I thought maybe I was just traumatized by episode one, in which our favorite characters are unrelentingly tortured — electrocuted with cattle prods, kicked, threatened with dogs, chained to a gas stove and burned, left alive on a gallows covered with urine — until I endured episode two.

There I encountered within a golden-lit landscape evoking the Deep South, a vast army of female slaves, barely alive, forced to dig all day in toxic waste until they die. During one scene of ghastly psychological torture, the thin, grating sound of Kate Bush singing “Woman’s Work” accompanies the images of women literally terrified nearly to death; otherwise, the soundtrack is mostly a constant, minor-key moan, like the wind through a cracked window, punctuated by the wailing and coughing of women, and screams.

I have pressed mute and fast forward so often this season, I am forced to wonder: Why am I watching this? It all feels so gratuitous, like a beating that never ends. Really, she got her tongue cut out? Really, they lined up all the journalists against a wall — including a mom in sensible shoes (how manipulative is that?) — and shot them dead? Really, they force fed her; shackled her ankles; let her taste freedom and then took it away? Really, really, really? There are movies about historical genocides and enslavements that compel a necessary consideration of real-life brutality. But this. This is a made-up world.

I answer myself: For season one, I agreed with the critical consensus. This is Important Television. A feminist parable, adapted from a novel by a woman, which was awarded eight Emmys — mostly to women — about the potential excesses of patriarchy, not so unimaginable now in the era of Pence and Trump. Over at Slate, the reviewer Willa Paskin noted that watching season 1 made her feel “almost virtuous,” she wrote, “like diving into a winter ocean.” I too was braced by the lush horror of the initial season. It felt transgressive, true to Margaret Atwood’s classic novel but so much more intimate, as if you were looking through a peephole into a crime scene.

Wanting to envelope myself in that virtuousness again, in solidarity with the women on screen, I continue to watch. But the inner voice refuses to be silent. It’s feminist to watch women enslaved, degraded, beaten, amputated, and raped? How exactly am I participating in a women’s revolution by sitting on my comfy cozy bed and consuming this? Has The Handmaid’s Tale jumped the rail in its second season from high-minded entertainment to torture porn?

I am not the only person to note the amplified violence in season 2, a natural consequence, probably, of receiving so many early awards and so much praise — and of outrunning the map of Atwood’s original plot. The next season obviously had to be bigger than the first — more epic, more visually ambitious, more intense. But “It seems like the show is just choosing random, horrible things to happen to women for shock effect,” said Laura Hudson in a roundtable conversation at the Verge. “Why am I watching this? I don’t need to see women brutalized to understand that Gilead is bad or misogyny is bad; believe me, I got it.” Atwood’s novel was a mind game: an intellectual, what-if tableau that skated mostly above the personal details of ordinary lives. What made the TV adaptation so mesmerizing, for me, was the collision of that science fiction with depictions of ordinary people in houses with kitchens, forcing “us” to transpose ourselves into “them.” When they got beaten, we did, too. Their bruising we took personally. (All the more reason, then, not to overdo.)

This question of porn in particular preoccupies me. There are many definitions of porn, many varieties, and the dilemma of whether pornography is a freedom or a tool of oppression continues to divide feminists. My concern in this case is fairly clear: that the violence against women in season 2 is indulgent, operatic, and designed to rouse if not pleasure then a visceral, physical response, that The Handmaid’s Tale has devolved from feminist horror into very conventional misogynistic entertainment. It’s a fantasia of women being debased and dehumanized, individually and en masse but disingenuously packaged as virtuous dystopian prophesy.

Margaret Atwood wrote her novel in 1985, near the end of feminism’s Second Wave, when anti-porn activists were arguing that pornography debases all women and abets the institutional power of men. The following year, the anti-porn feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drew up an eight-point definition of pornography. Half of them fit The Handmaid’s Tale, including these: “women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, thing, or commodities”; “women are presented as sexual objects tied up, cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt”; and “women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filth or inferior, bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual.” (And before you object to that last category, think of the meaty sex — which Twitter found so hot — in the abandoned Boston Globe offices, where June wears that boxer’s scar over her brow.)

One person’s pornography is another’s family album, of course, so it can be hard to know what to call a show that offers in each episode new humiliations for women in the guise of a political warning — or whether calling it “pornography” even matters. The casting of Moss, her severe face transmitting every emotion under the sun, certainly ameliorates the charge, and Atwood herself, a novelist and not a polemicist, has never taken a hard-core stand against pornography or the utility of sex as entertainment. “[Porn] is harmful,” she said in a 1997 interview, “if people think it’s the real world and start acting that way. But if you think there weren’t pictures of girls without very many clothes on pretty much throughout history, you’d be wrong about that.”

In an email, Helen Longino, a philosopher at Stanford who studies gender, offers a useful measure for sorting the show’s original intent — imagining a horrible future where men control women’s reproduction — from its messier current iteration. “I would remember that there are ways to convey the commission of terrible acts without dwelling on their explicit representation. If their representation becomes the primary content, I worry about viewer exploitation and loss of focus.”

In this case, it’s a razor’s edge. Do the long stretches of domestic drama and flashbacks mitigate the violence? Does the occasional hot sex provide a balm? Or is that just soap opera gussied up with good acting and extravagant sets, a formula that television producers know works with women. Even Atwood recognized the marketability to female audiences of storybook romance fused with subordination when, in that 1997 interview, she cited “however many shades of gray that was: The Cinderella story with porn.”

To the point: Is the positioning of Handmaid’s Tale as smart, leftist political commentary protective against charges that it exploits women? Bruce Miller, the creator and showrunner of The Handmaid’s Tale, is concerned enough that he will be accused of creating torture porn to have developed a defense. Atwood, he says, had a guideline for her novel: Every torment suffered by a fictional Handmaid has to have been suffered by a real human somewhere. “If you start inventing cruelties towards women, it becomes pornography, so you should look to the real world, where there are plenty of horrible examples we can use,” he told The Guardian last year. And when season 2 premiered, Miller told HuffPost, “We’re not interested in making something that’s torturous for the sake of being torturous. I would be sick to my stomach if that’s what we ended up doing. We definitely try to show as little as possible when we do those things. Just enough to tell the story.” And yet it’s hard to imagine an hour more filled with varieties of torture than that premiere. Veracity may not be the only measure of whether something is torture porn or not: the quantity and variety of ways in which women are humiliated and hurt in that episode surely knows no equal.

It’s worth mentioning here that, according to the corporate website, the Hulu executive team is 70 percent male; that the CEO of Hulu, Randy Freer, comes from Fox where, before he was COO of Fox Networks Group, he oversaw sports; that the chief of content, Joel Stillerman, came from AMC where he developed zombie shows, among other things. Bruce Miller just inked a multi-year deal with Hulu and MGM television to develop more shows. And while the show received accolades last year for its female writers and directors — the director-cinematographer Reed Morano won one of the Emmys — the first two episodes this season (as well as the sixth, the last on my screener) were written and directed by men. In Gilead, the fat-faced white men hold all the power. They exist separately from the women whose fates they control and gather in exclusive enclaves — shooting clubs, convention halls — to plan futures for everyone (men, women, children, babies, fetuses) beneath them in the chain. The irony, that the corporate beneficiaries of this show about the institutionalized oppression of women are white men, is, well, rich.

Which brings me to my final point. Season 1 ended where Atwood’s book did, with June sitting alone in the back of a van, uncertain of her fate. With season 2, the writers are on their own on narrative frontier, and the path they create is a disappointing if predictable one. In the final moments of episode one, Elisabeth Moss cuts the staple that designates her Handmaid status out of her own ear with a pair of scissors. It is excruciating to watch. And when she’s done, and her breasts are covered with her own blood, she rises like a vengeful Fury to declare her liberation. But since this is the first episode, and there are God knows how many episodes and seasons to come, we understand that she will be trapped again — and beaten and tortured and raped again — that the violence against her will go on and on. It’s a sexist story as old as the Bible: The bravery of the heroine is intensified by her victimhood: misogynist culture raises up women who suffer. That June is pregnant, and an anguished mother, only enhances her heroism in the eyes of the show. The writers of season 2 know as well as the founders of Gilead that no trope is more sacred than motherhood. In an infuriating and grotesque reversal, Atwood’s feminist allegory has turned instead into a showcase of female abuse: returning to the scene, I noted how the camera lingered on June’s dripping blood. And I decided, I am done.