The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic story of one woman’s slavery in a dystopian post-America society. Recently adapted into a show on Hulu, its sixth episode (“A Woman’s Place”) is the first to seriously deviate from the plot of the original novel. Earlier I wondered how Hulu was going to further explore and expand the world of Gilead, and how that would impact the show’s feminist messages. With “A Woman’s Place”, Hulu has started to deliver. We see different women in different positions of power and oppression. Serena Joy takes center stage, but we also spend time with June/Offred (our titular Handmaid) as well as two other women. Each woman tells us something different about the way we respond to slavery.
Spoilers for Episode 6 of The Handmaid’s Tale and warnings for slavery and sex trafficking below.
In the novel, Serena Joy Waterford was a televangelist with a speaking tour, pre-Gilead, but in the Hulu show she was an influential public proponent of the ethical foundation of Gilead. In a flashback we see that she was much more of a true believer than her once-hesitant husband. Serena authors a book called “A Woman’s Place”, championing a brand of gender complementarity or difference feminism she calls domestic feminism. She reminds me a bit of a hyper-feminine, anti-feminist Claire Underwood, but once her ideas really begin to take off Serena is relegated to the sidelines. In one flashback we see an elegantly-dressed Serena nervously reviewing note cards on a hallway bench, preparing for a big speech to a bunch of powerful men in the Gilead movement. Fred walks out and sympathetically informs her that the men refuse to hear from her. A “put me in, coach!” expression crosses her face for a moment, but she ultimately takes it in stride. This is a perfect example of the way Serena adapts to the increasing restrictions placed on women in Gilead. She casts aside her career ambitions, her wardrobe, and even her book in order to more perfectly personify the feminine ideal she helped create. Serena’s not happy; she admits that she never envisioned a world where women weren’t allowed to read or write, but Serena’s ruthlessly committed to making the best of her situation. As she wrote in her book, “Never mistake a woman’s meekness for weakness.” Serena refuses to keep her strength bottled up, no matter how many women she crushes to do it.
Like all women of Gilead, Serena’s life isn’t what she expected. She’s victimized by social and political structures of power that prevent her from living the kind of life she wants. Serena’s not allowed to use her skills in their most natural ways, because she’s forced to fit into a narrow paradigm of what it means to be a woman. But it’s hard to feel sorry for her. Serena occupies a place of considerable power and influence, even as a member of an oppressed group of people. The irony is that she’s trapped by a cage of her own making. She’s not just complicit in maintaining and promoting the status quo. In a world where a particular brand of motherhood is upheld above all else, Serena is one of the mothers of Gilead’s ideology. She’d be leaning into the Baroness trope if she weren’t such a Purity Sue. If Gilead were set in feudal Europe, Serena would be the courtly lady wielding the real power behind the throne, like Cersei Lannister in early seasons of Game of Thrones. Serena tries to use the way her society oppresses women to advance her own goals, and largely succeeds.
The big plot point of this episode centers on a trade deal Commander Fred Waterford is trying to score with Mexico. The Mexican Ambassador is coming over for dinner, and Serena makes it clear that June is expected to put on a pleasant face. When June is finally invited to meet the Ambassador, she’s surprised to discover that the honored guest is the elegant woman in a white pantsuit, not one of the men in the room. The Ambassador initially seems like a sympathetic character who might actually have the power to do something about the Handmaids’ plight on the international stage. This was one of the questions the novel never really addressed: how does the rest of the world just let Gilead happen?
The Ambassador seems genuinely interested in how June and the other women of Gilead live. Of course, asking June if she’s happy in a room full of Commanders, Wives, and dignitaries isn’t the best way to get a genuine response. June lies through her teeth, saying that she indeed chose this life and that she’s found happiness. The Ambassador turns her attention to Serena, asking her if she ever imagined a life where women couldn’t read or write, and comments on Serena’s prior arrest record (inciting pro-Gilead riots in pre-Gilead times). The Ambassador is a woman of color who might actually be in a position to help the women of Gilead.
June certainly hopes so, and despairs over having lied to the Ambassador’s face about the horrific realities of life as a Gileadean woman. But as Nick reminds her, what else was she supposed to do? The situation only looked like it empowered June; in reality it was just another way to further her oppression. Is the Ambassador really stupid enough to believe Gileadean women can tell the truth when their oppressors are in the room? The exchange between June and the Ambassador is important, and it’s revisited later in the episode.
Even though Serena’s husband refuses to let her in on his trade negotiations with Mexico, she proves to be the key to their success. She plays her ultra-feminine hostess card to orchestrate a grand dinner, complete with just the right kind of pomp and circumstance to manipulate the Mexican Ambassador into accepting the deal. Serena invites the Handmaids, including June, to the dinner. They’re to be “honored” for their sacred duty to Gilead.
Before the dinner, Serena reviews the Handmaids, and orders Aunt Lydia to remove the “damaged ones”. Aunt Lydia protests. These women, scarred from their punishments and now living in passive, forced submission to their slavery, have just as much right to be there as the “whole” ones. But the Aunt knows her place, and promises the “damaged” Handmaids that she’ll bring them a whole tray of desserts. It seems to be enough to mollify them; after all, what choice do they have? Lydia is clearly a true believer. She really believes being a Handmaid is an honorable thing, and she’s important because she turns “wayward” women into proper Handmaids. Lydia is a “benevolent slavemaster” who has a warped sense of affection for her charges. She really thinks the Handmaids can find happiness in their slavery. This Aunt is the same one we saw berating the Handmaids, beating the Handmaids, and ordering the mutilation of Handmaids earlier on. It’s nauseating to see that this cruel overseer has the gall to think she actually cares about the Handmaids. For Lydia, the real cruelty is forcing these Handmaids to miss the party; better get them some cake to make up for it.
When the Handmaids make their grand entrance into the hall, Serena plays her trump card. The Handmaids aren’t the only special guests tonight, and with a flourish she welcomes a gaggle of happy, boisterous children into the hall. These are the children born from Handmaids. The Ambassador is smitten with them and leaves her place to play with them. This is when we learn the real subject of the trade deal: Handmaids. Mexico and Gilead are hoping to strike a deal trading Handmaids, as if they were just another commodity. June is horrified.
At the end of the episode, the Ambassador visits the Waterfords to say thank you for their hospitality, before she and her attache fly back to Mexico. June walks in on the Ambassador and her assistant in the kitchen, and the three share a private moment. The Ambassador has brought June some chocolates as a special thank you. Apparently all the ills of slavery can be solved with sugary treats produced from their own slave trade. June throws caution to the wind and explains all the ways in which Handmaids suffer in Gilead. It’s clearly a desperate act; if anyone overhears her she’ll be severely punished. How can the Ambassador sanction the expansion of trade in sexual slavery? Apparently, quite easily. The Ambassador expresses her condolences to June and explains that her hometown hasn’t had a live, viable birth in years. She doesn’t care who she has to hurt to solve her country’s own fertility problem. All her questions were just fishing for ways she could justify her decision to herself. She wanted to believe the women of Gilead are happy, and is content to ignore any evidence that doesn’t support that conclusion.
The Handmaid’s Tale has often been criticized for being a white woman’s dystopia rather than one that’s inclusive of all women. While the show has made some strides to include more people of color in the show as major characters, it’s still largely a story about white women hurting each other. It doesn’t explore the very real issues of color and racism that are part of the issue of slavery—in essence, the terrible things that happen to the white women of the show already happened to non-white women in the real world, and in so doing, the show inadvertently puts a white face on the suffering of people of color. The message sent by the Ambassador is that this woman of color is just as complicit in perpetuating Gilead’s slavery as white men (and white women). Sure, people of color can be oppressors too, but this message is the result of the showrunners seemingly trying to ignore race altogether. It’s a major misstep in the show. You can’t address issues of power struggles and oppression in class, gender, or religion without touching on issues of race, and I doubt the show will address it, since they haven’t even hinted at it yet.
This episode gives us four different responses to oppression. Aunt Lydia shows us the face of a true believer, making the best of her situation not for her own advancement but because she really thinks the system has it right. Her convictions motivate her to carry out the most painful horrors of the regime. Serena Joy sits closer to the top of the power ladder and uses her position and influence to work the system for her own gain. Who cares if she has to keep June as a slave; Serena wants a child. Who cares if it starts a new international slave trade; Serena’s going to throw a big party because she wants this trade deal to work. On the surface Aunt Lydia might be more scary, but Serena Joy wields more power. The Mexican Ambassador sits outside the system, but is happy to promote it and expand it if it means she gets what she wants. And then we have June, treated like an object to be bought and sold, whose voice is not only silenced but manipulated into speaking things she does not believe.
At the very end of the episode, the Ambassador’s (white, male) assistant privately reveals that not only does he know June’s real name, but that her husband is alive and that he can get a message from her to him. June gets a ray of hope that she may not be doomed to live like this for the rest of her life. But in the real world, most people in June’s position don’t get that lifeline. In the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic, the late Alex Tizon, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, reveals that his family kept a woman as a slave for fifty-six years. Most of us aren’t keeping our own slaves, let alone beating them. But as this follow-up piece to Tizon’s suggests, slavery is a process that has lasting effects on all involved. The author writes:
One of the tragic consequences of slavery is that it makes both enslaved people and those who exploit them unfree in a way, and unable to simply extricate themselves from the consequences of servitude.
Tizon grows up being cared for by Eudocia Tomas Polido, aka “Lola”, a woman given to his mother as a slave. Tizon freed Lola and helped her gain American citizenship, but she didn’t know what to do other than serve him and his family, because that’s what she’d been doing virtually her whole life. Unlike Lola, June and the Handmaids of Gilead know what it’s like to live a free life. This is why we see June speak out to the Ambassador about slavery in Gilead. Tizon didn’t confront his parents about Lola when he started to understand her role in the household, because he was a child. Even after Tizon grew up and Lola lived with him and his own family, he gave up trying to get her to stop acting like a servant. Even if one believes Tizon could have done more to help Lola, it’s clear he thought he was doing all he could. He was either unwilling or unable to understand just how complicit he was in her situation; it seems like he had only begun that process after Lola’s death, and just before his own.
But most of us aren’t in Tizon’s position, and can do something about it. Many of us are like the Mexican Ambassador, in a position to choose to promote or fight slavery. While none of us live lives totally untouched by slavery, we’re still far enough removed from many systems of slavery to choose whether or not to participate in them more deeply. None of us can solve the problem of slavery on our own. What we can do is promote awareness of the problem of slavery in our societies; it’s not just a problem in a country far away. We can donate our time and money to anti-slavery organizations, and not patronize companies that employ slave labor. Use the Global Modern Slavery Directory to find organizations that combat human trafficking and slavery worldwide or in your hometown.