At the end of season 3 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) successfully freed almost 100 children from the misogynist theocracy of Gilead via smarts, heart and a brief campaign of rock-throwing guerrilla warfare. Season 4 continues in that vein of badass resistance. June masterminds daring attacks, leads even more daring escapes, and dramatically confronts her tormentors. She’s an action hero. She’s a badass. She’s a fighter.
Which is all the more startling because in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, on which the series is based, the protagonist was quite adamantly none of those things. Instead, the original Handmaid’s Tale was a quiet, melancholy story about how totalitarianism and patriarchy narrow the possibilities for resistance and selfhood. The television series is a story of inspirational leaders and the catharsis of revenge.
That narrative is in a lot of ways more satisfying. But it’s also more familiar. Pop culture loves to show people throwing off their shackles. It has fewer resources with which to tell a story about the day-to-day weight of the chains.
Pop culture loves to show people throwing off their shackles. It has fewer resources with which to tell a story about the day-to-day weight of the chains.
The Handmaid’s Tale, book and series, are about a near future in which environmental degradation has led most people to become sterile. The panic induced by this catastrophe has helped a radical right Christian patriarchal sect to overthrow most of the United States, establishing a nation called Gilead. To ensure a high birthrate, Gilead forces fertile women who have committed various “sins” (adultery, lesbianism, getting an abortion) to become handmaids. The handmaids are assigned to high status commanders, who ritually rape them each month while they are ovulating. Atwood’s novel is a first person narrative by one of these handmaiden’s. She is called Offred—a name showing that she is the property of commander Fred Waterford.
From the beginning of Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is given a lot more agency, and many more opportunities for self-actualization, than she has in the novel. In the first place, Offred is often referred to by her real name, June, which is barely mentioned in the book. As the series goes on, she participates in multiple escape attempts, strikes Mr. Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in the face, and convinces Waterford’s abusive wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strzechowski) to try to get Gilead to change laws preventing women from learning to read. By the start of season 4, she’s killed at least one Gilead soldier, and is a legendary resistance leader, evoking Harriet Tubman. (The show unfortunately mostly centers on white women, effectively side-stepping its debt to antiracist and abolitionist resistance history.)
Season 4 doesn’t just present June as a heroic figure. It openly and enthusiastically advocates for the empowering experience of violence and revenge. Several former handmaids share their experiences in a therapy group that is mostly devoted to healing and forgiveness. Then June arrives. She encourages the other women to embrace their rage and anger and to fantasize about murdering and mutilating their former tormentors. This is essentially an apology for, or a justification of, the Hulu series itself, with all its images of revenge. June fights back so those watching, especially women, can experience a vicarious catharsis.
June, and the series, make a convincing case; anger is a completely valid response to brutalization and oppression. And yet, there is little vicarious revenge on offer in the source material. Offred in the book is rarely angry, and she’s certainly not badass or violent. Her narration is mostly wistful and sad. “I want everything back, the way it was,” she muses. “But there is no point to it, this wanting.”
Book Offred’s acts of resistance, such as they are, mostly involve embracing small pleasures. She drinks some spiked juice when she’s sort of not supposed to. She flirts mildly with some guards. She has an affair with Nick, the Waterford’s driver. When her friend Moira does manage to escape, Offred is excited and proud. But she doesn’t really see it as an option for herself. “Already we were losing the taste for freedom, already we were finding these walls secure,” she writes. Offred does participate in an ambiguous escape attempt at the end of the novel, but it’s not on her own initiative. She just does what Nick tells her, for better or worse.
In short, Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is not very inspiring or hopeful. It does not encourage, or celebrate, or model resistance. The Hulu series obviously sees that as a weakness, and not without cause. People who are oppressed often do resist; enslaved people before the Civil War, for example, tried tirelessly to escape. You could argue that we need more calls to action, and fewer to despair.
Part of what’s resonant and powerful about Offred in the novel is that she’s not June. She’s not an action hero or a resistance fighter or anyone important. She’s just some average someone, faced with a brutal, impossible situation.
The thing is, though, that pop culture gives us examples of courageous, determined underdogs prevailing against overwhelming odds all the time—from the rebellion blowing up the Death Star to the Final Girl finishing off that slasher to Katniss leading the charge against her own dystopian future. Pop culture likes stories in which lots of things happen and heroic people do heroic things. Protagonists are supposed to take enormous risks and yet somehow evade the mutilation and death visited on all those around them. In literary fiction, a game of Scrabble can be a high point for suspense. In a mainstream television series intended for a mass audience, though? There you need someone brave and bold who keeps defying death. You need June.
Part of what’s resonant and powerful about Offred in the novel is that she’s not June. She’s not an action hero or a resistance fighter or anyone important. She’s just some average someone, faced with a brutal, impossible situation, which she confronts with limited resources, and no guarantee that she’ll survive because she’s a big-name star with a multi-season contract. Her passivity and despair and helplessness are frustrating. But that’s also why they’re valuable. When every story of oppression is about heroism and triumph, it becomes hard to remember that oppression by its nature often makes people weaker rather than stronger.
We all like to think that when the worst happens, we will become larger than life, like June. But most of us won’t. Atwood’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale tries to remind us that what happens to the nameless Offred’s matters, too.
The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming on Hulu.
Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.