Why I haven’t been able to watch The Handmaid’s Tale

I read the book. I think I watched one and a half episodes of the Hulu series before I couldn’t take it anymore — I knew that this wasn’t ever going to get to a happy place. Kammy has it perfectly pegged, though, that it’s feminist torture porn.

Yeah, I said it. Feminist torture porn. Basically we have two full seasons of the men getting away with every sort of physical, emotional and psychological torture imaginable, with June either blankly staring in resignation or with a barely concealed look of rage on her face. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Elisabeth Moss’s ability to convey emotion with just her eyes is amazing, but for fuck sake it shouldn’t take nearly two seasons for one of those asshole Gileads to get stabbed. I literally cheered when Emily stabbed Lydia and kicked her down those stairs. When Emily stomped that dead guy’s nuts after he raped her was another stand up and cheer moment. All I’m saying is that the writers have shown way to much of these shitheads getting away with it and not enough of the women fighting back.

I’m going to have to recommend some counterprogramming, a guilty pleasure: Afterwar, by Lilith Saintcrow. It’s a rough, brutal, post-apocalyptic war story, so not to everyone’s taste, but the twist is that it takes place in a future America, after an all-too-plausible take-over of a large chunk of the country by fundamentalist Christian fanatics who run concentration camps and death camps and enslave or kill anyone of a different ethnicity than white Anglo-Saxon. The premise is very Handmaid’s Tale-ish. This story starts up, though, with the wars to crush the evil neo-Nazis, and the aftermath as the bad guys are hunted down and their regime demolished. Everyone suffers, and it’s not a happy story either, but at least the right-wing fanatics suffer more.

It’s all about people fighting back, so it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy for those of us watching the current ascendancy of scumbags.


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    It’s all about people fighting back, so it’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy for those of us watching the current ascendancy of scumbags.

    I have no problem with wish-fulfillment fantasy so long as what’s being wished for isn’t evil.

  2. specialffrog says

    Along these lines I would recommend Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower / Parable of the Talents. Somewhat similar premise. The novels are grim but hopeful.

  3. says

    The TV version of The Handmaids Tale has the same problem as lots of TV and movie series. It became a hit, so they have to toffeestretch it out over multiple seasons, even though its not really an idea that should have that done.

  4. Curious Digressions says

    Ah. Feminist Torture Porn = torture port for anti-feminists, not torture porn with a feminist agenda. I can see why it would be popular with horrible people. #NotAllViewers (of course)

    I haven’t watched it because I don’t see how they could have translated the book into visual media and keep the same effect. So much of the book was about the main character’s internal and mental accommodations to horror and dehumanization, and what that implies about humans in general. Watching from the outside without any insight to her perception of the experience isn’t the same thing at all.

  5. davidnangle says

    “Everyone suffers, and it’s not a happy story either, but at least the right-wing fanatics suffer more.”

    I envision a new, more pure fiction market niche. And I would argue that wish-fulfillment of horrific violence done to certain types of people could not be reasonably considered evil.

  6. woozy says

    One big problem I have with The Handmaid’s Tale is in its desire to be “philosophical” and edgy it undermines its very premise. In the show the entire world is going through a real infertility crises brought on by environmental issues. The “edgy” thing is Gilead is actually the most successful out countering this; they are a leader at decreasing their carbon footprint and the Handmaid procedure has increased the reproduction rate to viable and is the envy of the rest of the world that faces extinction in the next generation. It’s the Wizard with a Nuke hypothesis (although, thankfully, they take the anti-wizard stance).

    I think this completely undermines the actually threat and issue of misogynistic theocracies. Gilead won’t be a response to any actual crises and nor will any SJW behavior lead to any crises. Gilead will be simply because misogynistic theocrats want it. Even if it chokes them.

  7. woozy says

    @curious digression

    To the show’s credit (or not), the show is not and is not meant to be a translation of the book. It is its own work and its own story (based on the premise of the book but not necessarily the narrative).

  8. says

    I’ve read a handful of Atwood’s books, but always passed on Handmaid’s Tale, despite the acclaim for that work. I prefer the slice of life stuff.

    Her writing tends to portray a lot of sexism going unpunished, and the sexism is cast in a critical light by the prose and other subtleties. I’m not sure how well it would translate to TV. TV is full of violence which cannot really be cast in a critical light, because the violence is precisely what viewers came for.

  9. says

    …I mean, doesn’t sound too much different from a lot of blogs and twitters and so on here in reality?

    One of the reasons I significantly cut down on my news intake since early 2016.

  10. dontlikeusernames says

    Torture porn or… whatever.

    Isn’t the point that this is almost literally being paraded in from of you to try to (impotently) enrage (~= pacify) you? It’s sort of “outrage culture” (I know, I hate it too) taken to the next level.

  11. starskeptic says

    I think Kammy missed at least one Commander stabbing and Guardians getting run over….

  12. lanir says

    I haven’t read the novel but I’m slowly wading through the tv series. It can be kind of hard to watch at times so I agree with the sentiment PZ expressed, although I’ve chosen to continue viewing it so far (I’m about halfway through season 2).

    There is one utterly bizarre thing about the tv show that reminds me of Eon by Greg Bear (which is not torture porn). It’s the idea that the far right actually has solutions to problems. In Lord of the Rings the fantasy is that dead things can still move around and burning eyeballs atop towers are people. In Eon the fantasy is that Cold War mentalities make sense and are justified even when dealing with interstellar contact. In The Handmaid’s Tale the fantasy is that book burning, academia purging religious loons will magically solve their carbon footprint while still using all the tools we have now and just starting a slave trade (they focus on the sex slaves but there are others). Who knew that slavery could solve ecological problems?

    To pull this off they have to casually if infrequently demonize any ideas to the left of thsoe that form Gilead. So you have this flashback scene (no torture porn in this clip, the lady speaker later becomes one of the founders of Gilead). I’m assuming this is not how protests of odious speakers happen on college campuses?

  13. auntbenjy says

    I first read The Handmaid’s Tale about 30 years ago. It was powerful stuff for an impressionable teenager, and I feel slightly queasy every time I contemplate watching the series. It’s sitting on my hard drive, but I can’t watch it.

    Margaret Atwood is an awesome author, but after that experience I have to psych myself up to read her books. Every damn time.

    Just as a P.S., there is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale due out in September called The Testaments.

  14. garnetstar says

    @17, me too. Reading the book was difficult enough: I can’t take too much reality, or even prescient comment on reality. Have never been able to re-read it, and sure could not have taken it in dramatic form.

    Thanks for the suggestions, though, to PZ and others.

  15. RFon says

    On a less serious note: We are Legion (We are Bob). US gets taken over by religious fanatics (republicans) that starts WW3 and humanitys only hope is a replicant that is setting up a network of von Neumann Probes across the galaxy.

  16. wzrd1 says

    @1, as the definition of evil is variable, depending upon the viewpoint, how about we find common ground on torture being bad, save if all parties enjoy such things?

    @3, want to see a good story FUBAR’d, let Hollywood get hold of it.
    Especially, these days of reboots, retcons and mutilation.
    Should I go on about Star Ship Troopers, elventy eleventh, the third?
    When it all started out with one book?

    @4, been there, done that, usually I managed to find my fuckup, occasionally, not and then, it’s spectacular. :/

    @6, do look up wheat thins and other wheat similar breakfasts and corn flakes. All joy is to be removed from life, for one seventh day sect.

    @7, I call it Magic Nuke, from RonCo hypothesis. A bit more entertaining and horrific and it should be so.
    Just tonight, I answered a Quora question on leaving nukes on our southern border and I explained, briefly, but accurately as I’m allowed to explain, in detain.
    Hint: Supremely bad idea, contaminates most of the nation one is trying to “save”.
    A report, that’d take a few days, as values are calculated and reported. They’d be close.
    Figure 1/3 of the nation perished or was so contaminated as to be worthless for import to other states, for a century or three.

    @7, you underestimate the strength of will of the opponent, who quite literally wants the lot of us dead.
    You don’t hold them in check, people like me do, alas, barely.
    It’s seriously that insane and losing ground, while the current Conservative groups or gropes are noticing insanity and just starting to half-hardheartedly resist.

    @9, I dunno. Torture porn against me, I might entertain it, to grok what is coming from the originator.
    I’m an imaginative bastard, as full Generals have admitted.

    That all said, I find the subject entirely offensive enough to refuse to read at all. I’ll do so when things become strategically or tactically important. As I can read a paperback in less than a day, with measured 95% retention and comprehension, yeah.

    Still won’t watch the program or read the book, as it’s seriously outside of reality.
    Might as well require magic.

  17. DanDare says

    Its something I share with my daughter. We are ploughing through season 3.
    We talk about it a lot and compare to things happening in reality around us.
    The best bits for us are the revelations about the antagonists and the way they justify themselves to themselves. Even when confronted by a situation that demonstrates they got it wrong they will twist it around.
    My daughter has a series of ideas about how the people at the bottom might karate the system and thats leading her off to look at similar bits of real history, in between her PhD work at the Queensland Brain Institute and her artwork.

  18. birgerjohansson says

    Going off on a tangent, during summer I have discovered we have a local network of honor oppression people in my home town Umeå.
    It sucks.
    I don’t know if “sharia police” would be an accurate term, it may be more like a group of some petty criminals on a power trip. This has belatedly been brought to the attention by the newspapers and I have myself witnessed some of them harassing foreign-looking women for being out on their own.
    The many local refugees from the Middle East came here to escape this kind of shit, and now they get hassled by creeps who got here by masquerading as bona fide refugees.
    I suppose this is a variation of the same theme as Klansmen or American skinheads- creeps need something to do with their time.
    A good thing is, a local imam that is a well-known islamist got arrested last month. As for the others they will probably go the way of petty criminals, a stochastic process where each of them finally get proven guilty of something because they cannot change their behaviour even when they know they are under scrutiny.

  19. DanDare says

    birgerjohansson not really a tangent at all. The Handmaids Tale is a pastiche of real things and then put in a white, afluent setting.

  20. brain says

    @1 Akira:

    I have no problem with wish-fulfillment fantasy so long as what’s being wished for isn’t evil.

    I have no problem with wish-fulfillment fantasy so long as what’s being wished for is a fantasy, that’s all.
    Being a rational adult means being able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, not censoring fantasy.

  21. dannicoy says

    I think calling it Feminist Torture porn is missing the point.

    Like the book the show is an exploration of what interpersonal relationships look like in a totalitarian regime, and why people act the way they do in that situation. Since most totalitarian regimes are so often absolutely terrible to women and the main character is a woman then a lot of the foreground is devoted to the oppression of women but this is just part of showing the larger picture.

    The things I think it does particularly well
    It shows how totalitarian societies get inside peoples heads in order to control them in way that is not always obvious to outsiders.
    It shows that almost every individual in a totalitarian society is limited in what they can do in stepping outside the role that the society has put them in. I think the show has done a particularly good job with the character of Serena Joy.
    It shows that a totalitarian regime can be fighting for things that are desirable to the person being repressed.
    It shows that people who do stand up and fight will make mistakes and cross lines particularly as they are starting out.

    Though I suspect that Gilead will eventually fall in the TV show I don’t think that there will be much in the way of emotional gratification in that process, the collapse of a state causes a lot chaos and destruction. It will remain the opposite of wish fulfillment fantasy. If you take out the stuff directly related to the fertility crisis (and even here there is a lot to be said about historical sex slavery) and you look at how the women are treated, it’s not a million miles from how European culture treated women for most of the last 1000 years, and for that reason I appreciate what the show is doing.