Handmaid’s Tale Inoculates Viewers from Responsibility for Real Atrocities

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 26:  Guest interact with an art installation, designed by Paula Scher and Abbott Miller, and book giveaway celebrating Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' opens on the High Line on April 26, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Hulu)

By Rachel Wagner (November 18, 2019)

The Haidmaid’s Tale television series producer Warren Littlefield says that Offred’s story “presents a chilling vision into an increasingly likely potential future.”

I suggest that this insistence on relevance is more indicative of a desire to *be* predictive, to believe that media like The Handmaid’s Tale can tell us something about the world and where it is headed—that order is possible. We want prediction. The more uncanny The Handmaid’s Tale seems, the easier it is to believe a television show will help us out of this mess. That it conveniently inoculates viewers from responsibility for the atrocities it references is part of its intense appeal.

The prophecy is parochial: it is for Americans, but only some Americans. It is about localized fear, not about heightening awareness about suffering around the world. It’s about how totalitarianism may come home to roost—not about the ways that Americans may have ignored it or allowed it to take root elsewhere. It’s about how painful it would *be* to become enslaved, not about the legacy of American slavery and its impact on people living right now. It’s about white guilt, but unattractively translated into a kind of performative ritual of vicarious suffering, made all the easier for being sanitized within the screen and only enacted in the safety of clumsily crafted red dresses that signal an incomplete kind of “wokeness.” It’s the “me” generation seeing the only way to process guilt as a spectacle of re-enactment without responsibility for owning the original cause or ongoing pain of the actual victims right around us.

The kind of thrill that Atwood and her crew experience when they see the show as “predictive” or “realistic” is that they have successfully translated some of the pain so many are experiencing in the world today into a more palatable format that exchanges responsibility for trauma into performed victimization and requires, as a result, only “resistance” without any of the complexities of shared blame.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *