The Radical Feminist Aesthetic Of "The Handmaid’s Tale"
Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is both a beauty to behold and a slap in the face. (No spoilers, but the piece does describe the book's basic premise.)
The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which debuts next week on Hulu, is filled with small, barbed revelations. Even if you’ve read the book, and you know what you’re in for, there’s so much to startle you: there's Elisabeth Moss’s face, which, through roles in Mad Men and Top of the Lake, has become an emblem of women persevering in the face of sexual violence and abject sexism. There are jarring moments of presentness — the way the characters offhandedly reference Craigslist, or Tinder — that make it impossible to pretend this is a scenario of the distant past or future. There’s the quiet profanity of Offred’s internal monologue — her use of “fuck” and “cum” in particular — which is so dissonant with the sunny, shining world that surrounds her.
And then there’s the way the world is rendered: Gilead, as it’s called, is a startlingly exquisite Eden, with dark, claustrophobic corners — a place where the individual has no power, save the small, essential spaces she carves for herself within her mind. So many dystopic narratives are filmed as fantasy spaces: worlds we can observe briefly and from a careful distance, or in which we are positioned to identify with a bloodied, vanquishing hero. The Handmaid’s Tale quietly forces the audience into the position of the handmaid herself: To watch is to feel the daily realities, the sensations and smells, the invisible constrictions and silent aggressions of living under patriarchy. In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale is both a beauty to behold and a slap in the face, employing a vibrant film language that not only proves itself the equal to, but expands upon its canonical source text.
It joins a growing body of visual texts — primarily, but not exclusively, created by women — that are feminist not just in their subject matter, but in their aesthetic. Like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Kelly Reichhardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Sarah Polley’s Take this Waltz, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t just narratively recenter the protagonist and her perspective. It cinematically does so.
Since its 1985 release, Atwood’s novel has often been described as a “feminist 1984.” In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at some point in the not-so-distant future, infertility has skyrocketed and only 1 in 5 of the few babies that are conceived are born healthy. The rich people in power can’t reproduce, so they coerce “handmaidens” — the few remaining fertile women — to “serve” in their households, e.g., have sex with the husbands once a month.
There are other dystopian things about this world: a deeply entrenched surveillance state and an arch, authoritarian Christianity — but all of these elements are rooted in the need to control women’s bodies. As in the 1992 novel The Children of Men (and the 2006 film based on it), it’s infertility that serves as the ultimate entropic force: a society collapses under the anxiety of its inability to reproduce.
Cue: a deeply conservative form of patriarchy. The women who aren’t “qualified” to be high-class wives are sorted into three functions: domestic workers, birthers, and mistresses. If they don’t fit, or choose to rebel against such categorization, they’re sent to labor in the toxic nether regions of the state. Porn is outlawed. Abortion doctors are killed. So are gay people and pastors who don’t preach the right gospel of the Father.
It’s a return to Puritanism, and all the gender hierarchies entailed within, save one deeply inconvenient truth: Husbands need to have sex with women who aren’t their wives. Leaders have thus developed strict rules to isolate and desexualize both the handmaidens and the act of sex itself. Handmaidens are trained, in centers, to consider the potential for pregnancy as their sole purpose in life. They’re not to eat sweets, or exercise, or masturbate. They are compelled to greet everyone they encounter with phrases like “Blessed be the fruit” and “May it open.” They are not women; they are wombs.
Handmaidens wear long red cloaks to visually signal their value and their difference (wives wear teal; Marthas, the name given to non-fertile servants, wear blue) and to eliminate the suggestion of their sexuality. With their cloaks, they’re breastless, body-less, like nuns who just happen to have sex once a month. When handmaidens do have sex with the master of the house, they’re fully clothed — and the wife sits behind the handmaiden, her legs spread around her, attempting to psychologically erase the presence of another vagina in the room.
Whenever they’re in public, the handmaidens don white bonnets. The bonnets cover the hair — another signifier of femininity, and of vanity — but with their long edges, extending six inches on either side, they also function as blinders to the outside world: All the handmaidens can see is the path straight ahead of them. It’s a metaphor, of course, for the way the lives of these women have been confined to their capacity as fertile wombs.
This “bonnet view” was central to Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff, starring Michelle Williams. As Reichardt explains, the bonnet view is at once deeply claustrophobic and incredibly lonely. Inside the bonnet, you can’t see the world around you, but you know it’s there. You’re cloistered, alone with the echo of your breath, the shadows of the world playing just outside your vision.
To pass that feeling on to viewers, Reichardt shot Meek’s Cutoff using a 4:3 aspect ratio — much closer to square than the now-standard 16:9 “widescreen” ratio. That decision was unusual, especially for a Western, which is normally shot to highlight the vast landscape surrounding the protagonists. But the real innovation was Reichardt’s decision to center the film itself not on the men attempting to make their way West across the barren desert of Eastern Oregon, but on the women. The aspect ratio isn’t just a stylistic tic, but a dedication to a different sort of story: Instead of trying to understand the arrogance and anxiety of men seeking to sustain their power, Reichardt looked to the women victimized by that quest.
That attitude is still astonishingly rare. Back in 1970s, film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote a paper — “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” — that went on to become the most reprinted publication in film history. Mulvey argued that the primary “gaze” of the cinema, e.g., the way directors film and the way we conceive of “normal” film style, is male: It fetishizes female bodies, turns them into objects to be possessed and controlled. Mulvey spent years refining the argument, while also searching for its inverse: Is a “female gaze” possible? If so, what would it even look like?
The male gaze is a symptom of an art form whose norms were developed by men, in an industry dominated by men, for audiences dictated largely by male preferences. It reflects Hollywood, but it also reflects the way we look at women in the world. Which is part of why it’s been so difficult to reverse: Patriarchy refuses to budge. What’s developed, then — mostly, but not only, through the work of female filmmakers — is a sort of negotiated hybrid, a way of occupying a woman’s perspective as she navigates the patriarchal world around her.
Call it the female glance. Unlike the steady, obsessive gaze, the glance is sprawling, nimble: not easily distracted so much as a constantly vigilant. It scans, it flits, it spins — or, alternately, it observes, with patient detail, the moments of a woman’s world that often go unnoticed. Think of this pastoral scene in Marie Antoinette, or the Leonard Cohen montage in Take This Waltz, the flutter of the curtains in Bright Star, the sprawling sky and stutters of home video of “All Night,” the slow-motion glee and rage of “Hold Up,” the flashback inserts of abuse in Big Little Lies.
The female glance is deeply attuned to textures, to shades of light. You can feel the temperature of the bodies around you, the anxiety and claustrophobia or, alternately, the expansiveness and delight. It’s an almost synesthetic mode of filmmaking, focused not on plot, or narrative, but the capacity of an image to convey a feel. It forces identification with, and empathy for, the way women experience the world — an experience that’s often marked by passive observation and the rhythms of the domestic world. Scenes shot in this way can feel paranoiac, distracted, and disjointed, but that’s just the reality of living in a world where your body, your value, your power is constantly surveilled. If the male gaze disassembles and disempowers, then the female glance puts that world back together on its own terms.
The female glance is not limited to female filmmakers — I’d argue that Terrence Malick, Jean-Marc Vallée, and Pedro Almodóvar all use it, in different ways — and not all female filmmakers work in this mode. But it’s a discernible, if diffuse, aesthetic difference, and its mark is all over The Handmaid’s Tale. The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are directed by Reed Morano — who made her name through her distinctive cinematographic work in Frozen River and Looking — and as the cinematographer of Beyonce’s “Sandcastles.”
In Episode 1, the show’s careful aesthetic is immediately visible as Elisabeth Moss attempts to flee the country with her husband and young daughter. In many ways, it’s a classic escape scene: Mother and child flee; police force pursues. But it’s filmed in a series of tight close-ups of Moss’s face, alternating to POV shots of the action around her, all overlaid with the sound of Moss’s ragged breathing, before segueing into her screams. Instead of watching the scenario from a safe distance, it forces the audience to experience Moss’s abject fear and despair at close range.
The first shot of Offred — the name given to Moss’s character after she’s captured and becomes a handmaiden — is a spectacularly slow tracking zoom. It starts as a long shot, with Offred sitting, hands folded in her lap, on the windowsill. The sun streams in from behind her. She is perfectly still. Then the narration starts — it’s Moss’s voice, flat and calm. “A chair, a table, a lamp, a window with white curtains, and the glass is shatterproof,” she says. “But it isn’t running away they’re afraid of...it’s those other escapes, the one you can open in yourself given a cutting edge, or a twisted sheet and a chandelier.”
Under the narration, the shot itself remains static, zooming in ever so slightly. You could mistake Offred for a piece of furniture — but the narration invites you into Offred’s dynamic inner world: its cataloging of the world, the danger of her own mind. The shot underlines just how silent the world is around her, heightening the contrast with the riot in her mind.
When Offred meets her wife in her new "assignment" for the first time, Moss is shot, again, in tight close-up. The framing underlines the smallness of her world, even as it allows the audience access to the smallest of reactions amidst her performance of demurity and submission.
It’s a sharp contrast to the shots of the wife (Yvonne Strahovski), who remains off-center in a medium shot. She’s distanced from the viewer; nothing about the way she’s framed invites us to empathize with her. When the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) — with whom Offred is expected to copulate — enters the room, we see how she’s allowed to look at him: shielded, furtively, carefully. After the Commander leaves — and the wife warns her of how she will be treated if she steps out of line — we return to inside Offred’s mind, not for narration, but for a deep exhale, and a cut to a close-up of Offred’s clenched fist.
I could do a similar close read of nearly every scene in the first three episodes: There’s the way the aerial shot of Offred, following her first “session” with the Commander, transmutes her disgust as the narrator intones “I can feel the commander’s cum coming out of me. I can smell it.” There’s the aerial shot of the handmaiden’s white bonnets, clustering together like players in a rugby scrum as they beat an accused rapist to death, suggesting just how out-of-body their groupthink, and its channeling of rage, has become. That scene is mirrored in Episode 2, when the handmaidens come together, as if magnetized, to protect one of their own from the engulfing sadness of giving up her child, of realizing her role as a vessel.
In that second moment, the sound of the room gradually disappears — we don’t hear the bereft handmaiden, or the whispers of consolation from her peers. Just something like a choral hymn on the soundtrack, and an image that silently screams. That’s the reality of the female glance: It’s an accumulation of moments, experiences, and revelations that not only go unsaid, but might actually be unspeakable. In that way, it’s cinematic language at its most essential: showing what words cannot.
There are so many reasons why The Handmaid’s Tale feels necessary today — including the ability to articulate the visceral trauma of sexual subjugation, and to convey what lack of choice, when it comes to women’s bodies, actually looks and feels and smells like. Reviewing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1986, John Updike wrote that “the phrase ‘women’s novel’ is not a happy one — better, surely, for a writer male or female to attempt ‘a person’s novel.' … But The Handmaid’s Tale does feel purposefully feminine, and beneath the grim but transparently playful details of its dystopia glows the vivid and intimate reality of its heroine.”
The Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is not a “woman’s television show.” But it, too, feels purposefully, radically feminine: obsessed, like its source material, with allowing women to inhabit their own stories, instead of ceding that authority — to tell, to be told — to men. ●