The New Margaret Atwood Adaptation Explores The Real Horror Of Patriarchy

Alias Grace is historical fiction. But the insidious effects of patriarchy that it portrays — and one woman’s violent response to them — feel inextricable from our present. Warning: light spoilers.

Alias Grace, Netflix’s new six-episode adaptation of the novel by Margaret Atwood, opens in a way that’ll make you think you’re watching Masterpiece Theater: credits running over images of household objects and faded drawings, paired with a mournful violin score. But as with so much of Atwood’s work, the setting is a subterfuge, one of many ways that Atwood cloaks the central themes of her work: namely, the various emotionally and psychologically violent ways that women react to living under patriarchy.

Atwood’s novel is a piece of historical fiction, rooted in the story of “famous murderess” Grace Marks, who, along with fellow servant James McDermott, was convicted in 1843 of murdering Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Marks was sentenced to life, while McDermott was hanged. Atwood’s novel and the miniseries tell the story of the crime, but frame it as more than a murder mystery — it’s also an exploration of how women cope with years of accumulated and sublimated rage.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s recent Emmy-winning adaptation of another Atwood novel, patriarchy is stretched to a dystopian dimension, with fertile women made to serve as childbearing chattel for those in power. The women affected by this scenario process their rage in various ways: The handmaids are assembled and compelled to beat men accused of sex crimes, while the complicit wives vent the horror of their situations by physically and emotionally abusing the handmaids, the only people over whom they wield power.

In Alias Grace, the setting is less explicitly dystopian, ostensibly clothed in soothing tones of a historical drama where servants are pleasant and well-spoken, masters are benign, and the world is good. But the world was not good at all for an Irish immigrant servant in the 19th century, and Alias Grace is one of the select onscreen depictions of the Victorian era that acknowledges as much.

Such portrayals usually employ a sort of filmic “social realism,” dramatizing poverty and inequality in a way that keeps it at a safe distance from the viewer. Don’t worry, these texts suggest: Things sucked then, but think of how much less they suck now. But Alias Grace, and the insidious effects of patriarchy that it portrays, feels inextricable from our present.

It’s not just that Grace — as an immigrant, and a servant, and a woman — lacks power. It’s that those who do have power in her world exploit the imbalance in horrific ways, to the extent that she’s driven to her own act of horror in order to end it. That act isn’t portrayed as vicarious wish fulfillment, or cathartic in any way. Instead, it’s a testament to what women are taught to tolerate — both in Grace’s time and today — until they break under the burden.

Grace’s childhood, which she narrates in measured, careful tones, was marked by quotidian tragedy and suffering: She was one of eight children; she watched her mother die at sea as they crossed from Ireland to Canada. Her drunken father abuses her, calls her a whore, and forces her to leave the family to go to work — commanding her to return her wages for him to drink away. She finds work as a maid, in households where the sons and fathers treat female servants as sexual playthings; “there are some masters who think you owe them service 24 hours a day, and that you should do the main work flat on your back,” she tells the doctor. Like other women of her age and station, Grace lives in terror that an unwanted pregnancy, the result of such unwanted but unrefusable advances, will lead to her ruin — which is precisely what happens to her best and only friend, who dies after a back alley abortion.

Atwood first wrote about Grace Marks — who became a vivid fixture in the Canadian imaginary over the course of her trial — in The Journals of Susanna, a poetry collection published in 1970. But the character stayed with her. In 1997, Atwood returned to Grace Marks with Alias Grace, approaching her story through the plot device of a fictional doctor, newly enlightened by the nascent principles of psychology, attempting to determine whether or not Grace had indeed committed the murders or was subject to momentary insanity.

The book mixes Grace’s conversations with the doctor with her internal meditation on their interactions and her recollections of the past. The miniseries, which was adapted by filmmaker Sarah Polley, skillfully interweaves the three temporalities, underlining how women are taught to tell the stories of themselves and their trauma in ways that both titillate and exonerate the listener.

Those two elements are the foundation of the “true crime” genre, whose most gripping stories are those in which people enact the unspeakable and scandalous. That means sex crimes, of course, but also crimes that demonstrate dominion — men who annihilate women; women who fight back against men. The “facts” of a crime are embroidered with excuses, motives, and speculation that say more about the audience and their needs than those of the perpetrators or victims. “Real life” becomes “true crime” when it is turned into a narrative with a logical motivation, rising climax, graphic event, righteous capture, and justice served.

Yet Polley — who worked closely with Atwood in her adaptation, along with director Mary Harron — refuses to follow those usual tenets. Alias Grace becomes a meditation on the way true crime narratives are formed, but it also explodes the existing narrative around Grace herself. Without giving away any spoilers, it’s clear that Grace has sublimated the rage of living under patriarchy, but it’s unclear how, exactly, that manifested — and whether psychology is even equipped to understand the complex processes that occur over the course of decades of repressed trauma.

Unlike most true crime narratives, Alias Grace promises and proffers little in the way of concrete answers. Instead, it poses a series of open questions: How does constant surveillance condition behavior? How do “good” men become party to the actions of the bad ones? How do women internalize the idea that other women — especially those in power — will never truly be their allies? What is survivable?

These questions hover around Grace’s story, but they’re no less pertinent today. Atwood has never been cagey about the fact that her “historical” and dystopian novels are simply refractions of current issues, especially those facing women. And while it’s happenstance that Alias Grace will (re)enter public consciousness amid an avalanche of allegations against men who have exploited their power to abuse, harass, or otherwise violate women, those allegations and Alias Grace are simply two different vantages of the same reality — in which patriarchy is never not in the process of finding ways to sustain itself.

That word — patriarchy — has become both overfreighted and evacuated of meaning; it’s become the sort of SJW rhetoric that makes bros shut down and stop listening. But patriarchy isn’t a feminist buzzword. It simply describes the organizing social principle of our world, in which men have held and continue to control the levers of power. Men largely decide what is legal and what is ethical. Men lead the vast majority of businesses and occupy the majority of offices in local, state, and federal government. Men make considerably more money. Which isn’t to suggest that women lack power altogether; rather, it’s to emphasize that the majority of power is still held by men, and as a result, women find themselves in the position of constantly negotiating that power.

Of course, not all men abuse their power, and some men are abused. But as both Alias Grace and the specifics of recent stories from accusers make clear, men and women alike become ready (if sometimes unconscious) accessories to interactions, relationships, and ideologies that keep patriarchy in place. Harvey Weinstein’s assistants, for example, helped set “honey pots” for the women he wished to prey upon; Grace’s mistresses, terrified of losing their own limited place of power, spite and degrade her.

That’s what power does, as Lainey Gossip wrote in regard to her own role in keeping the rumors about Weinstein under wraps: “It corrupts both the people who have it and the people who are subject to it. For those who have it, it becomes a weapon against the weak. And for the weak, it limits their freedom, it compels them to compromise, and in compromising, they become an accessory to that gun, the silencer that’s attached to it.” The women involved aren’t innocent. But it’s patriarchy and its privileges — not the women themselves — who are the root of the problem.

That’s an idea that Mindhunter — another Netflix show about the true crime stories we tell ourselves — explores, however obliquely, in its first episode. The main character, a young FBI agent in the 1970s, grapples with a new “type” of crime that resists old classifications and understandings. His grad student girlfriend asks if he’s ever heard of the work of (now canonical) sociologist Émile Durkheim, who, as she puts it, was “one of the first to suggest that criminality is a response when something’s wrong with society.”

Put differently, crime — or transgression against social norms — occurs when those social norms are incorrect, under threat, or no longer make sense. Within this paradigm, Grace’s violence might be immoral, but it is a logical response to patriarchy, and the only resistance of which she was capable. That idea is revealed gradually, but it is not treated as revelation. It is not a question answered; it is a given.

The question that Alias Grace does ask is far more unsettling. In the final scenes of the series, Grace speaks in narration, considering the ways she’s changed her story, in small but crucial ways, to please and assuage the guilt of the men in her life. “A little white lie is a small price to pay for peace and quiet,” she says, as the camera cuts to a shot of her in a field, seemingly looking off into the distance, wondering at her own actions. But Grace isn’t looking at her past. She’s looking — unwavering, unrepentantly — straight at us. ●

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