Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, Season One, Episode Six: A Woman's Place

Serena Joy has featured in this story largely because of her abuse of Offred and her desire to have a child. Being the wife of a powerful commander, Serena Joy enjoys a lot of social standing but beyond being able to abuse a handmaiden, it doesn't translate to much actual power because Serena Joy cannot escape her gender. To be a woman in a patriarchal world is to be subject to gender based oppression. 

A Woman's Place is a reminder that people are prone complicity in their own oppression.  This complicity can be found in members of every single marginalised group.  Sometimes it's about the hope of living one more day, perhaps  it's about extra food or even more lenient treatment and for some, it's about not believing that you are the same as the rest of your social group because of internalised hatred. Serenea Joy initially begins her work based in a firm religious conviction to improve the lives of women.  What she fails to acknowledge is that women are all different and what might be an improvement to seem is certainly a decline to others.

In the beginning of the Gilead rebellion, Serena is front and center, even writing a book in support of the Gilead's ambitions.  Serena and Fred are deeply in love and he values her input.  In Serena, Fred believes that he's found a true partner and an equal, even as both of them are labouring to ensure that the very characteristics that he loves about Serena are stamped away. With the creation of a religious fundamentalist state, both Serenea Joy and Fred got exactly what they wanted, never realising that having their wish fulfilled would greatly damage their marriage. 

Oh the irony of Serena couching her complicity in Christian fundamentalism. It seems that she missed Proverbs 26:27

"Whoever digs a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolls a stone, it will return on him."

Serena and Fred worked because of their partnership and she even supports him when it comes to the terrorist actions that set the stage for the takeover of the U.S. It even comes complete with prayer and sex.  By the time Sernea realises that the noose she created for other women is also for her own neck it's too late. Serena throws out her high heels, and short skirt suits to settle in making a home for a commander. Irony of all ironies, her book ends up in the garbage. On Serena's behalf, Fred appeals to the council to allow Serena to speak but she's rejected because a woman's place is in the home.  At this point, Serena's only choice is to smile and persevere because that's what a woman does in the Gilead and it seems - she's no different. 

A Mexican delegation arrives in the Gilead and Fred really wants to open trade negotiations. The only way to do this is to normalise their way of life and to that end, Offred is brought to meet the Mexican ambassador to extol how happy she is.  Offred is asked about the great sacrifice that she is making and even what her real name is. Throughout the exchange, Offred sticks to the script that both Fred and Serena Joy have carefully laid out for her. After seeing first hand how the Gilead punishes, Offred is extremely aware of what is at stake for her. Mrs. Castillo  seems generally interested in what Offred has to stay, though naive about what is really going on in Gilead. 

As Fred and the Gilead higher ups prepare for a dinner with the Mexican dignitaries, he's become so used to dismissing his wife that he ignores Serena joy when she tries to talk to him about what she has planned. The Handmaidens are brought in for the special meal and each one of them that shows visible evidence of being abused is not allowed to enter.  Fred is concerned that the children of the Gilead didn't enter at the same time as the Handmaidens, only to be told that a little theater is necessary.  Serena Joy makes her speech and introduces the children to the pleasure of the adults in attendance.  A frantic Offred searches the faces to see if one of them is her daughter. This is when Offred learns that the Gilead isn't interested in trading oranges but Handmaidens because their fertility has been proven and birth rates are under a steep decline. This night is simply a continuation of Offred's nightmare, even as it triumph for Serena.  Serena and Fred even engage in sex, which is something that has clearly become a rarity. 

Even as Fred and Serena Joy have celebration sex, Offred is racked with guilt that she didn't tell the ambassador the truth about what's done to the handmaidens in the Gilead.  Nick tries to reassure her but at this point, Offred is past the point of wanting to be comforted and she wants to be called by her own bloody name. Nick is always there to remind Offred of just how powerless she is and it becomes a stark reminder of the imbalance in their relationship.  They've had sex and Offred has fantasized about Nick but if they are caught, it's Offred who will pay the price.

When Offred does finally get a chance to speak with the Ambassador alone, she decides to tell the whole truth about what it's like to be a handmaiden. Offred talks about the disfigurements, the beatings and monthly rapes.  It's clear that Mrs. Castillo is shocked and horrified by everything that she's hearing.  It's a brief moment of hope that quickly comes crashing down because even though Mrs. Castillo realises that everything which is happening to the handmaidens is wrong, the Mexican government is desperate to increase its fertility rate.  Mrs. Castillo apologises but makes it clear that she cannot help Offred.  

Just as Serena Joy is complicit, so is Mrs. Castillo. Both women justify their action or inaction based on what they believe is in service of the greater good.  Mrs. Castillo is just as guilty as Serena Joy, if not more so because Mrs. Castillo has not deluded herself with religion or faux feminism and is simply taking an ends justifies the means approach, as long as privations do not apply to her.  Mrs. Castillo in some ways pities Serena Joy for the power that she has lost to speak and to achieve but not enough to see that her collaboration could well end her in the exact same position as Serena Joy. A few episodes ago, Offred talked about how through incremental changes the Gilead convinced people to give up the right and freedoms for their own good and that by the time they took to the streets to protest that it was already to late. 

We are offered one brief bit of hope at the end of the episode.  Offred may have failed to get through to Mrs. Castillo but it seems she did strike a cord with Castillo's secretary, who reveals that he knows Luke and is willing to pass a message onto him, if Offred will write it down.  We already know that reading and writing is punished by disfigurement.  The Mexicans have already shown that self concern trumps helping the handmaidens and Offred knows all to well that anyone can be an Eye. Is this really a chance to reach or husband, or trap? 

In the end, this episode is about complicity and the ways in which we enforce and support the very things which oppress us. Both Mrs. Castillo and Serena Joy while having different inspirations for their decisions, are both willing to be party to a horrific institution.  With fertility dropping, reproduction for reproduction sake is all that matters. Reducing women to their biology is something Serena Joy saw as a path to power and freedom never realising that it would also entrap her.  Mrs. Castillo sees forced reproduction as patriotic and stopping extinction even though both Serena Joy and Offred stand as evidence to where this thinking leads.  The lesson in this is: 

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."