The Most Insidious Villain of The Handmaid’s Tale is Complicit Femininity
Previously, our Chelsea Steiner took a look at how the character of Serena Joy helped her to understand the mind of the female Trump voter. Today we examine how the actions of complicit women in The Handmaid’s Tale helped lay the foundation for Gilead and perpetuate the cruelty there. Do they ever deserve a redemption arc?
There are many villains in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is the Commander and his ilk. The religious dogma that grips what once was America. But there is no villain quite as insidious as the women who are complicit in Gilead’s rise and ability to stay in power. Without the mind of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the regime would never have been able to be created, and without the fist of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) it would never be upheld.
The gut reaction to this might be to bristle at such a claim, to say that it’s a way to blame the women for the faults of the men. Make no mistake, the men of Gilead are villains who all deserve to go out in a firey, painful blaze. But the women who were complicit in their rise to power are also culpable, especially when they are the ones who created Gilead’s archaic and terrifying laws.
Serena has grown to be a complicated character in season two, but the fact remains that she was also involved in the creation of Gilead and was just as responsible for the violence as her husband. The show tries to make viewers sympathize with her when college students shout her down as she tries to speak, but it’s hard to feel sorry for her when she is literally advocating for women to lose their rights and for the US to become a theocracy based around oppression. When she suffers for her actions by losing her voice and her ability to use her mind in Gilead, it is also equally difficult to feel sorry for her because she built her own cage.
The more she rebels, the more likable she becomes. This is not to say that all female characters need be likable, but she becomes someone to root for as she and June push the boundaries of what is expected of them. When the Commander punishes her for her rebellion, we ache for her in the same way we ache for June (Elisabeth Moss) as she endures torture after torture, because we want her to succeed in her rebellion. In the same way we hate her for the role she played in Gilead’s birth and for all the torture she’s inflicted on June, we want her to take back her own agency and June’s agency, even if she’s only doing it to protect her life and the life of her unborn child.
Serena then manages to un-do all the good will audiences have built up for her by encouraging the Commander to brutally rape June to induce labor. She seems content after that to simply be a mother to June’s baby, until the death of Eden (Sydney Sweeney) makes her realize that violence aimed at women by the society she created will impact her child.
It’s a moment similar to the way men say that having a daughter makes them aware of societal injustice: Serena is content to have things go as they were as long as she has a child, until she realizes her system of oppression will impact her daughter. It’s a selfish reason to begin to change—does the effect the violence has on countless other women and daughters not matter to her?—but it is a reason nonetheless, and she and June are once more brought together in an attempt to protect their daughter.
Serena is not motivated by kindness towards other women. She has minimal empathy for June, and that varies episode to episode. Other than that, she shows no compassion for other handmaids or Marthas or wives. She only cares about her own life, and the life of her daughter. Her search for freedom is a search for herself, not for anyone else. What makes her interesting is her selfishness and her focus on only her own survival. While many of the handmaids find courage through each other, and stage their act of resistance to save one of their own, Serena’s courage and resistance are to protect herself. This is what separates her from heroines June, Moira (Samira Wiley), and Emily (Alexis Bledel).
On the other hand, Aunt Lydia is a character who we can love to hate, or even just simply hate. She does not merely stand by as atrocities are committed, she actively engages with them. She tortures women, celebrates their sexual slavery and forced pregnancies, and idealizes the world of Gilead. She is not given the same backstory as Serena is, so we do not know where she is coming from or what made her a true believer. We simply know that she is evil enough to believe what she’s doing is for the greater good. She and the other aunts who uphold the laws of Gilead are as complicit in the atrocities committed as the soldiers and leaders are. They are oppressing other women, and are happy to do so.
The show does not shy away from holding these women equally responsible for their actions. In the second episode of season two, Emily poisons one of the wives (Marisa Tomei) who is sent to the Colonies for adultery. After being told she’s going to hell, Emily points out that once a month the wife aided in her husband raping their handmaid and for that she would not be forgiven. It’s a powerful moment of Emily seizing some agency in a situation where she is constantly denied even the slightest semblance of humanity, and it finally verbalizes something the show has danced around: the women who support Gilead are culpable for the sins of the regime.
Again, this is not to say the women in the show are as truly evil as the men. Commander Waterford is the worst and deserves to be viciously murdered by June and Serena Joy. But there can be no happy ending for Serena after all she’s done, or for Aunt Lydia. Maybe Serena can scrape together a redemption arc before she meets her fate, but she does not deserve a happy ending in the end. The show has to hold her accountable for all the grief she has wrought, and in turn, make a statement that being complicit in oppression makes you as guilty as those who actively oppress and commit violence against others.
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