‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Has a Toxic Shipping Problem
Shippers gonna ship.
***CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses the plot of season 4, episode 7 “Home”.***
Few television series are as brutal and dark as Hulu’s award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale. The flagship series, based on the classic novel by Margaret Atwood, has never shied away from the violence (sexual and otherwise) and inhumanity of life in Gilead’s fanatical and authoritarian regime. And according to many critics, perhaps it should have. The series has often been criticized for its excessive brutality, which often veers into exploitative torture porn territory.
But many viewers focus less on the series as a social and political allegory. For them, the highlight of the series, and the reason they keep watching, is that they ship the characters June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) and Nick Blaine (Max Minghella). The ship, known to fans as Osblaine (which is a little to close to OfBlaine), began when Serena Joy forced her driver Nick and reluctant handmaid June to have sex in order to get pregnant. That encounter quickly led to a consensual affair between the two, which culminated in the birth of their daughter Nichole. Over the course of four seasons, June has gone from rebellious handmaid to revolutionary folk hero to refugee seeking asylum in Canada. Nick has gone from driver/Guardian to undercover spy for the Eyes to Commander of the Gilead military in Chicago.
Now that June is safe in Canada, she has reunited with her estranged husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and baby Nichole. June has been a prisoner of Gilead for 7 years, subject to countless sexual assaults, beatings, and torture. It’s a near-decade of trauma, the results of which are exploding out of June as she directs her rage outward towards the ones she loves.
Osblaine viewers have been quick to point out that June and Luke no longer belong together. And they’re probably right: June is a wholly different person now, and given what she’s done to Luke in last week’s episode, they’re better off apart.
Nick understands June’s plight better than most, having witnessed her suffering firsthand. But let’s not forget that Nick, for all his attempts at saving, hiding, and defending June, is still an active member of Gilead. As a commander, he is executing Gilead law and leading the charge to slaughter the remaining rebelling Americans in war zones like Chicago. And as a commander, he is upholding Gilead’s use of rape and forced pregnancy to repopulate the planet. He is a willing soldier for everything Gilead stands for, but shippers would rather focus on his brooding good looks and chemistry with June than on the ethics of shipping a man who is an insurrectionist and a terrorist.
Of course, problematic shipping is nothing new, and can range from Draco/Hermione to Joker/Harley Quinn to Rey/Kylo Ren. But few of these ships have such an immediate corollary to current events. There is also a racial element to the Nick/June/Luke triangle at play. Both Fagbenle and Minghella come from multiracial backgrounds, but Minghella passes for white. And for a show that largely ignores racism, we can’t say the same about its audience.
America is still recovering from the violent insurrection at the Capitol that took place on January 6, where fanatical right wing conspiracy theorists radicalized by QAnon and Donald Trump tried to take over the U.S. government to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s election win. Republicans just filibustered the bill for an independent investigation, paving the way for future insurrections. And in the wake of losing the 2020 election, they are systematically stripping away voting rights and installing election officials friendly to their cause.
In light of the very real radicalization of the republican party, the spate of anti-abortion laws across the country, and a full-on attack on election integrity, these women continue to ship Osblaine and swoon over this star-crossed romance. But let’s not forget that Nick is part of a group that subjugates, rapes and dehumanizes women. And as bad as he may feel over his actions, he’s not doing anything to tear down Gilead from the inside. Nick may be painted as a sensitive sad boy, but he has repeatedly shown that he only cares about June and June only. Everyone else can suffer.
Perhaps fans are clinging to this ship because it offers a reprieve from the show’s pervasive darkness. June and Nick’s romance is one of the few bright spots in the oppressively traumatic show, so I don’t begrudge them for taking joy where they can find it. But let’s not act like Nick is some sort of silent hero. He is an architect of not only June’s pain, but of the pain endured by countless victims of Gilead. Maybe we could stop celebrating him as some sort of Byronic hero and call him what he really is.
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