In the Handmaid’s Tale Season Finale, Why Are Children More Valuable Than Grown Women?
**Spoilers for the season 3 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale.**
Full disclosure: I was totally crying during the season 3 finale of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, when Moira boarded the airplane and Kiki/Rebecca asked if this was the place where she could wear whatever she wanted, and then the kid deplaned and ran into her father’s embrace. I’m here to be emotionally manipulated. However, capping off the season with the heroic rescue of the “children of Gilead” was problematic in just … so many ways—most importantly, the notion that the children should be rescued (and others left behind) reasserts Gilead’s fundamental premise: children are more valuable than other people, and especially women-people.
First, I’d like to point out that taking a bunch of kids away from the only parents they’ve ever known/the families that they’ve lived with for the past several years is, itself, cruel—even if those parents practice a perverse version of Christianity that disallows female autonomy. That none of the children seem upset or confused—that none cry out for their parents or home—is not only improbable, but also, in this age of “family separation” policies, feels almost willfully obtuse, detracting from the show’s emotional complexity and impact. If the writers wanted to pursue this storyline, it might have been interesting to see June grappling with the fact that her plan, though a “moral” rescue in the big-picture sense, might more immediately cause pain as well as potentially contribute to long-term emotional and attachment issues for these children.
Most importantly, however, this crusade de-centers the women who are Gilead’s most oppressed victims. As Lawrence points out in the episode, the little girl, Kiki, for example, is a commander’s daughter. While it would obviously suck for her to grow up in Gilead, she is relatively “protected” (his word). It would have been much more heroic—as well as practical—to facilitate the escape of a hundred Handmaids—you know, those individuals who are routinely subject to institutional rape. And practically speaking, it would have been a better strategy. If you get enough Handmaids out of Gilead, you’ll have less children to rescue later.
That the writers instead chose to highlight June and her fellow Marthas and Handmaids making the ultimate sacrifice—putting their own lives in peril to secure the children’s safe passage—not only felt cliché, but also naturalizes the thinking that the children’s lives and wellbeing are, in fact, more important than their mothers’ (or other women’s) in a disappointing capitulation to Gileadian logic. While, of course, children are often the most vulnerable members of our communities, this simply isn’t the case in Gilead.
For that reason, it’s particularly troubling to see this show, which often dramatizes the ways in which religious and political rhetoric can be deployed to rationalize women’s disempowerment, celebrating maternal self-effacement. The privileging of children’s lives as inherently more valuable than adult women’s lives feels unnervingly close to the thinking that fetal or embryonic life is of equal to, or even more valuable than, maternal life.
However, because children in Gilead exist primarily as cherished accessories for the rich and powerful, stealing them will certainly hit Gilead where it hurts, and in this way, June’s orchestration of a great escape demonstrates her deep understanding of the system that oppresses her. That the Handmaids, led by June, will use the logic of Gilead against itself is also suggested in the blessings and prayers peppered throughout the escape scene: June’s parting words to Lawrence are “may God bring you peace, Joseph.” Rita asks that “He in His mercy” protect June, and most strikingly, June’s final words, in a voiceover as she is carried away by other Handmaids, are taken from Exodus:
“And the Lord said, I have seen my people in bondage and I have heard their cry. I know their sorrows and I am come to deliver them from the hand of evil men and to lead my people out of that sorrowful place.”
June’s use of the Bible suggests that the Handmaids will take back not only their children, but the religion that has been twisted into a rationalization for their subjugation. While I tend to agree with Audre Lorde’s famous declaration about the master’s tools, The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian fantasy, so I guess anything is possible—even Gilead’s implosion. And it sure would be fun to watch.
Sara Hosey is the author of Home is Where the Hurt Is: Media Depictions of Wives and Mothers, forthcoming from McFarland in Fall 2019, and a feminist young adult novel, forthcoming from Blackstone Publishing in March 2020. She is a professor of English and Women and Gender Studies at Nassau Community College.
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