Women of Gilead: opressing and oppressed

A review of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2

(Originally published on Ethos Blog)

(Warning: Contains spoilers)

In 2017, I reviewed the first season of Hulu’s acclaimed television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In that review, I highlighted the series’ scathing critique of graceless, hypocritical forms of Christianity that tolerate abuse, countering claims by other Christian reviewers that it was wholesale ‘anti-Christian’.

As I write this second review, the Australian streaming of season 2 via SBS On Demand is six episodes in. June is pregnant to the Waterfords’ driver, Nick. She is also in Aunt Lydia’s bad books after leading a rebellion in season 1 against the stoning of fellow handmaid, Janine. By the end of the nail-biting first episode, June has temporarily escaped the clutches of the regime and has gone into hiding.

The subsequent episodes follow June’s journey toward complete freedom from Gilead, which is tragically thwarted at the very last minute. Returned forcibly to live with the Waterfords and have ‘their’ baby, she is presented with a familiar, terrifying ultimatum: protect their child, and they will protect hers.

Once again, June suffocates under the control of a resentful mistress, Serena Joy, and a self-righteous matriarch, Aunt Lydia. They micromanage her every move, worshiping the foetus inside of her. Weighed down by guilt and disappointment, June loses the will to fight, until the potential loss of both Nick and the baby jolts her out of inaction. ‘I will not let you grow up in this place’, she declares to her unborn child, ‘I’m going to get us out of here. I promise you’.

Patriarchy or matriarchy?

On the surface, Hulu’s Gilead could be described as a system of religiously motivated patriarchal oppression. In season 1, the heavy hand of male leadership is ever-present. The Commander looms large in the Waterford household, presiding over its religious ceremonies and doling out tastes of freedom to June in exchange for sexual favours. Powerful men monitor and punish detractors from the regime by day, and by night exploit disenfranchised women at illicit underground parties.

In season 2, however, the complicity of women in engineering and supporting this oppressive system is explored in greater depth. This season, Commander Waterford comes across as unusually passive and one-dimensional, while all the other male characters apart from Nick are blandly relegated to the background. Instead it is Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia who tower as the fearsome rulers of their domains, appearing, in many ways, to be the actual drivers of the handmaid agenda.

At first I thought the relative invisibility of the Commander and his comrades this season might be the product of substandard acting, but by the end of episode 6 I realised it was intentional. The message of season 2 is, to its credit, a lot more complex than a simple ‘F*** the patriarchy’. It poses challenging questions about the culpability of women of power in upholding oppressive belief systems, and seeks, I believe, to understand their triggers and motivations.

A battle of wills

Commander Waterford’s wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and overseer of the handmaids, Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), are both formidable women, determined to crush June’s feisty spirit in order to use her as a vessel for procreation. By episode 6, we have learned a little more of Serena Joy’s background and present insecurities, however little is disclosed of Aunt Lydia’s personal history.

While united in their agenda, Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia have very different personas and modes of operation. Serena Joy is hot-headed, taking out her own unhappiness on June in fits of rage. In season 2, Serena Joy’s insecurities are particularly laid bare. She is jealous, lonely and resentful, oscillating between harshness and tenderness in her dealings with June as she yearns for the experiences of motherhood and reminisces about the freedoms of the old world.

Aunt Lydia, on the other hand, is the picture of calm calculation. When instructing the handmaids, she is unrelentingly brutal. In the domestic and political spheres, however, she plays the role of a nurturing, deferential older woman. Dowd’s spectacular acting occasionally give us the impression of a soft interior, before summarily quashing any semblance of compassion. She is a true manipulator, and we are yet to witness any chinks in her armour.

June’s stubborn resistance, though, is a match for the two villainesses; Aunt Lydia observes to the Commander at one point that, while the handmaid-wife relationship is never an easy one, he is faced with two particularly strong-willed specimens.

Female figureheads

It is interesting to observe that Serena Joy’s and Aunt Lydia’s power over June go completely unchecked. The same is true in relation to Aunt Lydia’s absolute control over the other handmaids within her ‘care’. Neither woman is coached in, or censured for, their ruthless behaviour; they are subject only to their own (questionable) consciences and rigid doctrine.

These women are anything but blind sheep, parroting their movement’s leaders. They ARE their movement’s leaders. Aunt Lydia is the sole figurehead of the Red Center, omnipresent in the handmaids’ daily lives and even in the memories of the exiled ‘unwomen’. In episode 6, our knowledge from season 1 regarding Serena’s instrumental role in developing the Sons of Jacob dogma is developed further as we revisit her days as a radical activist pre-Gilead.

Their absolute power is continually contrasted against the relative powerlessness of the other classes of women that make up the Gilead hierarchy. Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia use their power for control and conformity. The handmaids, the unwomen, the Marthas and the econowives have very little, if any, power, but what power they do have they often use for the comfort and freedom of others, like the female rabbi among the unwomen who blesses the dead, and the kamikaze handmaid who bombs the new Rachel and Leah Center.

It is clear in season 2 that the Sons of Jacob is largely driven by the convictions and inventions of Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia. What is harder to understand is, why? It is difficult to believe that women could be responsible for developing and implementing such an inhumane environment for their own sex. Have they been brainwashed, maybe abused? Are they externalising their own self-hatred? Are they morally deficient human beings? Or are they simply passionate individuals who have misinterpreted the Scriptures? More clues may appear in the remaining episodes.

Insidious untruth

While these women’s motivations remain unclear, their means is abundantly clear: they are experts in religious abuse. They love to inflict physical and emotional wounds through deprivation, confinement, torture and manipulation, but their favourite weapon of all is the venom of guilt and self-hatred, delivered in the apparently innocuous language of Scripture and mainstream Christianity.

Aunt Lydia’s spontaneous homilies are particularly disturbing in the familiarity. When June returns to the Red Center after episode 1’s terrifying gallows scene, Aunt Lydia pontificates, ‘You are told the will of God and you say, ‘I know better’. There is more than one kind of freedom…In the days of anarchy it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. That is a gift from God.’ The words themselves could have been lifted from a sermon in any mainstream evangelical church, and yet their sinister application leaves a bitter aftertaste.

A later interaction between Aunt Lydia and June at ‘the wall’, in front of an executed friend, causes the weakened June to plummet into a pit of self-hatred and despair. Lydia’s discourses on sin, while coated in language that is eerily recognisable to mainstream Christians, betray an ungodly desire for control, while Serena’s more practiced theological pronouncements are blatant misinterpretations of Scripture, crafted to fit her own joyless worldview, and repeated lifelessly by her disciples.

Frogs in boiling water?

‘Women are so adaptable’, June quotes her mother as saying in episode 3, ‘It’s truly amazing what we can get used to.’ The handmaids and unwomen may well be beaten into submission, eventually losing their will to fight. But what interests me most about this statement is its application to the privileged women of Gilead. How do the wives sleep at night? Like white Southern Christians in the height of slavery, they are surrounded by injustice, and yet are blind to it.

Not only are they complicit in inflicting harm on other women, but the oppressive, fertility-obsessed hierarchy that they have created has taken them captive, too. Serena-Joy may be powerful, but she is certainly not content. Her sense of self-worth is so wrapped up in her ability to mother a child that it is eating her up on the inside, and the rigid gender roles she and her husband championed have driven them apart. Does she regret it all? Sometimes it appears that way.

Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale poses challenging questions to women of faith. Do we impose oppressive expectations on our sisters, on ourselves? Do we turn a blind eye to injustice in our own midst, using religious language to force conformity? Are we caught up in any unbiblical practices that cause more harm than good to our own sex? Rather than condemn religion itself, or even male-dominated systems, this series highlights the power that women of faith have to influence their environment. It encourages us to use that power for good, like the rabbi who blesses the unwomen, and not for harm, like the hard-hearted Gilead matriarchs.

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