Friday, July 13, 2018

Huh. I See Myself in Serena Joy

I loved The Handmaid's Tale as I love most things Margaret Atwood -- I have my mass market, $5.99 copy, all brittle-spined with yellowed pages, from when I first read it in high school. When I saw the copyright of the first American edition of 1986, I thought I'd had a copy from when it first came out, but later realized that made zero sense as a) I was ten and no one would give this book to a ten year old, b) a copy from when it first came out would have been hardcover, and c) I noticed the additional date at the bottom: "Twenty-eighth printing: December 1991." Ah. That makes more sense. I was 15 in 1991. The same age as Eden.

I loved Season One because it both closely followed the book and delved deeper into the world Margaret Atwood created -- you got to see more of June's life in the days before, and what happened to her husband, Luke, and get answers to what happened to Moira. You got to see more of the other side, too -- the Gilead folks. Maybe even feel a little something for them. And it ended very similarly to the book, although Offred wasn't pregnant in the book.

So I was so fascinated as Season Two came out, because where could they go from here? The book was done, there was no more material there, it had to be all original, and really take us deep into the horrors of Gilead, into the minds of the people who created it, into what a handmaid's pregnancy looks like for all involved, what's going on in Canada for those who've escaped, and how brutal everything could be.


(okay, so now is where I warn you that there are some spoilers ahead, in case you haven't seen it, and also confess that I am still reeling from Episode 10, and haven't finished the season yet because I've been warned that it's pure emotional horror, but also REALLY GOOD TV, so I feel like I have to watch it even as it rips me apart on the inside)

Have you been sufficiently warned?

What I love about Season Two is that you get deeper into people like Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia, who are awful people, who do terrible things in the name of their belief, but who are not one-dimensional villains at all. They have backstories and struggles of their own.

It has been very uncomfortable to relate to Serena Joy. In part because she shows some level of humanity that makes you feel okay about starting to like her, and then she takes that away with, oh, I don't know, smacking a Martha so hard she falls or holding June down while her husband rapes her. Those things make her unlikable, obviously.

But there's these little moments where I was like, "oh shit, I feel for her."

- When she's setting up the nursery, a nursery for a baby that's not growing within her or biologically hers, and it's this connection to a tiny life that she hopes to raise.
- When she has her baby shower and it's kind of awkward but she has all the ooohing and ahhhing over little things but can't sit there rubbing her belly, and then says with increasing aggressiveness "LET THE LITTLE CHILDREN COME UNTO ME."  That was creepy, but also something I could understand, this strong desire for a baby and feeling of "it's so close, and if I just WILL it to happen it will..." That desperation and single-mindedness took me back. Not enough to oppress a country full of women to get what I wanted, but I could understand it.
- I don't condone smacking anybody, but her fury at when June talks about her own baby shower and reminds her of what she doesn't have, that I could understand. This sense of "ARE YOU KIDDING ME, here is this moment and you are bringing your own experience into it that I'll never have in the same way and RUINING it." It was a salt-rubbed-in-the-wound moment that's happened to me in different circumstances.
- When she's in her greenhouse, tending to her flowers and her plants, putting all her nurturing energy into them when she's feeling the conflicted feelings of waiting for someone else's pregnancy to bring her baby to her. I had tears in my eyes when she was stoically transplanting seedlings and pruning roses, because I've felt that way -- I can't nurture a life, but dammit I can make some flowers grow. (Of course that metaphor gets real icky with the whole "Nothing more than a flower to bee" piece that comes later.)

There's a flip side though -- I totally get that THE WAY she is accomplishing her family is completely awful, with reproductive slavery and the treating of Offred as a vessel for her baby more than an actual human, and being surprised when she is not grateful for little "kindnesses" like showing her the nursery, because this is a nursery for her baby that she is not even going to be allowed to stay with in the house after the birth, and she is nothing to these people but a walking uterus and placenta. That maybe June brings up her own shower because she thinks that they are having a moment of confiding, but maybe it's more that she wants to remind Serena Joy of all she's lost to be here as her vessel, that she had a life and a family before and this has stolen all that away from her.

But it is difficult to watch the Serena Joy story, and to see myself in the desperation to have a baby, the willingness to do (almost) whatever it takes to have that tiny human in your arms. It is difficult to realize that in this world, I'd be more a Commander's Wife than anyone else, unless I was an UnWoman and off in the colonies because I refused to play along with the insanity. Yeah, I'd probably be an UnWoman because I basically tithe to Planned Parenthood and I don't think I could be a Martha, complicit in all that went on in the house and powerless to do anything about it but free from being a Handmaid due to lack of working reproductive parts. But in terms of the infertility, that makes me feel for Serena Joy.


I do love the sedition, the brief feeling of hope that maybe she'll realize that she's made something that may have come from a deep faith and a (misguided) belief that the world could be better if the roles of men and women were more Biblical, but that has deeply disenfranchised her. That she wrote the laws that keep her from writing. That she does truly detest knitting. The visit to Canada was fascinating for that -- to see her smiling as she looked at people living ordinary lives, not scowling at their sin. To see her disdain flicker across her face for the pictorial schedule she's handed. I had so much hope that she'd go more in that direction instead of punishing Offred for her part in their brief friendship and colluding that resulted in her whipping by telling her she can't stay after the birth and then participating in her rape. I don't yet know how the last 3 episodes pan out, but I don't have high hopes. She seems to be like, "huh, well, I sort of screwed myself here, but I can't admit that I made a mistake, so I guess I'll just be all in, and REALLY be hideous in the name of my faith." I do hope that she sticks it to the Commander, and the teaser from Loribeth about Episode 11 gives me hope that maybe at least a little more subversiveness is forthcoming.

Something else in Season Two that was interesting was the juxtaposition of June's pregnancy and the flashbacks to Moira's time as a surrogate. I loved that, because it showed the difference -- one was consensual, an agreement that was made in good faith with a huge dollop of choice, and still painful -- even more painful than originally thought, but DEFINITELY not the same thing as Offred's situation. Which is reproductive slavery. Sanctioned rape. The treating of a woman as nothing but a vessel for another couple's baby, with no regard for her as a person. It made me think on people's thoughts on adoption, and those who were so mystified as to why a birth mother would get to choose the adoptive parents for her baby, as if she was nothing but a vessel for a child that should go to a more deserving couple, and her worth was nothing, just the baby.

Episode 10 was difficult, so difficult to watch, and I am dreading but also looking forward to finishing out the season (between today and tomorrow, I hope). I did not feel for Serena Joy at all in that episode. All my feels were for June. And the scene where she is on her knees in the snow, finally able to let her heart bleed out all over the place now that her child is driven away and she doesn't have to put a brave face on anymore... I sobbed until I had frog eyes. I sobbed for all the mothers who are separated from their children. I sobbed for my children who never got to be, but who I mourn for the futures they never had, for the alternate reality we may have played out had things gone differently. I sobbed for the pure loss that June hemorrhages into the icy winter air.

Bryce doesn't understand this, much like Not A Wasted Word's husband who called it "Misery Porn" (a term I absolutely love). He was like, "If it is triggering you, WHY are you watching it? Why are you choosing to sit on the couch all huddled up and crying?" He has zero interest in watching it, and wanted to know how many men watch it since "It seems to be all about pregnancy and childbirth and women being treated horribly" and he also said he doesn't ever choose actively to watch something that will trigger feelings of loss or trauma. So I do watch it all huddled up and crying and alone, usually when he's not home. I watch it because it's good. I watch it because it is thought-provoking. I watch it because I have a bit of a self-flagellating streak, probably.

I am nervous to finish out the season, but also so grateful that there's such good TV to watch, even as it makes me uncomfortable and angry and desperately sad. It is an incredible vehicle for empathy. And, as Roe v. Wade becomes increasingly fragile, a terrifying cautionary tale that a society like Gilead isn't so impossible to imagine becoming something closer to reality. 


  1. I haven’t watched The Handmaids Tale nor do I have any desire to. I’m pretty much of a mind with Bryce lol. Still, it’s an interesting question: when does the very natural and laudable desire for a child become a corrupt and ugly caricature of itself. All I know is that it is important for me to be honest with my children and I do not want to have to tell them a story I feel ashamed of. We all have to live with ourselves and nobody gets away with anything. Anyway, even if you identify at times with the antihero if the story I don’t believe your experience with infertility has corrupted or damaged you. I don’t think you could have moved in from it in the healthy way you have if it had.

  2. I stopped at your spoiler alert because I have to wait for Season 2 to be available at the library (could be awhile). I appreciate the alert!

    I'll come back to your post. From you title, I'm very intrigued (and I think I know where you're going with this).

  3. I've watched the whole thing, but I'll be careful with spoilers. I promise!

    I have to admit that I've only occasionally related to Serena, and I think that has to do with healing and menopause/hysterectomy. I'm so far removed from those emotions of possibility, of wanting a baby NOW - emotions I stopped letting myself have a long time ago - that I remember it, but it doesn't feel like me much anymore.

    My grief has been dealt with, but the sense of injustice in my current position has not. So mostly I am filled with anger at the way she has treated Offred/June, at the way women are valued or not only by their positions as dictated by their bodies, by biology, as mothers, breeders (the Handmaids), or slaves. It reminds me so often of the way women without children are treated, dismissed, trivialised, and some of that is where my anger comes from. It reminds me of when I got married when I was young, and I was asked when we would have children, not what I was going to do with my career. At all the assumptions because I had a uterus (a useless uterus, as it turned out), not because I had a brain, a personality, and my own wishes.

    But yes, it's must-watch TV. The last few episodes are fascinating. That's all I'll say!

  4. Have you finished the season?? I can't wait to see which Serena shows up for Season 3 -- the kind & sympathetic Serena or the bitch...!

  5. I waited to read and respond to your post until I finished the season (last night). While last season was SO well done, the last few episodes of this season were even tougher to stomach and watch (esp the rape scene). CP watches with me, but said that he may not continue after this season, so you can point to at least one male that has watched.

    Random thoughts:
    I absolutely feel for Serena Joy and her lack of an ability to have a kid, but I certainly wouldn't be okay with Gilead in order to get a kid through a Handmaid. I think that June was trying to throw the fact that she had a previous baby shower in SJ's face. I too sobbed when Hannah drove away as June is trying to put on a brave face, thinking THIS IS F*ING HAPPENING RIGHT NOW in our country.

    We were a little disappointed in the ending of the season (no spoilers), but I do look forward to season 3.