Is “The Handmaid’s Tale” Feminist?

Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale"

The Handmaid’s Tale is a portrayal of a dystopian society not distant enough from what is already happening in some corners of the world. Women have strict dress codes and must walk in pairs at all times. They are forbidden to read, write, and have no public voice. Of course, in the show, fertile women are forced to become handmaids and are routinely raped with the intent of them becoming surrogates for the masters and their wives.

The scenario the women on The Handmaid’s Tale are faced with is horrific and extreme. Their children are taken away from them and they are forced into a life where their choices are drastically limited. Margeret Atwood’s conception of Gilead is often studied as an illustration of the slippery slope of inequality – a study of where society could head if we don’t take the issue of women’s rights seriously enough.

Although Gilead can be read as an extreme feminist thought experiment, it is often hard to understand how a show which demonstrates such extreme violence against women can really be feminist. Too often in the series, we see women pitted against one another and brutalized for the sake of entertainment. Of course, we are meant to sympathize with the handmaids, but the rape and violence are so frequent that there comes a point where we must question whether what we are watching is torture porn disguised as a feminist cry for help.

And yet when we examine the show closer, we see the nuanced ways a light has been shone on the issues of gender and sexism. The show is less of a question of whether women’s rights are human rights and more a question of how we would react if we were put in a painful situation like the one portrayed. Deeper still, the show invites us to question how we are already participating in the patriarchy and whether we unknowingly shrug off gender inequality or worse, use it for our own personal gain.

Although the show may seem tackily provocative and shocking at times, its success is the way it forces us to question the role we play in society and whether we would be so careless as to let something like that happen. In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be hailed as one of the important feminist TV shows of the 21st century. And no, this is not just because it is about oppressed women. It’s because it recognizes that every viewer watching has a responsibility to stand up against the oppression of women too.