The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, takes place in The Republic of Gilead where women have been stripped of their basic human rights and live under a regime of puritanical patriarchy. The series has received a huge amount of attention thanks to a cultural and political shift in the U.S. towards more conservative values in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, particularly when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. This has made the themes of male oppression and misogyny found in The Handmaid’s Tale even more relevant than anyone could have anticipated.
Perhaps more disturbing than the men’s mistreatment of the female characters is The Handmaid’s Tale portrayal of women, their relationships with one another, and the roles they play in maintaining this theocratic dictatorship by ensuring the continued subjugation of their own gender. There are parallels between how the women judge or treat each other living under this totalitarian regime and how women interact in contemporary society that are hard to ignore. The lack of solidarity is most prominently displayed in real life on reality television, a genre that has thrived on and contributed to women’s hostile and divisive behavior towards one another.
The Oppressed Become the Oppressors
Mainstream society in Gilead comprises several classes, and the women fall into them based on marriage, fertility, age, and domestic abilities. But these factions are further fractured from within as the women are expected to police each other’s behaviors, preventing them from uniting and possibly accumulating power. As fellow Handmaid Ofglen told Offred — who serves as the narrator — “They do that really well, make us distrust each other.”
The relationships are most contentious between the Wives, the spouses of high-ranking government officials, and the Handmaids, fertile women who have broken a social law, been stripped of their identities, and placed in the homes of “Commanders” to bear their children. One of the Wives refers to the Handmaids as “little whores,” and Handmaid Janine refers to her Commander’s wife as a “cunt.” It’s commonplace to hear women today throw out pejorative terms to marginalize each other: bitches, sluts, whores, skanks, tramps, and homewreckers, and the list goes on. How often do you hear men malign each other this way?
The shared experience of being considered property or treated as concubines or of having and losing children should promote empathy and bonding, but it has the opposite effect. In The Handmaid’s Tale, self-preservation trumps self-sacrifice for the greater good.
Guilty Pleasures or Cautionary Tales?
The Handmaids live under constant surveillance. They aren’t even able to shop alone, assigned a partner to travel with, but they aren’t companions, they’re spies.
Many women in our society choose to live under public scrutiny thanks to Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, and reality TV. Women are volunteering to expose themselves not only to praise and adoration but to ridicule by seeking out the spotlight, and the relative anonymity of social media allows us to criticize and judge women without accountability or repercussions. There are “Eyes” (Gilead’s secret police) everywhere.
We judge women for how they dress, what they look like, how they parent, if they parent, where they live, what they drive. Women who stay at home are criticized for lack of ambition while women who work face scrutiny for not being committed parents.
This fixation on how other women choose to live their lives is dangerous. It breeds jealousy, discontent, and resentment. We may not have reached the point of relying on the Old Testament to dictate acceptable social norms, but our personal belief systems do influence how we see the world around us.
We watch The Real Housewives because they have things we don’t, but we also watch because we can’t wait to see them tear each other down, much like the Aunts, Marthas (infertile women who work in a domestic capacity) and Wives belittle the Handmaids.
Bravo has built an entire network on programs that pit women against each other (Vanderpump Rules, Married to Medicine, nine Housewives installments.) But there are other offenders that tend to showcase women in an unflattering light perpetuating a cycle of distrust and disrespect: dating shows (The Bachelor, whose participants engage in slut shaming as adamantly as Aunt Lydia whose job it is to train the Handmaids), competition shows (Big Brother, Survivor) as well as Bad Girls Club, Basketball Wives, The Real World, and Jersey Shore.
It’s unlikely the cast members intend to set feminism back 40 years, and networks, viewers, sponsors, producers and everyone in the food chain is accountable — some of whom I have to assume are women. But when future generations of women look back, will The Real Housewives of New Jersey be our cautionary tale?
What do you think? Should women on reality TV be more supportive of each other? Do reality shows contribute to how women view and treat one another in contemporary society? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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(Image Courtesy of Hulu)