Everyone loves a hero, but we worship a good villain. Strong women come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, and sometimes that means looking up to a character who has no interest in being your role model. All this month, we're presenting Not Your Shero, a series that celebrates anti-heroes, villains, and all the women way too busy wreaking havoc to save you.
Villains are fascinating for a variety of reasons. Many times fans will leave a show or movie or book liking the villains more than the heroes. This is usually because they’re more charming, more fun to follow, or just get better lines. But often when we are drawn to a villain, a villain that we find downright abhorrent on a surface level and even as they can represent everything we stand against, we cannot help but leave with a little bit of empathy for them. Such is the case of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy.
I don’t like Serena Joy. I don’t think I’m supposed to like her. Yet despite the overwhelming truth of that, when all is said and done, Serena Joy emerged as the character I was most fascinated by in the show’s second season. Beyond the impotent revolutionary vibes of June, the zealotry and fury of Aunt Lydia, and the dead-eyed antipathy of Emily, there was no character that more drove home for me the way that Gilead claims all women in the end than Serena Joy, the collaborator who was the literal public face of its inception.
It’s easy to see the evils in the world through the characters most regularly oppressed by them. Emily’s struggles were visceral, both in the world she had built and the wasteland of the new one, but as a queer woman myself, it’s not a struggle for me to imagine a world that is stacked against me with such fury. The death of Eden was a more dramatic turn, an indication that even the seemingly most primed sheep of the flock would be led to the slaughter. But Serena Joy was a privileged woman in the pre-Gilead America, and she was one of the shepherds of the world we see now on the show. Yet even she cannot save herself from being literally broken by it, her own flesh claimed for the sin of using the very voice she’d used to help build that world.
As the audience, we know what Serena Joy doesn’t truly understand until the very end of the season: that her privilege and power has been gone for a very long time. It was stripped away piece by piece, the way freedom often is for collaborators. Serena Joy is able to remain blissfully unaware of what she’s helped bring to pass because she fixates all of her energy onto her developing obsession with motherhood.
Motherhood for Serena Joy isn’t based in simple sexist story tropes of all women wanting, at our core, to be mothers. In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, it isn’t as straightforward as that. One of the few bits of fiction that separates the flashback world from our own is that it’s a world where even before the rise of Gilead, motherhood became a scarcity, something belonging to only a few seemingly random members of the population. For Serena Joy, shot in the stomach by a violent protest, it goes even further. Motherhood was something taken away from her. A stolen piece of status.
This is where her true resentment of June lives. Not in the fact that June exists as a literal walking breathing sex object for Serena’s husband, but of the end result of what that entails. By becoming pregnant with “her” child, June simultaneously has the power to both deliver to Serena Joy that which she has fixated on, but also to take it away from her at any moment. It is this frustration that drives Serena Joy to commit the unforgivable act of compelling her husband to force himself on June in the unannounced Ceremony, an act of rape by proxy.
This moment, one of the most difficult to watch in a season full of difficult to watch moments, happens not because Serena Joy truly wants her baby to arrive faster, but because not long before it, June witnessed Serena Joy beaten by her husband for daring to believe she still has any power. She’s literally weaponizing the same misogyny used against her in an effort to feel like she has any control left. She’s lashing out at June because June seems to survive despite her defiance, where Serena Joy has been cast down despite her collaboration.
And then there’s that last moment we see of Serena Joy in the season, allowing June to take baby Nicole away. After seeing what happens to Eden and facing the physical consequences of her own attempt to confront it, Serena Joy realizes finally what the audience has known all along: Gilead is a lie. She lets June leave with Nicole because she knows there’s no future here where she’ll be safe. She lets June leave with Nicole because she finally understands that the baby was never really hers; she was a fantasy as fictional as the paradise world she was helping to build. She lets June leave with Nicole because she’s finally aware that she truly has nothing left. There is no woman from whom Gilead doesn’t take everything. Not even Serena Joy.