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The Handmaid's Tale and why we love shows that are hard to watch

Contributed by
Jul 23, 2018

The Hulu drama series The Handmaid’s Tale wrapped up its second season on July 11. The very next day it received 20 Emmy nominations including Drama Series and Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The show has been called powerful, emotional, affecting, and empowering. It’s also been called difficult-to-watch misery porn. 

Fans of the series have had endless discussions that begin with someone saying, "I don't know how you watch that. It's too awful." It is true that the Handmaids, Marthas and Econowives, and even the Wives, deal with torture, rape, oppression and endless misery. The thing is, it’s not just about watching someone else suffer. There are a number of reasons we watch things that make us uncomfortable.

Spoilers for the Season 2 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale below.

Dr. Janina Scarlet, clinical psychologist and author of Superhero Therapy explains, “For many of us it’s hard to verbalize how we are feeling, whether it is about a trauma or in struggling with mental health. In seeing someone else going through a similar experience, having similar feelings or struggles, although painful, can make it easier for us to understand how we feel and explain our experiences to others. Seeing how TV characters struggle can educate us about what we are going through and seeing how they recover can bring a sense of hope and teach us how to heal ourselves.” 

Here’s an example. For those of us for whom the #MeToo movement really means me, too, it’s sometimes hard to express what incidents throughout our lives have done to us. To someone who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault, and verbal abuse, it might seem like we should just brush it off and move on, much like our forbearers had to. (You’ve probably heard people tell you that it’s no big deal, and to just let it go.) The rage you feel, and the way it affects you can often be far more powerful than what the event seems to be from the outside. 

So, you see Offred…forgive me. I’m calling her June. You see June suffer institutionalized rape during the Ceremony. It’s powerful and it's awful. It’s part of a system that lets men get away with this and makes women comply, even if they’re not the ones being forced. No, the sexual assault you experienced might not have been part of a government program, but there are certainly institutions that are allowing this to go on and stay quiet. Our rage is often equal June’s, despite the difference in circumstances. Seeing someone deal with the same level of pain that you are feeling can be cathartic. Yes, that is often what it feels like to people who have been through it. 

That’s not the only part of it, however. In The Handmaid’s Tale, there are small (and sometimes large) acts of rebellion that give us hope. Even in a society that has turned women into slaves in every way possible, there are little moments of light. If you can see even this society breed fighters and powerful women, then you can be powerful, too. We can see ourselves as survivors. June slaps Fred for what he says about Holly when she asks him what he’s going to do when they come for his daughter. She could be killed for her disobedience, but she does it anyway. A Handmaid before June carved a note of encouragement in the wall. The Handmaids plot together and take comfort from each other where they can. There is a Martha network. There is Mayday. No matter how dark things get, someone will always, always fight back. That means you can fight back, too. It feels good to see this. It reminds us that we have power, and even a little thing like telling one person about your abuse, or warning one other woman through the “whisper network” about a boss that is grabby can change someone’s life. Sci-fi and fantasy often allow us to shine a light on things that are hard to speak about in everyday conversation, and The Handmaid's Tale certainly does that. 

Sometimes in shows like this, there are moments that speak directly to you. As a journalist who has often written about controversial subjects, myself and others like me have been told, “Why don’t you just get a safer job?” We’ve heard things like, “It’s just some guy in a basement,” when we speak about getting death threats online. We’re told that nothing will ever happen. Well, it’s happening all over the world. Journalists are being harassed, fired and killed for speaking out, and seeing the wall at the Boston Globe where journalists were executed, and June’s tribute to them, was powerful. For some of us, that was our personal moment. For others, it’s Serena stepping up and gathering the Wives to try to give their daughters a chance to read. Maybe for you, Emily’s decision to get revenge on Aunt Lydia was the moment that landed. 

For those of us who have been through trauma, sometimes, even if there isn’t a “justice” moment, seeing someone else go through what we have reminds us that we’re not alone. There are others out there, and if we just reach out to them, we can support each other. We also see people regretting what they haven’t done. Think of Rita’s words after Eden is killed for merely falling in love and taking her life into her own hands; “I should have tried to help her.” Or Serena’s clear regret after losing a finger, that she didn’t leave when she had the chance, and her knowledge that she can’t allow her little girl to be raised in a country where women are treated like this. (It should be lost on no one that there are places in the world where women aren’t allowed to be educated, or drive, or own property, or their own bodies.) Seeing regret over inaction in others can spur us to take action ourselves. 

Shows that are difficult to watch give us the ability to express what we’re feeling. We can describe our assault or harassment, and explain that it felt like what June is going through, instead of feeling like we’re speaking another language when we talk about it. We can find inspiration in the moments when characters transcend their circumstances. We can avoid regret by seeing inaction’s effects on someone else. Shows that are difficult to watch make it easier for us to fight back.