'The Handmaid's Tale', Episode 5: Let's Talk About Sex And Consent
Gilead isn’t just oppressive. It’s a great big bloody lie.
Spoilers for episode 5 will follow! Turn back now if you haven’t seen it already. We’ll wait for you.
One of the questions I ask my students about the novel is this: is anyone happy in Gilead? We’d expect lots of people to resent it, sure, but even those who are supposed to be powerful are shown to rebel in their own way. They feel the oppression of it too. They might just rebel for selfish reasons (Serena), or pathetic ones (I’m judging the Commander HARD this week). Some, like Emily’s new ‘owners’, might even show compassion. Do the nice ones make it better or worse, though? You know where you are with an ice-queen like Serena. A kindly oppressor is harder to hate, and harder to fight.
I was mad at the Commander last week, but I’m totally livid with him this week. There is so much here to berate him for. The creepy stare during the Ceremony. (Impersonal is still awful but infinitely preferable, Fred.) The patronising waving of the magazines. The way he sneered at the choices women used to have. The way he appropriated feminist critique of women’s magazines to justify his regime’s oppression of women. The discussion of biological destinies. The way he thinks he’s naughty when literally everyone in his household is more of a rebel than he is. But mostly, it was his attitude to Emily’s mutilation that made me want to leap through the screen and punch him in the balls, shrieking “how does your biological destiny like that, huh?” Decent villains don’t know they are villains, as I said last week, but the sanctimonious, self-important way he talked about how merciful and compassionate the regime is for taking care of Emily’s ‘small problem’ and helping her, saving her, made me call him all sorts of offensive (but imaginative) names in my notes. The Commander’s attitude is rooted in real-world practices like conversion therapy, and I think Offred spoke for us all when she ran to to the kitchen and threw up.
Sex and physical desire were the primary themes in episode 5, and my first thought was that there was a lot of sex this week. But I changed my mind - there was some sex, but there was at least the same amount of rape. In the infamous chapter on the Ceremony in the novel, the narrator debates the best word to use for what is taking place, and decides it isn’t rape, because she has volunteered. I disagree. She isn’t really given a choice; she is given a threat. ‘Comply or die’ isn’t really a choice. It is the illusion of agency and nothing more. Making her feel like she has chosen this path is a manipulation by the regime, to make her feel complicit. If she isn’t freely making a choice, then it can only be rape. There isn’t a middle ground.
The difference between consensual sex and rape played out with a very straightforward bit of sound editing. When there is desire and consent, there is music. Where she is obligated to have sex, or ‘consents under duress’, there is awkward silence. It’s not subtle, but it makes the point. It’s also clear that she is June when she desires and consents to sex, and Offred when she is obligated. The shedding of the uniform when she meets Nick for the second time underlines this. Furthermore, she is an active partner when she consents; she is passive when she does not. There’s some fairly obvious symbolism with sexual positions, but again, it anchors the message.
When Nick apologises for their first ‘encounter’, he says that he had no choice; even though he verbally agreed, he too was under duress, so this was mutually non-consensual, and it made the consent debate even more interesting. Neither consented really, but do we view their relative positions as equally non-consensual? There is a lot of discussion of female consent, but far less of male consent. There seems to be a cultural assumption of male consent, and I liked the fact that the show touched on this. Taking it further, to what extent do the Commanders consent to their role in the Ceremony? In Fred’s case, as one of the Gileadan big-wigs, one would expect him to be in favour, but is that another problematic assumption of male consent? The difference between male and female consent in Gilead however, is that if men are generally unhappy with the way things are, they have some political recourse when it comes to making changes. This is denied to all of the women. It is denied to some of the men too, granted. But not all.
Serena asked Nick before she asked Offred. As he had already ‘agreed’, Offred’s consent was presumed. Being asked about it was just a token formality. Serena is playing a very dangerous game; I described her motives as selfish above, but perhaps that is also harsh. Infertility can be crushing; does Serena actually want a child because she wants to nurture and raise a human being? Or is it just because healthy babies have become the ultimate status symbol? Or does she just want to have a purpose in this bleak and horrible world? Perhaps there is just cold pragmatism at work here: a baby conceived via Nick would be straightforward solution that ‘benefits’ everyone. I’m still undecided on this particular version of Serena. She is still icy and cold, but plotting with Offred is disrupting some of the alliances that had already been established. Suddenly, Offred’s relationship with the Commander is the least rebellious thing that is happening, and Scrabble, even 34 games of Scrabble, looks increasingly lame. Side-note: I am sure Literature students rejoiced when they saw Serena finally interacting with some flowers. Hooray for symbolism, eh?
The episode was titled ‘Faithful’ and Offred developed this debate about consent further when she noted that the Ceremony didn’t feel like cheating on Luke, but sleeping with Nick did. Part of this might be related to the way that the Ceremony has become ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’, just as Aunt Lydia promised/threatened, and as having sex with Nick (consensual or otherwise) is a violation of Gileadan rules, she finds it more wrong than the Ceremony. But part of it is related to personal desire, and the difference between the sex she is culturally obligated to have versus the sex she chooses for herself. What makes this even more complicated is the way that even the first ‘meeting’ with Nick felt like cheating.
It was such a relief to see Emily again, but she looked so broken it was really hard to watch. At least her new house has a cute dog. And the Wife seems supportive, but as I noted above, does that make things better or worse? She is cut off from Mayday now, too dangerous to be associated with them. I loved her brief but glorious grand theft auto moment, but driving round in circles, while a fitting metaphor for her inescapable position, doesn’t really help. That was a pretty grotesque blood splatter though. As she was dragged away, I wanted to hide under the blanket again. What on earth are they going to do to her now? Perhaps they will give her some of Moira’s storyline from the books, or have Emily’s story converge with Moira’s.
It was also a relief to see a more confident Offred. Whether she is eyeing up the shears or scolding the Commander for the creepy stare, this Offred is stronger than the one we saw half broken on the floor last week. She makes an interesting contrast to Ofglen #2, who feels that she is treated better in Gilead than before. She practically gives Offred a ‘check your privilege’ talk. This, like the Commander’s dismissal of choices, was very much in the style of Aunt Lydia’s famous ‘freedom to and freedom from’ speech. Gilead offers ‘freedom from’ drugs and abuse for the new Ofglen, and she seems to view this as worth the sacrifice of the ‘freedom to’ do whatever she wants. She didn’t feel she had real choices before, so doesn’t feel the difference as much as Offred. This is an interesting addition to the text, and a painful one. It was a reminder that class and status divisions are perhaps harder to talk about than those pertaining to gender.
A few more questions for us to ponder in the comments:
What do you make of June and Luke’s relationship?
Did you believe Nick when he said he was an Eye? He delivered the line as if it were a joke… (It’s true in the book, but in a somewhat ambiguous way.)
Did you all have that ‘wait, she’s going to watch?!’ moment with Serena, Nick and Offred?
If you could either punch the Commander in the balls or stab Serena with the shears, which one would you choose?
I honestly don’t know how they can make more seasons out of this, unless they are following lots of different handmaids and weaving their stories together. I also don’t know if I can cope with all the misery. Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the show, but it’s not an easy one to watch. Any suggestions for warm, fuzzy, happy shows to cleanse the palate would be gratefully received!
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