Hulu’s television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has gained general acclaim as a feminist manifesto for our times. But critic and novelist Francine Prose isn’t buying it.
Writing in The New York Review of Books last week, Prose wrote that the show, which explores a fictionalized future United States in which women are violently oppressed under a patriarchal theocracy, might be “neither a useful warning about the patriarchy’s hostile plan for women, nor a proactive attempt to thwart those dark intentions.”
“Gradually, it occurred to me that I was instead watching a seven-hour-long orgy of violence against women ¬— promoted and marketed as high-minded, politically astute popular entertainment,” she continued.
In a sea of appreciative takes — The New York Times’s James Poniewozik called the show “unflinching, vital and scary as hell,” and The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson wrote that it “is, at its core, a warning, about how oppression can creep up on you, and what happens when women’s lives are no longer their own” — Prose’s critique stood out. The Forward spoke with her over the phone. Read excerpts of that conversation below.
Talya Zax: You mention the book “The Handmaid’s Tale” a few times in your essay, but your critique seems to be largely directed at the television show. Do you think the two come across differently in a feminist analysis? How?
Francine Prose: Well, I re-read the book just before I wrote the piece and before I saw the series. For one thing, the series has a great deal more dramatized — and it seemed to me exploitative violence — than the book does. The lives that the women are leading in the book are of course violent and oppressed, but watching the aftermath of a woman getting her eye gouged out is different than reading about it. The fact that the Commander and Serena Joy were made younger and more attractive in the series than in the novel is something else. Again, there’s some slightly more exploitative aspect to watching Offred get raped by a movie star than by an old man.
Do you think there’s a way to tell a story with the same framework as “The Handmaid’s Tale” that would be, to your understanding, feminist?
What would have made me feel better about the whole situation is if the show runners or Hulu said “We’re so concerned about these issues that we’re going to donate a certain amount of the profit from the series to, let’s say, Planned Parenthood to help offset the very sorts of threats that we’re dramatizing in the series.” Again, the book doesn’t seem exploitative to me, whereas the series does seem as if it’s commodifying female suffering and selling it back to us in a way that the book doesn’t.
In your essay, you explore how the intense commercialization of Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” affects the ways in which the violence against women it depicts come across. Can you tell me more about how you understand the antipathy between commercialization and feminism, especially in context of this show?
It’s as if someone were selling pink pussy hats for exorbitant amounts of money: You take a statement which is a political statement and you see how much profit can be made.
One of the things that was cut from the piece because it made the argument too confusing was the reluctance of the show runners and the producers and some of the cast to say that the series was a feminist work. They kept saying “it’s not a feminist story, it’s a human story.” It’s certainly been [popularly] taken up as a feminist story, and it seemed like the only reason for doing that that I could see was that feminism is a big buzzkill, and if the wrong people thought it was a feminist story they might be less inclined to watch it.
Hulu has announced that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been renewed for a second season, and it’s been reported that Elizabeth Moss has signed a five-to-seven year contract for the series. Without knowing where the plot will go, does that drawing-out of the profit impact your thoughts on all this?
Hulu sent me a link and I watched the whole season; by the end of the first season it already ventures beyond the scope of the novel, let’s say, and you can watch it setting things up in the hope of future seasons. This seems to be perfectly fine with Margaret Atwood. When writers have their novels adapted for TV or films, it’s almost understood that you’ll sign off on the original conception: Where you thought the story ended is not going to be the same as where the producers think it will end. That is not the problem for me. If this were being used to raise money for feminist causes, it could go on for 1,000 seasons, it would be fine.
Have you ever met Margaret Atwood? Would you ever bring concerns like this to her?
I should say that the couple of times I’ve met her she’s been very nice, but I would not. For one thing, the thing about cinematic dramatization of any sort, they’ve ruined Tolstoy, and they’ve ruined Dostoevsky, so I can’t imagine saying to Margaret Atwood “I think they’re ruining your book,” especially as she seems to have had a hand in helping to produce it. That is completely her business.
Can you point to some books, movies, TV series, etc. that, for you, are better narratives for the current moment in feminism – and the current moment in misogyny? What makes them stand out for you?
In a way, part of the problem for me about the series was that it’s so much about victim culture, which I think is a big problem with contemporary feminism and ways of thinking about womanhood and female experience.
It’s not as if women aren’t abused, raped and murdered by their domestic partners all the time, but I think that to have that be the main narrative we hear about female experience is an injustice to women. You can still look at Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” a hundred years on and say “yes, that still relates to women’s experience today.” That would be something. It’s not contemporary, but it certainly doesn’t lose its relevance.
I was intrigued by your point that the feminism of “The Handmaid’s Tale” might be compromised by the fact that the book and series point readers and viewers to empathize most deeply with the most traditionally maternal characters. Can you tell me more about your thoughts on that?
It’s certainly there in the novel. Offred does have a child who’s been taken away and that’s part of what humanizes her. But you don’t see the Commander’s wives being these nightmarish sterile women the way they are in the series.
One thing I kind of forgot to say is that pretty much the only time you see older women in the series is working as these punitive prison guard aunts, who are tasering and cattle-prodding younger women. We can assume, I guess, that in Gilead they just killed all the older women because they’re not good for anything aside from tasering younger women. If feminism is valorizing motherhood and dispensing with older women, etcetera, etcetera, that doesn’t seem like feminism to me.
What counterpoints did you imagine critics might make to your arguments? How did that impact the way you crafted them?
Well, they could say “it’s TV, what do you expect?” But one of the points that I made in the article, which is partly what bothered me is I watch a lot of TV, and it’s very hard to watch a lot of TV without seeing a lot of violent TV. It’s not the violence per se, but it’s the way in which violence is — as I said — being sold to me as having an improving political message. No one would say to me that “Fargo” is about how hard people’s lives are in Minnesota, or, I don’t know what they would say “The Sopranos” is about — the need for psychotherapy — but I think we need to be clear about what’s entertainment and what’s entertainment being given a political message that for me it doesn’t have.
The other thing that can be said is there’s no doubt about the fact that there are plenty of men out there who hate women. Mitch McConnell is at the head of the list. I think you’d have to be naïve to think that these people don’t think that women aren’t their inferiors. But do I think that we’re living in Gilead? I don’t. I don’t think it’s happened yet. I keep catching on the wind people saying this is what it’s like, this is everyday sexism or misogyny. Well, it’s not. It’s dystopian. I walk out in the street, it’s not actually what I see. And even if I looked into the secret darkest hearts of the men I know, it’s not what I’m seeing.