The Handmaid’s Tale
“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”: Media in a Time of Crisis
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This keynote was delivered at the the 2019 Literature/Film Association Conference, held in the beautiful city of Portland, Oregon. I am grateful to the Board of the Literature/Film Association and its membership for the opportunity to deliver these remarks.
As I sat down to write this keynote over the summer, I found it difficult to concentrate. When I wanted to immerse myself into the work of researching the state of the field or drafting some ideas, I instead found myself scrolling through Twitter, looking to see what new horrors were unleashing themselves around the world. Is it extreme weather destroying a small coastal village in Alaska, another mass shooting in someone’s hometown, the immolation of the Amazon forests, another hurricane, or perhaps America’s ongoing human rights violations at the Southern border? It’s all of those things, and much, much more, all the time, every day. There is no day when things seem better, or when there doesn’t seem to be a crisis. Of course, the world has always been this bad, it’s just that more of us—people like me, who haven’t ever really found ourselves at the mercy of bad actors—are finally starting to take notice. To notice is to be distracted. To notice is to feel angry. I feel angry every day, all day long. And I know I’m not alone. These are angry times.
So what do we do with our anger in 2019? When is it productive to allow yourself to be distracted by the world, that is, to be fully and completely angry, and when is that anger just so much screaming into the void? More important to the goals and purposes of the people sitting in this room right now: how might the very field in which we all work provide a pragmatic conduit for our righteous anger? Is it possible that the texts which are so often reviled for their seeming lack of creativity—texts that are reused, recycled, rebooted, and adapted across platforms—could it be that these are texts most suited to times of crisis? In other words, at what point does our anger with the world, our expertise in literary and media studies, and our desire to do something, anything, converge?
Today I want to offer one possible point of convergence: the spring 2019 issue of Feminist Media Studies. This issue builds on the work of contemporary feminist scholars and writers like Sarah Ahmed, Rebecca Traister, and Brittney Cooper and their analysis of the revolutionary power of anger. Issue editor Jilly Kay Boyce’s introduction opens by recognizing that “Women’s anger has for so long been cast as unreasonable, hysterical, as the opposite of reason and that this anger is inextricable from feminism. This is why the anger of women has, for so long, made so many people uncomfortable. Today, Rosalind Gill argues, later in the same issue, feminism has “a new luminosity in popular culture.” But, she cautions, the visibilities of these feminisms remain uneven. For example, as Brittney Cooper explains, black and brown women have historically been policed by respectability politics and culturally determined norms of propriety, as well as the need to manage the self according to the limited standards ascribed to their bodies. “Rage and respectability,” Cooper notes, “cannot coexist.” Black feminists are asked to deny their own rage if they wish to be taken seriously, nevertheless Cooper argues in favor of the “eloquence” of rage.
Jilly Kay Boyce and Sarah Banet-Weiser further build on these ideas in their essay, “Feminist anger and feminist respair.” “Respair,” is a 15th century word meaning “a recovery from despair.” Boyce and Banet-Weiser advocate for the value of respair because it acknowledges the tangled relationship between hope and despair. It is “a hope that comes out of brokenness,” an optimism necessary to channel our outrage. We’re angry because we expect more from the world, and we expect more from the world because we still retain the hope that it can be made better. Another way to think of respair is what science and technology scholar Donna Haraway refers to as “staying with the trouble.” She is worth quoting at length:
Alone, in our separate kinds of expertise and experience, we know both too much and too little, and so we succumb to despair or to hope, and neither is a sensible attitude. Neither despair nor hope is tuned to the senses, to mindful matter, to material semiotics, to mortal earthlings in thick copresence.
In my remarks today I want to further explore this ideas of anger, respair, and “staying with the trouble” as they relate to the central to the theme of this conference: Reboot, Repurpose, Recycle. I believe the act of repetition and repurposing in the media, in the form of sequels, remakes, and cycles, is one way that we, as consumers and scholars, can stay with the trouble. When we return to the same story, told over and over and over, across time and across media platforms, and when that story feels timely (and it often does), we are choosing to stay with the trouble articulated in this repeated story, and the anger it generates. I think the anger we’re all feeling right now in this moment is, indeed, a productive affect– it just needs to take a form people can recognize.
The Handmaid and Feminist Respair
To that end, I want to explore how this moment of shared anger can be usefully embodied, not by new stories and new ideas, but by texts that already exist in the cultural imagination, texts which are instantly recognizable in their semantics, but hauntingly resonant in their syntax, and ultimately, I believe, politically productive in their pragmatics. Multiplicities can supply the form in which our collective anger can take root and be shared and collectively understood. My case study for this particular exploration is a television series, itself an adaptation of a 1985 novel, which was also made into a 1990 movie, that has become a locus of respair since it premiered in 2017: The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale describes a dystopian future in which birth rates have plummeted and the land, air, and water is literally toxic. In response to these apocalyptic developments, a totalitarian, Christian theocracy seizes control of the United States, renaming it “Gilead,” after the holy city. Among the many heinous policies instituted by the government of Gilead, the worst is its enforced classification of women into categories: as wives (who are docile and obedient), as Marthas (who do all the cooking and housework in homes), as Aunts (asexual school marms, only with rape) and as Handmaids (fertile women who are raped under the auspices of God’s will and the greater good). Handmaids are forcibly removed from their homes and families, are stripped of their children, and expected to be obedient receptacles of the seed of the wealthy men who run the government.
Although America in 2019 is no Gilead (yet), the image of the handmaid has, over the last few years, become a symbol of protest, of women being visibly angry in public. As Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill argue in the aforementioned issue of Feminist Media Studies, “Against the consistent containment, policing, muting and outlawing of the expression of women’s anger in media and culture, the current moment, specifically in the wake of the #MeToo movement, seems to represent a radical break.” Thus, the handmaid costume is most frequently used to call attention to reproductive justice and attempts to limit it, but it has also been deployed to protest sexual assault, or really any moment when a woman (however she may define herself) feels like she is not sovereign over her own body. In recent years, protestors have donned the iconic handmaid’s costume to protest gender-based inequality in the United States, Argentina, United Kingdom, and Ireland. The Mary Sue called the costume “a symbol of protest” while The Guardian described it as a, “potent medium for dissent.”
But before red robes marched into DC to denounce Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, or to protest the restrictive “Fetal Heartbeat Bills” in Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri, they were words on a page in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. Here is the first time Atwood mentions the Handmaid’s uniform, just a few pages into The Handmaid’s Tale:
Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us. The skirt is ankle-length, full, gathered to a flat yoke that extends over the breasts, the sleeves are full. The white wings too are prescribed issue; they are to keep us from seeing, but also from being seen. (Atwood 8)
This initial description is short but vivid: the red and white cloth, the concealment of the body, the way the wings of the headpiece obscure the handmaid’s vision so that she can only look at what’s right in front of her. The costume is a literalization of the handmaid’s only value—her fertility, the red blood of her womb.
When Atwood’s book was first published, this now-iconic handmaid costume was often the cover illustration, its simplicity lending itself to easy recognizability. However, there were no protests featuring the costume in 1985. In 1990, when a film adaptation of the book starring Natasha Richardson was released, the costume didn’t show up in protests, either. It stayed firmly within the confines of Atwood’s fictional world. So why now? More specifically, how has the rebooted, repurposed and recycled image of the handmaid in contemporary popular become a vehicle for feminist respair? A major reason, of course, is the current state of American politics. As media historian Heather Hendershot writes in her analysis of the Hulu series, “If [Atwood’s] original novel was the perfect allegorical response to the Reagan years, and continues to resonate today, the online series speaks quite precisely to the Trump moment.” The Handmaid’s Tale premiered just after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and four months after a recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was leaked to the public. But Trump isn’t the only reason why the handmaid reverberates so strongly. I believe the resonance of the handmaid costume right here, right now, is only possible because The Handmaid’s Tale is also an example of a contemporary media multiplicity, a text that has been adapted and remade and shared and remixed. The text’s proliferation is what supplies it with power.
What are Multiplicities?
Before we continue down this path, I want to take some time to define a term I’ll use throughout this talk: “multiplicities.” Multiplicities are any pop culture texts that appear in multiples— including adaptations, sequels, remakes, trilogies, reboots, preboots, series, spin-offs, and cycles. As media industries scholar Jennifer Holt explains, the consolidation of TV networks, film studios, music studios, and print media into just a handful of conglomerates means it is increasingly difficult to discuss media platforms as discrete industries, “we must view film, cable and broadcast history as integral pieces of the same puzzle, and parts of the same whole.” Or, as Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows writes, “Once information is digitized, the boundaries between media dissolve.” Indeed, as it becomes more and more difficult to discuss media like film, television, and streaming content as separate entities, we need a critical term that allows us to discuss these texts all together. In light of the ever-increasingly transmedial nature of contemporary screen cultures—and the fluid way in which texts move from page to screen to tablet to video game and back again–the term “multiplicities” offers cohesive ways for discussing transgeneric groupings, and theorizing the complicated ties between text, audience, industry, and culture. Read all about in this anthology, co-edited with Barton Palmer. The most central trait of multiplicities is that they refuse to end, insisting that no texts have firm limits; stories can be constantly be told, retold, and spread. The study of multiplicities is the study of audiences—of ourselves—of why we (collectively) seek out a version of the same story (or character or subject) over and over again
Although film and television seem to be dominated by multiplicities at the moment, it’s a production strategy as old as the cinema itself. In his study of films produced in the years 1902-1903, film historian Tom Gunning found that a large percentage of films were based on plots and characters familiar from other forms of popular entertainment. Multiplicities have always existed, but we haven’t always known it, particularly since we are not always primed to spot the source text when it was intended to be understood by a very different set of viewers (See, for example, the whole dam family and the dam dog, a novelty postcard that inspired several short films). The practice of basing films off of comic strips, magic lantern shows, popular songs, postcards, as well as other films, and then replicating those successful formulas over and over until they cease to make money has been foundational to the origins and success of filmmaking worldwide.
Still, another reason why it might feel like we have more multiplicities today than ever before is because the terms we use to discuss multiplicities, like remake and reboot, emerged at different moments in media history. For example, historian Jennifer Forrest’s research into early cinematic remakes found before the Copyright Statute of 1906, individual films were seen as commodities, not as “works of art.” Unauthorized imitations, such as Edison’s remake of the Lumiere Brother’s famous film, Arrival of the Train, titled The Black Diamond Express, were common practice before 1906 and were not, legally at least, labeled as “remakes.” In other words, early cinema was filled with remakes, reboots, sequels, and adaptations, we just didn’t name them as such.
Yet another reason why it feels like we have more multiplicities now than we did in the past is due to the short shelf life of Classical Hollywood Films prior to the popularity of TV in the 1950s. Because films were generally screened once and then never seen again, it was difficult to recognize a remake when it appeared. For example, Thomas Leitch discusses how Warner Bros released 3 films based on the same intellectual property: Dashiell Hammet’s hard-boiled novel, The Maltese Falcon. In a 10 year period, Warner Bros released 1931’s Maltese Falcon, 1936’s Satan Met a Lady &1941’s Maltese Falcon. They were not described as remakes at the time of their release, and were not recognized as such. In the past the links between texts were either ignored or actively hidden. But by 1960, 90% of American homes had at least one television, and this sharp increase in TV ownership generated a need for more TV content. One solution was to purchase film studio’s back catalogs of films, and soon TV stations were flooded with thousands of previously shelved titles. This shift is important to the history of multiplicities because, as Con Verevis argues, American viewers could now see films that had been out of circulation for decades, which gave them the opportunity to more directly compare different iterations of the same intellectual property. Consequently, audiences became more aware when different forms of entertainment were adaptations or remakes or reboots or sequels or prequels of something else they have read or watched or heard before.
Verevis further argues that we are now in an era of postproduction, a transformed media culture that arose in response to a combination of forces—conglomeration, globalization, and digitization. The market is flooded with content that can be consumed on a multitude of platforms, often with a single click. Whereas one might have needed to screen dozens of movies, from different decades and cultures, to catch all of the movie references in a Quentin Tarantino film, today it is possible to Google them in the span of a few minutes. We are all more media literate than ever before because it is easier to be media literate.
Repetition and Bad Texts
Postproduction has incentivized media conglomerates to increasingly rely on a culture of repetition, replication, sequelization and rebooting. Nevertheless, this production model is often equated with the dwindling of creativity and the bastardization of the ancient art of filmmaking. In just the last month, the DC/Marvel multiverses, The Lion King “live action” remake, and the recently announced plans to reboot the 1990 hit, Home Alone, have all been the subject of hyperbolic criticism from audiences and critics. When discussing multiplicities, critics use terms like “plague” and “bombardment,” like these texts which we are all free to consume or ignore, or consume and ignore, are coming for us whether we like it or not. A recent article in The Guardian is representative of this discourse “Hollywood…seems determined to serve up a relentless platter of regurgitated and recycled fare. And it’s slowly making large portions of its audience sick.”
It’s not just contemporary critics sounding the alarms about multiplicities; the decades-old writings of post-modern thinkers like Jean Baudrillard, Guy DeBord and Fredric Jameson seem to have predicted our current media landscape. For example, Jameson places the remake in the larger category of pastiche, an affectless or neutral imitation of another text, arguing that cultural production “can no longer look directly out of its eyes at the real world for the referent but must, as in Plato’s cave, trace its mental image of the world on its confining walls.” Multiplicities are still described in these terms—reductive, confining, even dangerous. It’s hard not to look at the state of contemporary media multiplicities and fear the worst.
Many of the complaints about multiplicities are rooted in the assumption that this frequently recycling of familiar plots and characters must mean that media producers are lazy, using the easiest route to achieve financial success. Critiques of multiplicities argue that a movie or television series that unabashedly courts the audience’s desires is somehow less artful, less complex, or less worthwhile than one that exists to thwart, complicate, or comment on those audience desires—or that the audience is somehow being exploited, or manipulated into spending money on an undeserving piece of art. As Pierre Bourdieu argued in Distinction, a study of taste in 1960s France, bad or maligned art objects are most frequently those texts whose pleasures are easily accessed and immediately apparent, thus confirming the superiority of those who appreciate only the “sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane.” Bourdieu argues that the lower and working classes are not predisposed to view art objects with detachment since their livelihoods depend on a constant, active engagement with the material world. Scholars of the melodrama and soap opera also note that this ranking of what is a guilty pleasure and what has its roots in classed & gendered prejudice; designations of taste work to keep certain ideas, images and texts, and audiences, in “their place.” As Michael Newman and Elana Levine argue in their study of the legitimation of television, “There is nothing intrinsically unimaginative about continuing a story from one text to another. Because narratives draw their basic materials from life, they can always go on, just as the world goes on. Endings are always, to an extent, arbitrary. Sequels exploit the affordance of narrative to continue” When critics complain about Hollywood’s lack of creativity, these complaints are rooted in a distaste for those who seek out these texts, and gain pleasure from them.
Multiplicities are also viewed with suspicion because they refuse to end, denying the kind of closure necessary in or at least desirable for literary forms in which the material object of the book determines forms of storytelling. Multiplicities insist that no texts have firm limits — that any story can be retold, reconfigured, and spread around. Why is this troublesome? Because a text without end is a text that never relinquishes its hold on our time. If the text never ends, we could, hypothetically, watch the text forever, and then, how would we ever get anything else done?
This fear was acknowledged as early as 2011, when the sketch comedy series Portlandia depicted a couple getting sucked into the DVD box set of Battlestar Galactica, foregoing all other obligations, including going to work and using the toilet. The joke here is that it’s absurd to get so entranced in a television series, but also, we may not be able to control ourselves. In a 2013 New Yorker essay, Ian Crouch attributed the shame associated with binge-watching to “the discomfiting feeling of being slightly out of control—compelled to continue not necessarily by our own desire or best interests but by the propulsive nature of the shows themselves.” An unspoken emotion in these thinkpieces is shame, the shame of being out of control, the shame of indulging in repetition.
Repetition is associated with a dulling of the senses, of something masturbatory and excessive, or something simplistic, like a child who always asks to read the same book at bedtime. And sometimes multiplicities feel that way, reflecting the way we feel about ourselves in a world that our brain can’t comprehend, despite or perhaps because of the sheer amount of data we have streaming into our phones at all hours of the day. We might feel lazy and ineffectual and indulgent when we sit around binge-ing a TV series. But, the effect of binge watching The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV series that forces the viewer to be immersed in its terrible world of rape and silencing and violence, is to produce a viewer who is afterwards exhausted, sad, and possibly fuming. I think that’s a good place to be right now. Bear with me here: what if we viewed retreating to our screens as staying with the trouble, instead of running from it? Which brings me back to The Handmaid’s Tale, which I promised earlier.
When some people binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale, while others read the book, and still others just see the memes online, they may be consuming different media, but they are experiencing the same story. The red robes and white caps serve as a shared point of contact, a unit of cultural transmission, and a link between disparate groups of people. Multiplicities offer that possibility of this shared culture, of connecting with someone we’ve never met. When we see handmaids lounging near the Lincoln Memorial or standing solemnly outside the Alabama courthouse, we are being asked to stay with the trouble, to see the allegoric repression of Gilead overlaid on our real, living breathing world. This connection is not just made by me, but by anyone who has the seen the series, or heard of it, or read the newspaper or just scrolled thru social media. Though repetition has negative connotations, it is precisely the repetition of images that supplies their power; their proliferation ensures that they cannot be ignored or dismissed. As new media scholar Jean Burgess argues, memes are a powerful medium of social connection due to their spreadability. Memes are propagated by being taken up and used in new works, in new ways, and therefore are transformed on each iteration –what Burgess terms a “copy the instructions,” rather than “copy the product” model of replication and variation. The subject of many memes, the image of handmaid is also spreadable, and its spreadability forms of the crux of its power.
For example two years ago, for Halloween I decided to dress up as a Handmaid, complete with a red dress and cloak, and a large, vision-obstructing white bonnet. I wore the costume to work, because I taught on Halloween, and also out to some Halloween parties that weekend. What struck me, both on my college campus but also while out in my community, were the emotional reactions my costume evoked. When people recognized who I was—and that moment happened almost instantly—there was amusement, followed by a kind of fury. The joy and the anger rested side by side. And this affect was only possible because the image is so widely known, because it is a multiplicity.
Far from robbing fans of access to novelty and personal connection, contemporary media multiplicities can generate strong emotional resonance and a creative flourishing both within and among fans. Every new Thor and Captain America is a new visit with the same character, which has in turn been molded to resonate with the world as it is happening. The aura, seemingly absent from texts that repeat the form and content of previous texts, is invented anew in every retelling, tweet, meme, and cosplay. I would go so far as to say that these conglomerate, multiplatform, transmedia stories—the Boy who lived, the fight against the Dark Side, the battle over who shall rule Wakanda—may be the only way for our culture to have a shared cultural touchstone. At a time when we’re no longer reading the same newspapers (and most newspapers are gone anyway), or even believing in the same set of facts (like whether or not a hurricane will hit Alabama) all at the same time, media multiplicities may be our only remaining watercooler moments. Our ability to take note of the multiplicities around us—that so many stories are simply retellings of stories we already know—provides us with a shared narrative, a collective symbol for articulating what is happening around us.
In the season 1 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist, Offred describes a similar moment of wordless connection that occurs among the handmaids. She explains:
There was a way we looked at each other at Red Center. For a long time I couldn’t figure out what it was exactly. That expression in their eyes. In my eyes. Because before, in real life, you didn’t ever see it. Not more than a glimpse. It was never something that could last for days. It could never last for years…
This voice over is the audio counterpoint to scenes from Offred’s life at the Red Center, where she and the other fertile women of Gilead are being trained, often violently, for their future roles as handmaids. The episode then cuts to the present day, to Offred in her handmaid uniform, just after she commits an act of rebellion by smuggling a package of letters, written by imprisoned handmaidens across Gilead. It’s a small rebellion, the first of many that Offred will attempt during her time in Gilead. “It’s their own fault,” she muses out to herself, “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” The replicated red robes of the handmaids, intended to render them as a mass of faceless babymakers, as opposed to individual women of agency, has had the opposite effect. Or rather the effect created by the shared uniform opposes the docility that Gilead had hoped they would confer on the handmaidens. Here, sameness isn’t a demoralizing force, it’s an organizing force. It doesn’t make them the same, it makes them united. This is a crucial difference.
This keynote is a call for scholars and fans and audiences alike to recognize the roles of media multiplicities, those denigrated, unoriginal, texts, not just to our field, but to the work of justice and good citizenship. Rather than feel guilt over our desire to experience the same story, over and over, instead we should watch and feel that moment of connection with all those other people who have watched, will watched, and are watching the same thing. This is not a turning away from society, but a turning towards it, to other people. Shared stories mobilize us, and help us to see what we have in common with those around us. There is power in an image that evokes collective rage over injustice, that gathers mass as it’s shared. Or to quote Offred, “they never should have given us multiplicities if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
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