The latest episode of The Handmaid's Tale, "The Last Ceremony", was particularly brutal to watch for a number of reasons. [Major episode spoilers ahead! Ye be warned.]
In reverse order, the second reason was the gut-wrenching moment when June's daughter was ripped out of her arms and the parallels it so painstakingly draws with the current news of immigrant children being taken away from their parents. I did not make it through that scene in one piece.
However, if you watched last night's episode, you're probably here for the other reason. In "The Last Ceremony" there was a pretty harrowing rape scene. My fist was wedged between my teeth as Commander Waterford and Serena Joy held June down while she repeatedly screamed "No" and "Stop". Alarm bells were blaring in my head. Rape, rape, rape, they screamed.
Nevermind that every single prior ceremony in The Handmaid's Tale has also been rape. Nevermind that the episode began with another character numbly gritting through her own ceremony. While watching June's scene all I could think was, "This. The violence of it. June fighting back. This is rape."
Then I caught myself.
I've read numerous articles today mulling over the darkness of the season, saying season 2 is gratuitous and "misery porn," writers questioning if they really want to continue watching something so dark and hopeless, so incredibly disturbing. That particular scene, of course, was disturbing. It felt endless. I choked on the expression on June's face when it was over.
But, for a moment, let's jump all the way back to the beginning. To be a handmaid in Gilead is for a woman to have her body violated on a monthly basis, and, from what I understand, that is the point the show's writers wanted to hit home in that scene. Emily, at the beginning of the episode, has her own ceremony where she is raped, but she does not fight back the way June does later. She is silent, numb, detached. She bears through it by dissociating.
Is this striking a chord yet?
We as human beings are disturbed by violence. When we watch a scene like June's, we classify it easily, categorically, alarm bells ringing in our ears. Rape. But when a victim doesn't fight back, doesn't struggle? Bears through it, freezes, loses the use of their voice, their bodies, dissociates? When they walk up to hotel rooms willingly, are too young, are threatened into submission, have too much to drink?
Black and white is more palatable. We are more disturbed by the violence. We condemn it, we consider turning off our TVs, getting angry, looking away in disgust. Yet, in reality, the difference between June and Emily's experiences are slim. We are conditioned to align ourselves with the person who fought back, who bears scars and blood from their struggle, rather than the person who didn't fight, who couldn't.
The Handmaid's Tale has always been violent and dreary. To look away now feels dishonest. June's situation is hopeless at best, but I've never turned on the show for something feel-good. I turn it on to explore questions I don't have the answers to, to consider the human condition, to challenge my own thoughts and morals and empathies. I watch in order to examine myself and society with a magnifying glass, to observe the way art mirrors our current political climate.
I watch to draw strength from a female character who has endured so much. I've read the book. I did not arrive on Hulu.com expecting this story to end well. Yet, despite the unyielding cloud that hangs over Gilead, the human spirit burns through all the dark, unconscionable terrors; pinpricks, maybe, but still visible. The Handmaid's Tale reminds me why I'm a feminist, why I believe in the power of love, why it's important for me to be socially, politically, and environmentally conscious. The show is a masterclass on the dangers of complicity and bystanderism, and every Wednesday is a cautionary tale to keep my eyes open and my ears clear.
If you found yourself more disturbed by last night's scene, as I was, it might be a good time to ask yourself why. According to RAINN, "1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime." Some kick and scream no. Some don't, some can't. For me, last night's episode of The Handmaid's Tale served as a reminder of how differently we treat victims of rape depending on their narrative.
We don't get to just decry the violence that ties into a neat red bow. Violence is violence. June's inner monologue can sometimes distract from the horrors of her world, but Wednesday's episode arrived like a bomb to point out that none of this has ever been okay.
Thanks for reading! If you want to subscribe to "Life Imitates Heart", enter your email address in the box below. You'll receive an email whenever there's a new post. You'll never get spam, and you can always opt out. You can also follow along at Life Imitates Heart on Facebook.