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Male Passivity in The Handmaid's Tale

Updated: Jan 18

To be fair, there are a lot of very upsetting elements to HBO's dystopian adaptation of Margaret Atwood's already nightmarish novel The Handmaid's Tale. Overall, the show has stayed remarkably true to the book while making a conscious effort to link Atwood's vision to current events. But one thing that has struck me more than anything while watching the wonderfully female-centered show is the utter passivity demonstrated by the male characters.

When I found myself getting enraged and upset, unable to watch more than a few episodes at a time, I realized that it was not the more shocking violence in the show that was draining me. Any of us who have enjoyed Game of Thrones have seen our fair share of scorpion bites, popped out eyes and severed hands followed by unsettling indie rock. Instead, it was the quiet, useless reassurances by characters like Nick and the Commander that made me want to scream at my laptop screen.

"I'm sorry this is happening to you," says Nick after driving Offred home in the exact vehicle that could present itself as an escape route. "I wish..."

"You wish what?" As usual, Offred says exactly what we are all thinking. Because Nick offering his sympathies while simultaneously refusing to lift a finger to help is about as helpful as a dead dove in a wedding cake. And Nick knows it.

Dialogue like this stands out more in the show because Atwood's novel is a work of outstanding prose - reading her writing feels like swimming through detailed scenes, allowing yourself to float around and stare at the intricate worlds she paints. In a screen adaptation, her descriptive mastery is translated (wonderfully) into visual intensity, while the dialogue is presented front and center. We are able to process the claustrophobic black van and the pouring rain outside at the same time that Nick admits, "I should have just kept driving."

No shit.

For a while, it seems like Nick is truly regretful of Offred's situation. He is, after all, a servant, ranked only slightly above her, and his quiet glances seem to indicate a sympathy that Offred initially gravitates towards. His sorrow seems almost forgivable. That is, until we find out that Nick is an Eye - a spy for the forces in power. Nick is not only a passive member of the regime, but an active player in it, which makes his sympathy for Offred seem at best manufactured and at worst an example of heavy cognitive dissonance. It is a complex situation that the show refuses to simplify.

The Commander also makes small, apologetic efforts to "improve" Offred's life - the Scrabble games and gifts of forbidden magazines embody a sense of cheeky rule-breaking that establishes them as comrades, at least within the secrecy of his private study. It is such a charming and childlike act, the feel of sneaking sweets from the cookie jar, that we forget that the Commander is one of the people who made the rules that govern their lives in the first place. The commander saying that he wishes for Offred's life to be "more bearable" is not an ally-ship, but a self-soothing method that puts him as an individual in a better light than his associates, all of whom are responsible for the system of power that places Offred on her knees in front of the Scrabble board.

For the most part, male passivity is an act of self-assurance in the world of The Handmaid's Tale. While Nick and the Commander may not be preaching to Offred about the glories of Gilead, they are making a choice not to use their privilege to make any kind of systematic change - and as long as the world keeps turning, they can assure themselves that they are doing the right thing, and that empty apologies and small gifts can make up for gross injustices.

The Commander tells Offred, "A better world never means better for everybody." Or, more transparently, a better world means better for me.

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