This word, empowerment—I don’t think it means what The Handmaid’s Tale thinks it means. Since it debuted in 2017, just a few months into Donald Trump’s administration, the Hulu series has toggled awkwardly between modes. This is a show about ritualized sexual and physical assault, set amid a fundamentalist-Christian theocracy that has stripped women of all basic human rights. But it’s also a show that can’t stop framing June (played by Elisabeth Moss) as a grand feminist icon, a nascent slayer of the patriarchy and purveyor of infinite slow rage-gazes at the camera. With jangly “girl power” musical cues (Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” scans strangely in a world where women are assigned to men as property) and the defiant mantras June recites in her head, The Handmaid’s Tale keeps insisting that its story is an empowering one. The commanders of Gilead, June thinks at the end of Season 1, “should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” a nugget so quotable, it was tweeted out as fan art by the verified account @HandmaidsOnHulu.
Real empowerment, though, isn’t the storytelling equivalent of a branded tote bag bearing the words Burn. It. Down. It isn’t endless close-ups on June’s face, her eyes blazing rebellion because surliness is the only dissent she can manifest that won’t get her killed and fed to livestock. Empowerment isn’t making another woman a kicky green-leather sling to accessorize her amputated finger. And, most crucially, empowerment isn’t the same thing as brazen stupidity. In the final moments of Season 2—a 13-episode stretch that invested heavily in portraying the violence and brutality of Gilead—the show asked viewers to believe that June, set up for escape with her baby, would decide to stay instead and fight the regime from within. For me, it was maddening. Not only because it was such a conspicuous example of narrative problem-solving, but also because it so neatly encapsulated the paradox of The Handmaid’s Tale: The series continually asserts how empowering it can be, straining all the while to keep its central character in complete subjugation.