When Women Are Accused of Complicity

Recent television shows and news stories raise a similar question: Can systems of oppression function without the involvement of women?

Laura Cavanaugh / Getty / Hulu / Showtime / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

This article contains spoilers regarding recent episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Loudest Voice.

During its three seasons on Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale has depicted all kinds of grim visuals: ritualized hangings, feet flayed with steel cables, women whose mouths have been bolted shut. And yet the image I couldn’t get out of my mind this week after watching the Season 3 finale was that of a generic to-go coffee cup. Early in the episode, Mark Tuello (Sam Jaeger), a representative of the U.S. Government-in-Exile, came to meet with Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), a recent defector from Gilead who’d turned in her husband in exchange for immunity. As Tuello walked up to greet her, Serena was sitting on a bench outside her detention center, placidly reading. She wore a long, dusky pink overcoat, tailored slacks, and ballet pumps. With her smooth blond curls, she looked like the very model of Apostate Girl Autumn. Tuello handed her a cup of coffee, just one human in a free, caffeine-permitting country to another, and the ordinariness of it—the banality, maybe—felt somehow obscene.

I thought about Serena when I saw the first pictures of Ghislaine Maxwell taken after the re-arrest—and subsequent death—of Jeffrey Epstein. Maxwell was Epstein’s former girlfriend, reportedly his closest companion, the glue that held his social events together, and, according to the allegations of several women, his facilitator in procuring young girls to give him “massages.” Two women, Virginia Giuffre and Maria Farmer, have alleged that Maxwell was instrumental to Epstein sexually assaulting them. Giuffre was 16 years old at the time.

But Maxwell, who has repeatedly denied all allegations against her, has never been charged or tried in a criminal court, and so when an entrepreneurial amateur photographer finally spotted her this week, she was quietly sitting outside an In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles. Like Serena, she was reading—reportedly a nonfiction book about CIA agents who’ve been killed in service. In photos obtained by the New York Post, she’s wearing a pale-blue sweatshirt and a couple of oversize rings, just your average disgraced heiress chowing down a Double-Double and a shake. Her reading glasses sit on the table, and her chin rests on her elbow in a way that makes me wonder whether she might have actually posed for the photo.

Serena Waterford, coffee drinker, reader, former mistress of a house in which a woman was ritually raped once a month. Ghislaine Maxwell, burger connoisseur, reader, the woman accused by several others of facilitating their assaults. Women are, of course, no more innately ethical or benevolent than men are, and yet there’s something grimly perplexing about women who seem to help men subjugate other women. In Hulu’s expanded version of the universe detailed in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, Serena Waterford isn’t just a former televangelist whose career is stunted by Gilead’s brutal, patriarchal theocracy. As played by Strahovski and envisioned by The Handmaid’s Tale’s creator, Bruce Miller, she’s one of the intellectual forces that helped conceive it, shown in flashback to have been a conservative speaker and the author of a book titled A Woman’s Place. Serena is among the first pre-Gileadians to frame fertility as a “national resource” and reproduction as a “moral imperative.” What she fails to foresee is that a society fashioned around male supremacy won’t always make special exceptions for her.

To watch The Handmaid’s Tale this week, or Showtime’s The Loudest Voice—in which Russell Crowe’s Roger Ailes was seemingly enabled in his alleged sexual harassment and abuse by his assistant Judy Laterza (Aleksa Palladino)—was to see echoes of a recurring theme that keeps playing out in the news cycle. Harvey Weinstein was reportedly able to compel actresses to attend meetings in his hotel room because he had female assistants take them upstairs. Laterza, according to accounts by the journalist Gabriel Sherman, approached pretty young interns and invited them to meet her boss. Maxwell allegedly functioned as a madam for Epstein, finding him a steady flow of girls. No system of female oppression can function, it seems, without women being complicit in it.

The 2016 election, in which 53 percent of white women opted to vote for a man who has bragged about assaulting women, showed that many women will prioritize their assumed economic security over the well-being of others. On the simplest level, money and power can act as powerful motivators. Before Maxwell met Epstein, she’d suffered a decline in her own fortunes when her father, the media tycoon Robert Maxwell, drowned in 1991 after falling from his yacht, Lady Ghislaine, off the coast of the Canary Islands. After his death, it emerged that Maxwell had plundered hundreds of millions of pounds from his company’s pension funds. His daughter was left with nothing but a personal trust granting her £80,000 a year. She fled to New York, leaving 32,000 of her father’s employees to deal with the emptying out he’d done of their retirement accounts.

Maxwell’s indefinable relationship with Epstein seemed to restore her financial and social capital—he apparently bought her a 7,000-square-foot townhouse on the Upper East Side, while his wealth renewed her access to socialites, playboys, and princes. But Epstein also seems to have had a hold on Maxwell that transcended status. She believed, according to reports in Vanity Fair, that if she did enough to please him, he would marry her. Maxwell allegedly had intimate knowledge of Epstein’s predilections for girls and young women, and yet she appears to have hero-worshipped him anyway. She saw the girls she recruited for him, according to Vanity Fair, not as vulnerable teenagers, but as inconvenient obstacles to her ultimate goal, describing them as “nothing” and “trash.”

In Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, based in large part on Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book The Loudest Voice in the Room, Judy Laterza’s motivations are hard to parse—she’s an enigmatic figure who says little, but keeps meticulous track of everything Ailes says and does. She watches his door as women come and go, adjusting their clothing on the way out. She seems besotted, in her own way, with Ailes, and with how he manipulates events and flexes his own power. It’s a shame, she says in one scene, that she’s the only person who ever gets to see everything he does. In reality, according to Sherman, Laterza was paid $2 million a year at Fox News to be Ailes’s assistant, and she not only observed her boss’s predatory behavior, but also allegedly enabled it. In 2016, Sherman reported for New York magazine that Laterza had handpicked pretty young women for private meetings in Ailes’s office, and put fake names in his datebook when he met with them. Laterza, who never responded to Sherman’s request for comment, seems to have disappeared from public life since her boss’s firing from Fox News in 2016 and his death a year later.

Laterza’s and Maxwell’s seeming complicity in the assaults and harassment that Epstein and Ailes allegedly committed is shocking, on one level, because of the trust that a female presence tends to engender. In her 2017 essay for The Atlantic about being propositioned by Weinstein, the actor and writer Brit Marling recalls being invited to a meeting with the producer in a hotel bar, then having a young female assistant inform her that the meeting had been moved to his room. “I, too, felt my guard go up but was calmed by the presence of another woman my age beside me,” Marling wrote. “I, too, felt terror in the pit of my stomach when that young woman left the room and I was suddenly alone with him.” Weinstein’s assistants reportedly procured his erectile-dysfunction drugs and kept lists on how to facilitate his encounters with vulnerable women. (The producer has denied that he committed sexual assault.) But they were apparently also crucial in getting those women to trust that a meeting in a hotel room might not be as ominous as it seemed.

The truth is that, in the end, such purported betrayal of other women’s trust seems to have its cost. Laterza lost her $2-million-a-year salary after Ailes was fired, and for her years of loyal service, he left her the relatively paltry sum of $30,000 in his will, from an estate totaling more than $100 million. Maxwell is the target of a new lawsuit accusing her of enabling Epstein’s abuse. Serena Waterford, in the final episode of The Handmaid’s Tale’s third season, experienced the karmic justice of having a baby taken away from her, the child of the woman whose sexual assault and imprisonment Serena had presided over. Then she was taken into state custody for crimes against humanity. It was, to my mind at least, one of the most satisfying TV scenes of the year.