English 1102: Television and Feminism

Dr. Casey Alane Wilson • Georgia Institute of Technology

Author: Emily Sheng

Giving Up is Silent Rebellion

Hypocrisy and Sacrifice in The Handmaid’s Tale

We all justify the worst of actions, the worst of lies, to ourselves to convince ourselves that it’s okay. What “it’s” is differs, and in The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s everything- from the horrendous government to the definition of love. Contradictions create instability and it creates little holes that tear the structure of Gilead down.

Gilead is so full of contradictions but its establishment was scarily simple. The Commanders claim that God wanted it this way, that they were following the word of Him. When Aunt Lydia says to June, “Blessed are the meek,” June remembers the ending of the scripture, “… and blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness.” June’s words convey the manipulation of scripture by the government and earns her a cattle prod to the face. The people who run Gilead twist and select pieces of the Bible that will help them justify their actions and maintain their power.

In addition to systematic hypocrisy, no individual character is perfect either. The characters in the show go against their own values to defend the values of the republic. Commander Waterford, a high-ranking leader of Gilead, continues to manipulate June through little favors and emotionally tears his wife down slowly.

Although Fred practices acts of hypocrisy for his own enjoyment, he still fully believes in Gilead. However, two of the most dynamic characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are two women who slowly realize the messed-up nature of the society they live in. Serena and Eden come from a place of full faith but as time passes, they both change as they know the system is broken but are too afraid to act on it. Until they do.

Eden, a young girl, fell in love with the idea of love and tried to chase it, despite her devotion to the republic. She, and the man she ran off with, are drowned. She sacrifices her own life as a punishment for disobeying Gilead, but she did not stray from her love of God nor her true love. The death of a devout young girl sparks realization in many of the Wives as they understand the unforgiving and religiously backward nature of Gilead.

Serena can’t seem to make up her mind. Sometimes, she helps June but sometimes she’s June’s worst nightmare. However, she makes a final sacrifice to protect “her” child. After trying to civilly propose an amendment to the council, she loses a finger for reading and realizes she can’t put her baby through this world, and thus, gives her baby to June to escape with. She redeems herself, but her future seems bleaker than ever.

Even after so much struggle, the people of Gilead still live in a shadow of hypocrisy and everyone, even the strongest, break.

Latin: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” A motif through the whole show, June scribbles it a final time before her escape.

Your Worst Nightmare- If You’re a Woman

Anyone who’s read, watched, or even heard of The Handmaid’s Tale knows how horrifying Gilead is for the Handmaids. These women had a normal life before, but suddenly they are thrust into this new world in which so much progress is gone, society reverted to a place even worse than the past.

It’s almost impossible to believe that this show takes place in the present. We view progress in human rights as upwardly linear, even exponential, but The Handmaid’s Tale expresses how easily fear and misuse of power can take everything away from women and other minorities. Although the whole structure of society has been redesigned in Gilead, the cause and effect of this change is due to women’s supposed infertility. Birth rates dropped steeply in the past, causing fear that led to men blaming the women and creating the concept of Handmaids.

Gender plays a big role in our world today, but in Gilead, it dictates everything. Most of the men are Guardians, Commanders, or Econopeople. They form the backbone of society and pick what the women’s roles are. They own property, basically including women, have jobs, and are able to live relatively peaceful lives. However, the women are Marthas, Handmaids, Aunts, Wives, Econowives, or Unwomen. Although some are more pleasant than others, none are happy. They lead lives decided by other people and suffer through both pain and boredom. Since this is the first generation of Gilead, these women live every day remembering the past but have to deal with the present. In Season 2, Episode 11, June goes into labor and remembers her past experience with her first child. An experience in which she was surrounded by those who loved her, doctors, and good conditions. Now, she has to give birth alone with no drugs, doctors, and without any emotional support. However, she uses the memory of her past with her first birth and numerous Handmaid’s births to get her through it. These paralleled experiences show the new reality these women have to face with no way out- not even a quick death is guaranteed.

Close to escape, June goes into labor and must give birth alone and fire flares to make sure her baby will be safe.

Even though the Handmaids go through day after day of emotional and physical abuse, in Gilead, they are seen as those who have been given a second chance. Aunts try to brainwash them into believing that they this providing for the world is a privilege and that they should be grateful. Men, like priests and homosexuals, who didn’t fit Gilead’s rules were executed while fertile women involved with religion or lesbians were given this second chance. Although many factors influence one’s experience in Gilead, gender plays as the most major role, with neither outcome being favorable. Which outcome is better? Debatable.


In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, everything’s changed. We see the oppression, the lack of freedom, the seemingly hopeless world. However, the people running the new society have a different viewpoint. Aunt Lydia claims that beforehand, the girls had “freedom-to” and now they have “freedom-from” unpleasantness.

The theme of freedom is explored thoroughly in The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Lydia’s words are true to some extent, but the new Handmaids have neither freedom-to nor freedom-from. Most of the Commanders, Wives, and Aunts have kept a bit of their morals from “before,” but justify their actions by creating lies that seem positive to convince themselves that this is utilitarian.

Serena’s, the wife, character has been developed more in the recent episodes. Similar to Petra in Jane the Virgin, the viewer begins to understand the character’s motivations and reasons for acting the way they do. Before the cultural shift, Serena was a powerful woman- a powerful woman who supported the ambitions of her husband and his fellow officials- and had to watch as her own power was stripped away. Not only did she lose her power, she lost love and her freedom. Although the life of a Wife is not as despairing as that of a Handmaid, they are also prisoners: always forced to watch, but not allowed to participate. I’m not only talking about the Ceremony, but Serena, a woman used to playing a big role in her life, watches as the men and Handmaid decide the path of her own life. She smokes, even though she isn’t allowed to, to gain a sense of control back into her own life especially since she has to rely on another quite rebellious woman to give her fulfillment of her own biological destiny.

In S2 E6, Serena’s past journey is revealed a little bit more and her humanity is revealed with it.

The Handmaid’s with their red capes and white wings, are to be distrusted in the society. The officials convince themselves that they must punish the Handmaids because they are distrustful, but actually, the Handmaid’s are distrustful of the government because all their rights have been stripped away from them. June claims that Gilead is afraid of them escaping, both from Gilead and from life. The society needs them to continue the human race, but also do not respect them. For them, it’s easier to torture a few Handmaids to scare the others than to try to please all of them. Aunt Lydia’s comment that they have freedom-from violence and the unpleasantness of the world is frankly untrue. They outlawed rape, but renamed it to the Ceremony. They outlawed murder, but gave the government permission to do it.

We’ve all heard that saying about how it’s better to die fighting for freedom than to live as a prisoner. But the women in The Handmaid’s Tale live as prisoners, and getting a death sentence is just hard to achieve as freedom.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Handmaid, Blue Wife

Wow, it’s so blue. Both metaphorically and physically. That was the first thing I noticed about The Handmaid’s Tale. The show begins in a whirlwind, with a woman, later known to be June, running away with her child and husband. In an instant, the cinematography built immense tension and already had me on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would happen.

The beginning of the show is definitely confusing. Is this the US? Is it the future or past? What are they wearing? What’s going on? The show is mostly chronological, and it gives very little backstory all at once. Instead, the directors incorporated the use of flashbacks to fill in the gaps yet make you more confused all at once. The transitions between the present and the flashbacks of the past are always very jarring. You see June and Moira enjoying a run one morning and standing up to sexist barista, then the next thing you know, June is sitting silently while the world beats her up. The sexist barista represented the slow shifting of society, which clears things up. But also, it makes you wonder what was the last straw, what made society snap?

Another thing I noticed was the use of a blurry background, or sometimes foreground, in the shots. To me, this conveyed isolation and the unknown, like women weren’t allowed to “see” what was going on around them. Physically, this could be shown by the Handmaids’ wings, a bonnet-like hat that covered the sides of their faces, preventing them from seeing out and others from seeing in.

The blue filter over the whole show makes June/Offred’s characters stand out above the rest and exemplifies societal divisions.

Speaking of clothes, the colors each social group wore added to the visuals and expressed the hierarchy and contrasts the overall color scheme. As I mentioned, the show is very blue, which of course creates a depressing mood. However, blue is also a very calm color, and this society seems to revolve around passive aggressive but calm tension. The Wives wear blue, the Marthas wear green, and the Handmaids wear an especially contrasting red. Red is often seen as a provocative color, and this labels them as whores and outcasts them from society.

Unlike books, where the words must convey visuals that each individual puts together in their head, TV shows rely on visuals to convey emotion- this is what a good show does. And The Handmaid’s Tale does just that.

Ellen: A Comedian or A Lesbian Comedian?

Wagner, Kristen A. “”Have Women a Sense of Humor?” Comedy and Femininity in Early Twentieth-Century Film.” Velvet Light Trap, no. 68, 2011, pp. 35-46. ProQuest, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/896625651?accountid=11107.

In this source by Wagner, the author examines how the attitudes and perceptions of women comedians change through the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many people questioned the lack of inherent humor in women, claiming that humor and femininity were mutually exclusive. However, vaudeville and silent film began to slowly morph the public viewpoint. Not only were the ideas of women changing with many waves of feminism, film gave women a voice in comedy and challenged the idea that women couldn’t be funny. The women comedians played down their femininity but were also seen as unique compared to their male counterparts. Through time, humor has been used to not only create laughs, but as a way to convey societal and cultural ideas. This article provided a solid foundation for the rest of my more specific research, and it helped me understand the culture behind the emergence of women comedians. This background research will provide a useful history and context for my research on a more modern comedian.

Bociurkiw, Marusya. “It’s Not about the Sex: Racialization and Queerness in Ellen and the Ellen Degeneres show.” Canadian Woman Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2005, pp. 176-181. ProQuest, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/217464144?accountid=11107.

In this source by Bociurkiw, the author examines Ellen’s story of coming out, and what effect that has on the public’s idea of the queer community. For most of the US at the time, the idea of LGBT culture is associated with being outcast or undesired. Since other qualities of isolation were race and class, people often associated people of the community with African-Americans or people of low socio-economic status. When Ellen came out, it shocked the US because she was a wealthy, white comedian. On the other hand, people were not surprised because her “failures at gestures of heteronormativity” showed on her sitcom. Her coming out was published on Time Magazine and was shown on the “Puppy Episode” of her show, in which she accidentally announced her sexuality to an entire airport. This article allowed me to better understand the idea of intersectionality and how shifts in the perception of one social class can affect the others.

Snyder, Steven. “Ellen’s a Real Crowd Pleaser.” Newsday, Feb 26, 2007, pp. D02. ProQuest, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/docview/280133420?accountid=11107.

In this source by Snyder, the author examines the way in which Ellen is able to capture the attention and please even the toughest of crowds. According to the author, she killed it by “killing [it] softly”. She had no grand entrance, no jarring jokes; she utilized confidence and a natural attitude to express light humor. Additionally, she uses slight self-deprecation as a mechanism to relate to the audience by opening up a little bit and conveying that she isn’t vastly different from everyone else. She plays up her awkwardness and makes it endearing. Ellen’s hosting at the Oscars was not her typical joke after joke sets, but still, many people in the audience were laughing and enjoying her light humor. This article detailing one of Ellen’s performances gave me good insight into the kind of comedian Ellen is and how she has managed to get such a supportive audience.

Scott, Michael. “The Best Medicine: Touring a Showcase of the Essential Ellen DeGeneres — Not the Lesbian Ellen, and Not the Feminist Ellen, but the Comedian Ellen — is a Cure for what Ailed Her.” The Vancouver Sun, Jun 29, 2000, pp. C20. ProQuest, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/242706440?accountid=11107.

In this source by Scott, the audience examines the power of perception and the importance of a balance identity in Ellen. Through my research, I’ve found that most articles about Ellen are about her coming out and the impact it has had on society. However, nobody wants to me defined by only one thing, and Ellen did not want to be Lesbian Ellen, especially after her coming out episode. People were so caught up in arguing about gay and lesbian rights that the meaning of the show, and Ellen’s life, almost faded away. This article is useful in helping me understand Ellen’s desires to be openly gay, yet not defined solely by it, because she has a “gift, that [she] was given… [she] can make people laugh.” She wants other people to appreciate her for the comedy and art she puts out, not as a symbol for social activism because of a sexuality she was born with.

Lewis, Rachel. “Ellen DeGeneres on Coming Out and Sexism in Comedy.” Time, Time, 7 Sept. 2017, www.time.com/4921665/ellen-degeneres-comedy-sexism-homophobia/.

In this source by Lewis for Time, the article and video examine Ellen’s journey of acceptance and how that has led to a different, but better, life for her and her career. This source contrasts the last one because it shows how Ellen’s opinions have changed from 2000 to 2017. Since the chaos about her coming out has died down, along with a more accepting society, she has stepped down from her desire to only be known for her comedy. She understands that she should stand up and be a role model. She wasn’t trying to be political by coming out, but she is so glad she did. She recalls a night doing standup in which the performer before her were homophobic and sexist, which made the crowd extremely rude toward her. Before her coming out on Time, her publicist warned her that this could destroy her career, but she was tired of hiding and went for it. Ellen was awarded the medal of freedom for being fully herself without reservation.

Roberts, Amy. “Rose McGowan’s Controversial Tweet To Ellen DeGeneres Shows Exactly Why Intersectional Feminism Is So Necessary.” Bustle, Bustle, 18 Oct. 2017, www.bustle.com/p/rose-mcgowans-controversial-tweet-to-ellen-degeneres-shows-exactly-why-intersectional-feminism-is-so-necessary-2940391.

In this source by Roberts, the author examines a specific example of criticism Ellen faces because of her prominent role in social activism. McGowan tweeted a reply to Ellen that criticized her for standing up for LBGT rights in Mississippi because other issues, like birth control and abortion were important as well. Since there are more women in the US than people who identify as LGBT, McGowan believed that with Ellen’s huge platform, she should be speaking on behalf of the larger demographic- women. This article aids in the course’s focus on intersectionality and the importance of equality for anyone, regardless of which minority group one is part of. McGowan’s tweet was interpreted by critics as placing women rights over the rights of the LGBT community, although much of the latter community is comprised on behalf of women. Although women’s rights is an important cause, the article highlights the importance of intersectional feminism, one that incorporates women of all different communities, not erasing others’ experiences or claiming some issues to be more important than others.

What the Hell is a Handmaid?

A womb on legs, basically.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a horrifying show, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s a different type of horror from a scary movie; instead of bracing yourself for a jump scare, you stare with your mouth open in disgust, eyebrows furrowed in disbelief. However, I will refrain from purely rambling about how shocking this show is to say this: this show is brilliant.

A pilot episode is supposed to draw a viewer in and introduce one to the storyline and dynamic of the characters. In The Handmaid’s Tale, I was thrown right into a terrifying society where torture, sexual abuse, and zero respect for women were the “new ordinary.” During desperate times of war, the US falls back on military rule and religious extremism, in which freedom and democracy are stripped from everyone. Although the setting is a modern United States, the “new ordinary” makes the environment (almost) unrecognizable.

“It’s forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.” Things that we once okay are now punishable by death.

Both the stylistic elements of the writing and the plot demonstrates this new society and the unfamiliarity of it. The first episode starts off with an intense flashback, then all of a sudden a silhouette with a voiceover: “A chair. A table. A lamp. There’s a window with white curtains, and the glass is shatterproof.” Most of the time, there is silence or very quiet, somber music. Sounds of rain, breathing, and footsteps are emphasized. The new world is so much simpler, but the short dialogue immediately conveys the silencing of many. The main character, Offred, even thinks in a peaceful tone, using short but sarcastic sentences because silent mockery is the only way she can show resentment.

Offred has been living in this society for long enough to establish a routine, but not long enough to adjust completely and often reminisces about her past life as a wife and mother. This in-between place allowed the show writers to utilize first-person narration and express ambiguity. So many terms confused me: “Handmaid, Ceremony, Martha, Eye, Unwoman, Colonies, etc.” I kept asking questions about what they were wearing, why something was happening, and felt general confusion. But by building this confusion, the writers captured my attention and kept me intrigued.

Even though the showrunner, Bruce Miller, is male, he based the first season on Margaret Atwood’s novel; hopefully, he continued the theme of feminism in season two and acknowledged the opinions of the female producer and writers. Though, just judging based on the first few episodes, Miller effectively conveys the importance of feminism by removing it from the characters’ society. The contrast between the two societies, along with the parallels with reality, are well-written and make this show so jarring and thought-provoking.

Empowerment Through Blog Posts

Hello, my name is Emily Sheng, and I’m from Lubbock, a Decently-Large City in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas. I’m a first-year majoring in Chemical Engineering (that might change) and I’m hoping to graduate by 2022. I’m a minority in many senses of the term, unafraid to speak my mind and passionate about combatting discrimination, so I’m incredibly excited for English 1102!

Just like many others, I’ve had a pretty average high school experience with English classes. I wanted to improve my writing and my attitude toward it, so I joined the IB program, which is notoriously a lot of writing. Through two years of constant research and essay-writing, I can confidently say that IB, although it didn’t give me many college credits, improved my writing and was worth it. As I am taking my first semester of English at Georgia Tech, I need to push myself out of the mindset that English is just about reading classic literature and writing 5-paragraph essays. In 1102, I will challenge myself to speak out in class without rehearsing what I’m going to say ten times in my head. I will also challenge myself to consider multiple perspectives, even perspectives that go against my values. Lastly, I will challenge myself to give English class my all, even though the visual and oral aspects of it will be challenging. Utilizing my strengths with electronic communication, I hope I can improve the forms of communication I find more difficult.

One of my main traits is analytical/introspective, so I constantly work on “knowing myself”. I know that once I start watching a show, I will ignore reality until I finish the show and everyone around me has forgotten who I am. So, I stay away from most TV shows and don’t have that much experience with them. However, this summer, I started watching The Handmaid’s Tale, a dark Hulu series based off Margaret Atwood’s novel. Set in a military-ruled US, fertile women are forced to bear children for their “Commanders” or face torture and death. The central themes about the lack of feminism and oppression seem to be perfect discussion points, but I wanted a platform and a reason to express my thoughts and opinions. The moment I read this course’s description, I thought of this show I started, but never finished. From the episodes I have seen, the show is not light-hearted and is difficult to watch at times but conveys an important message that I am excited to discover more of in the upcoming months.

One of the sayings I live by; also directly contrasts The Handmaid’s Tale’s idea of the future being run solely by men.

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