Please Stop Calling 'The Handmaid's Tale' Torture Porn
Season 2 of the controversial Hulu series has been labeled needlessly gory. We disagree.
When Hulu's TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale started streaming, it received widespread acclaim from audiences and critics. Come awards season, the show deservingly clinched trophy after trophy, including eight Emmys and two Golden Globes. It was a social phenomenon — the iconic handmaid's garb of red robes and white bonnets popped up at marches and protests as symbols of resistance against the systematic marginalization of women, right in time for Trump's election and the crackdown on legal access to abortion. Based on Margaret Atwood's novel of the same name, the show is set in Gilead under an oppressive theocratic government that takes over the United States. Women are stripped of their rights and forced to bear children for high-ranking men. They're blamed for the rapidly crashing birth rate, and are treated as property of the state — especially the few that are still fertile. Each month, the appointed handmaids are obliged to participate in the "ceremony" (a term for state-sanctioned, ritualized rape) with Gilead's commanders and their wives. Season 1 was commended for its brilliant storytelling, cinematography, and eye-opening depiction of a tyrannical society — one that eerily echoed the state of America today. The following season, however, was not met with the same amount of praise. In fact, it's received backlash. Gallons of ink has been spilled about its depressive story line, untold bleakness, and never-ending gore. Now, it's being regarded as "torture porn" by many. "Is The Handmaid’s Tale still worth the agony of watching it?" questioned The Verge. "Season 2 verges on misery porn," wrote USA Today. No matter where you look, it's become too grisly and frightening for anyone to handle. As Season 2 moves beyond the show's source material, viewers have accused producers of forcing in graphic scenes for shock value alone. As some see it, the cutting of the handmaid's tongue, public execution of law offenders, dismembering of a wife's finger for reading, the electrocution of women with cattle prods, and relentless depictions of torture were included with the sole purpose of raising viewership.
But that's wrong. For us, it may be fiction — how lucky we are that this content offends our delicate sensibilities. For others, these scenes are everyday life. There's no denying it's a harrowing and emotionally demanding piece of television. As viewers know, each episode requires extreme mental endurance. But it forces us to reflect on the problems of our world instead of tuning out on Twitter. It's meant to make us sick.
If we're squeamish about scenes like Emily's genital mutilation, how do we feel about the fact that this practice happens regularly in places like Kenya? If we thought the forceful separation of June and her daughter was too dramatic, what's our stance on the current situation at the US-Mexico border? And that mass execution at the Boston Globe? A similar massacre happened in our own backyard, too. The Handmaid's Tale is rooted in reality, and relegating it to torture porn is a statement of privilege. The show is not portraying violent imagery just because, and to say so is reductive. As a matter of fact, Atwood has established that each "punishment" has historical origins somewhere in the world. "When it first came out, it was viewed as being far-fetched," she said in 1985. "However, when I wrote it, I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.”
Showrunner Bruce Miller has respectfully adhered to Atwood's blueprint. Even if Season 2 has moved on from the original plot, its violence is based on real brutalities that take place against women across the world. "We don’t make up some kind of cruelty; I don’t want to do that. I hate that," Miller explained. "It’s hard because these are things that are happening in the real world. We’re not making them up. But showing them, you do carry some responsibility. The last thing you want to be making is torture porn."
If you're looking for torture porn, there's no shortage of it elsewhere. Horror films like Saw and The Human Centipede, and even highly regarded programs like Game of Thrones are all about it. The Handmaid's Tale, however, doesn't exist in the same realm. Why can we so easily digest the graphic beheading of Ned Stark, but cry foul about an execution of handmaids at Fenway Park? In countries like North Korea, Iran, and Somalia, public killings are carried out every day. The show is a poignant criticism of real atrocities that have occurred in the past and present — maybe not to you or me, but to millions of other people. So, no, The Handmaid's Tale is not escapist entertainment. It exists to challenge the viewer, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
If we find ourselves learning about other people's suffering through a fictional show, we should thank our lucky stars for that privilege. Watching it from the comfort of our couches and having the option to look away every time a scene makes our stomachs turn is entitlement in its purest sense. Complaining about how it's too bleak and devoid of a happy ending? Now, that's just plain foolish.
We can't see a sliver of light at the end of Gilead's tunnel because, for some people, there is no light. But if we find ourselves succumbing to the intensity of it all, we can always change the channel. We're lucky enough to have that choice.