[WARNING: Spoilers, spoilers everywhere.]
“Sometimes we have to do what is best for everyone, not what is fair.” —Aunt Lydia
After the 2016 presidential election, there was an endless amount of handwringing and finger-pointing among Democrats who couldn’t understand what went so wrong. The party had possibly the most qualified presidential candidate ever, the GOP had a serial sexual harasser who repeatedly failed at his business dealings, wanted to build a wall around the country, and may be in the pocket of foreign governments. Yet somehow Hillary Clinton managed to lose the electoral college to Donald Trump, and it was the 53 percent of white women who supported Trump in the end that swung the election. Now our president is our biggest national security threat, legal abortion may be on the way out, health insurance may be massacred and public education ended. Women are on the verge of losing any ground we’ve gained in the last few decades and frankly, most of us did it to ourselves, primarily because we apparently decided that the impact would never directly affect us.
Buyer’s remorse? Let’s just call it “Serena Joy Syndrome.”
Women are brilliant, strategic, ruthless creatures, so it should be no surprise to learn in episode six that the Republic of Gilead was at its heart a Serena Joy Waterford creation. By this episode, the producers are using their screen time to fill in backstory from the original Handmaid’s Tale book, and with author Margaret Atwood working so closely on the series, we have to assume this is some officially approved lore.
The episode revolves primarily around a visit from an ambassador from Mexico—a female ambassador with a male assistant—which provides endless contrasts between the utterly patriarchal society of Gilead. Mexico, which has been decimated not just by the same fertility issues as the former United States but also apparently drought and famine due to climate change, is hoping to open trade with Gilead, and the ambassador has arrived to discuss possible resources.
While the Commander is uncomfortable, paranoid, and highly undiplomatic, Serena Joy is in her element, finally having a chance to step onto the mainstage of political affairs—at least, as much as she is allowed to as a mere woman. In a series of flashbacks it becomes increasingly clear that it was Serena Joy who seeded the original belief system of the theocratic world that would become Gilead, and that she began as her husband’s equal partner in the overthrow of democracy. The Commander’s wife, we learn, was a conservative speaker and author in the old world, best known for her book A Woman’s Place and for once inciting a riot.
“Did you ever imagine a society in which women can no longer read your book? Or anything else?” the female Mexican ambassador asks her coyly as the Commanders and their wives gather in her home.
“No, I didn’t,” Serena Joy responds carefully, before adding that God asks for sacrifices and that Gilead has received the benefits of His blessings—apparently with robust crops and slightly less robust Handmaidens.
If there is any one message to episode 6 it is exactly that: Women are the ones who must sacrifice so that everyone benefits. It’s a message repeated by Serena Joy throughout the rebuilding of society as she is pushed further into the background, refused the opportunity to join the working men in establishing a new government, or to even speak to them as they work. It’s in her tight smile when the Commander returns from a meeting and she has spent the day arranging the house, removing any relics of their old lives (including, ironically, her own book from the book shelves). It’s the stab in her heart as she realizes that it is her idea – that “Fertility as a national resource, reproduction as a moral imperative” is the centerpiece of Gilead, but that as a result she is no longer allowed any physical intimacy with the husband she so clearly loves.
And it is echoed by Aunt Lydia, who in a rare and astounding moment of gentleness and compassion , tells Janine that she is not allowed to attend the party for the Mexican delegation in which the Handmaidens are being honored, because she is too physically damaged to maintain the picture of willingness and happiness Gilead is trying to create around the Handmaiden initiative. “Sometimes we have to do what is best for everyone, not what is fair,” Aunt Lydia comforts Janine, promising to bring her a “tray full of desserts” to make up for her disappointment.
But perhaps worst of all, it is reiterated by the Mexican Ambassador herself, when Offred finally admits privately to her that she lied, that being a Handmaiden was not her choice, that they are beaten and trapped and raped and afraid, and begging for help. “I can’t help you,” the Ambassador says, admitting that not only will they condone what is happening in Gilead, but that they want to import Handmaidens because their country’s birth rate is so decimated. “There hasn’t been a child born alive in [my home city in Mexico] in six years. My country is dying.”
“Mine is already dead,” Offred responds.
The Republic of Gilead takes the ideal of the sacrificial woman to the utter extreme, but the roots are already here in the real United States. It’s there in our lack of maternity leave and accommodations and endless praise for those who leave their careers to stay at home with the children. It’s there when schools default and call the female caregiver when a child gets sick or hurt, even though they have numbers for both parents. It’s there in our abortion laws when we demand women wait 72 hours to end a pregnancy because we are convinced they will be filled with regret if they go through with it. It’s there when the pro-life movement elevates the stories of those who rejected doctors who said their pregnancies would kill them, calling their deaths the “greatest gift a mother could give.”
And it most definitely is there when the committee to discuss women’s health policy can’t even manage to put one woman on the committee to discuss it.
How did Gilead go from everyday sexism to the patriarchy of Gilead? “It’s our fault,” explained one Commander. “We let them forget their real purpose. We won’t let that happen again.”
We only have one shot to beat the patriarchy, ladies. If you become complicit, your chance may be gone for good.