The show The Handmaid’s Tale has revived interest in the somewhat prophetic novel. It has such depth and scope and covers so many relevant issues that we are facing right now. To me, one of the most fascinating and important, but also difficult to swallow is the dynamic experience of rape throughout the show. We are taken through the ceremony with a couple different handmaids and a couple different commanders. We also see situations outside of the ceremony that are just as important. Let’s look at some of the experiences of rape, and discuss the nature of consent in each, then look at the overarching experience of rape and lack of prosecution and how that applies to us.
[There will be spoilers, only one big one about the story, and details about the rape scenes and the conditioning methods to get there. There are attached videos as well. If you’ve read the book, you’ll be fine to read on.]
As narrator and main character, we get quite familiar with June. She brings us into the world of Gilead with quiet resilience and submission. Our first experience with the ceremony is what is probably considered ideal as far as a handmaid’s role is concerned. We aren’t shown how June comes to be lying on the bed or if she offered her hands to Mrs. Waterford, but we see how tightly she is held. Though she doesn’t struggle, she is still held. This detail is, I believe, essential. This rape is also setting a tone for how rape will be viewed in the show. Her silence and lack of fight are not to be taken as consent to viewers. This is the base experience of rape in Gilead. Some is more brutal, some more insidious, this is simply the standard and it is rape. This first scene creates the space to question anything more subtle as perhaps not rape, and to determine that anything beyond this is cruel, shameful for all involved. As we’ve read in papers, this first scene is just our garden variety rape in Gilead.
June also shows us both a more insidious form of rape and a more brutal form. To me, they are both much more disturbing scenes. One turning my stomach, and one making me look away. The more subtle one is seen as Fred takes her to Jezebel’s. Here we see June not being held down. We see her provided with a pretty outfit, dressed, made up, and taken to a whorehouse. There’s so much about this that is similar to the ceremony that it makes it clear to me what we’re supposed to see the situation as. She must wear what is provided, she must look how she is told, she must follow the rituals of the place she’s found in. However, we see during this act she is somehow much less free. She cannot look disgusted. She cannot turn away or refuse a kiss from him. She must act grateful, appreciative, happy or suffer some unspoken consequence. Though she appears to give consent, can she really? Because of the power dynamic between the commander and herself, does her consent really mean she is not being raped? Even as she doesn’t struggle, is not still held?
This is not dissimilar to Janine’s experience as Ofwarren. She recounts the ceremonies, but also the blowjobs and Warren’s promises to take her away and become a family. When she’s moved on to her next posting she excitedly states that it’s only the ceremony now, not blow jobs. Sure, Janine’s sanity is under question, but the way in which she looks back on the acts with Warren outside of the ceremony bring up a different kind of rape. What if she thinks she’s into it because her situation is so dismal that the promise of escape from it becomes wrapped up with her consent for the acts that its clear are required to gain that escape? Can genuine consent be given in a situation where a participant couldn’t say no without fear of repercussion? Is the promise of safety and family as much blackmail to elicit consent as threatening to take her daughter from her? After all, that is what will happen if she doesn’t submit. Though she doesn’t struggle, does it follow that she is not held?
Before I discuss the most brutal rape scene we see, let’s talk about June and Nick. Mrs. Waterford arranges this situation which seems to leave out June’s consent; however, we see before the act Nick waits for some sign from June who gives him a nod. This situation is particularly interesting as June does give her explicit consent, but at the same time, she cannot be expected to do anything else. I think in this instance June recognizes Nick’s lack of ability to consent as well and gives her consent to absolve him any guilt he may have felt, though I’m sure he still feels it. June returns to him later and often of her own volition. It is one of few scenes of consent in the show. We see it shift into a consenting relationship when the feel changes for them. They go from being observed to sneaking, from being more in trouble for refusal, to more in trouble for doing. Because we have the privilege of hearing June’s thoughts, we know that she is consenting. We know that she feels as though she were cheating on her husband and that the baby she conceived is born in love. But what if we didn’t? What if we were left to wonder her thoughts? Perhaps June saw an opportunity to be taken care of, to have someone on her side to help her escape. Would that change whether we perceived her to be consenting?
The most brutal scene of rape we see is when Mrs. Waterford convinces Mr. to rape June to try and bring on an early labor. Only in this scene do we see June pleading with them and struggling to get free. Only in this scene do we see her say no. As she lies on the bed seeming outside of herself after realizing she will not win, we see her silence again. This silence is much the same silence we see in the first scene. It isn’t acceptance, it isn’t consent. It’s a coping mechanism. We can think back to that first scene and think: is that first scene any less horrific because she didn’t cry out? After the act is over, Mrs. Waterford accuses Fred of raping June. It calls into question how the women of Gilead’s elite view rape. Did Mrs. Waterford not feel that all the other times were rape? Does she believe that the handmaids really are grateful as they are drilled to be? How does that accusation separate the other experiences with rape that June has? At one point, the handmaids are summoned to bring mob style justice on a man who raped a handmaid who was pregnant. They beat him to death as they are told, but with a rage that makes it feel very personal. This man was prosecuted for this rape, but the commanders are not. Is it because she lost the baby? Is it because she wasn’t his woman to rape? Is it because of his low status? We see the answer to this in our own newspapers when Brock Turner is Stanford swimmer, but Tamir Rice is a thug. In Gilead race is left out, it’s about the status of your piety, but it all equals out to the same old shit.
There are several things that fascinate me about the Handmaid’s Tales’ dynamic representation of rape. I think that it’s very important where we are at in our country to acknowledge the many forms rape can take. Sometimes we see media and officials and politicians have a very limited view of what rape is. For example, a judge recently declared in court that rape involves two or more males with a weapon who corner a victim in an abandoned house, shed or shack, and take advantage of them as well as beating or threatening them. More subtle and pervasive than that is how we discuss facts of rape cases. As we see when the girls enter the red center and are systematically shamed for past sexual deeds and beaten into submission, we start with a guilty woman whom we must prove innocent and an innocent man we must prove guilty. One is patriarchal, the other is constitutional. When Brock Turner was given a minute slap on the wrist for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster many were angry, but few surprised. If you read the article above, that young man was judged not on his actions of that night, but on his family, grades, and potential in the same way as Turner. How different might that case have gone if his parents were drug addicts, or he got mediocre grades. Do those things change his actions? Does it change the fact that he texted the video to his friends saying “when your first time is rape”? We see this happening throughout the Handmaid’s Tale and throughout our country. This shifting of blame from the actor and the actions on to those being acted upon or more dangerously, sloughed off altogether under the guise of the faithful doing it, the good families, the powerful. Some powerful men are too powerful to accuse even when women appear in droves hand in hand. As I said in the beginning, it doesn’t matter how June acted in that room, it mattered what came before that. What led her there. I agree with that statement, but not in the way that we see it played out in court.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, the girls are discussing Janine’s gang rape as a teenager. She tells them that the boys kept coming down into the basement, two or three at a time sometimes. She talks about not believing it was happening. “Who lead them on?” they’re asked, “she did” they reply. Then all the girls are asked whose fault it was and are instructed to point at her and tell her it was her fault over and over. Her Fault. Her Fault! Her Fault! This is one of the things that we need to look out for right now. With President Trump in office and Brett Kavanaugh confirmed we see that the needle of normal is being pushed. It is not normal for a man who impassively makes sexual comments and discussed sexual assault as a given to be considered for such a high position. It is not normal for a man who has upwards of 20 accusations of sexual assault to be considered for such a discerning position. It is not normal for a man’s grades and swimming prowess to absolve him from rape. It is heinous. But as Aunt Lydia says most chillingly, “This must feel strange to you now, but ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not be ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” It has. It is so ordinary that those who have privilege, have wealth and good families and good grades can do whatever they want to us and a judge will say on public record that their future is more important than the body he got “twenty minutes of action’ from. We don’t matter as much their potential. Even the ‘most faithful’ in this country shrug off these women’s words, these men’s words and excuse them.
Many relegate the discussion of women’s rights to abortions as the crux of women’s liberation and point to clinics closing and restriction of access as signs of Gilead rising, but I think that does a major disservice to the more undermining and pervasive influences threatening the women in this country right now. What are some of the signs we should be seeing far before Congress is slaughtered and our bank accounts are frozen? During my childhood, I was taught my worth in many ways from the time I was very young. I was a snickers bar passively sitting around being licked by men and after a few licks, who would want me? Be on guard, be covered, don’t be alone. What can I do to prevent a rape? What can I do? And whose fault was it when I was raped? I turned the finger toward myself and cried my fault. It’s as slow as burying a soul, this shifting of blame onto us. It’s not just the men who do it. It’s us too. We each have people like Aunt Lydia who think they are protecting us by harshly enforcing these ideas. It’s that we need to worry about. We are slowly being turned in on ourselves. It starts with our names. They take our very identity and wrap it up in something else, just as they do his. Ours is wrapped up with Eve, with sexy dresses, and too much to drink. His is wrapped up in Stanford, his wealthy family, his high position. If we are gone, that’s the best outcome we can hope for. If we are OfSomeoneElse, we won’t just be a drunk, slut, or tease. The danger is that we sometimes want that chance to not be who we are after experiencing something like that. We must leave our bodies, our identities behind because we can’t relate to them anymore. We are programmed to hate ourselves and find ourselves disgusting. Someone is offering us a beautiful escape from that torture, can we consent? Are we truly capable? If we do not struggle, are we not even so still held? What can we do? We can be on each other’s side. Instead of feeding into it by harshly preparing our girls as the Aunts do, or actively holding each other down as the wives do, we can tell each other who we are and believe it. We can set down the stones and save each other.