What The Handmaid’s Tale Can Tell Us About Hollywood’s Sexual Assault Allegations

on October 30, 2017, 1:45pm

So apparently October really is a time for creeps. Breaking the Harvey Weinstein story early last month, The New York Times detailed three decades of sexual assault allegations muzzled by at least eight court settlements. Then Woody Allen, being the bro he is, came to the defense of the fallen producer. He told the BBC it’d be best to avoid “a witch hunt” where “every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”

Of course he said that. Because Woody Allen is basically The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Commander Waterford, a guy whose concern for what does and does not get investigated comes with just a tiny bit of baggage.

The Handmaid’s Tale, for those unacquainted, imagines a dystopian near-future where the religious right has taken a hold of the U.S. government and has turned cultural mores back 400 years, creating an atmosphere closer to 1600s Salem than present-day Boston. Women are returned to the status of commodity, quite literally: Amid an infertility crisis, fertile women are captured, reeducated, and assigned to men’s homes as handmaids, where they can run errands by day and spread their legs at night.

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But since those in charge are a God-fearing, righteous bunch, the whole rape ritual is performed under the guise of a religious ceremony. After all, when Sarah couldn’t bear children, Abraham laid with her handmaid. No funny business is to be done outside of these ceremonies, however. But in the Season 1 finale, one of the commanders is put on trial for doing just that. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) has no interest in punishing his friend, attempting to push the charges aside for more important things.

handmaids tale What The Handmaids Tale Can Tell Us About Hollywoods Sexual Assault AllegationsWhy? Because he’s the master of Offred (Elizabeth Moss), and like good ol’ Woody Allen, there might be a reason (or two) to change the subject. Oh, Woody Allen. Just weeks after the Weinstein story broke, we’re now discovering he’s directing a movie about a 15-year-old girl having a sexual relationship with a middle-aged man. Are we surprised? No, because he’s Commander fucking Waterford.

Emmy-darling The Handmaid’s Tale seemed prescient for the sexual-scandal haven that would become 2017, a year that included the inauguration of a pussy-grabbing president, a Bill Cosby mistrial, the double whammy of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly over at Fox News, the firing of Amazon producer Roy Price, and, now, a weird confession/coming-out statement by Kevin Spacey.

It’s heartening that we seem to be having a bit of a cultural awakening, but as the Margaret Atwood book The Handmaid’s Tale is based on shows us, our facade of progress is a fragile one. I, for one, am not super eager to live in Gilead, so let’s review the lessons to be gleaned from Offred, Ofglen, and the whole Of-village.

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01. Without pushback, institutions won’t change

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Gilead: When Commander Putnam stands in front of Gilead’s version of a magistrate panel, charged with a myriad of sex crimes, Commander Waterford’s quick to bring up the mitigating factors: Poor ol’ Putnam has a wife! A baby! He’s not a bad guy. Let’s go easy on him.

Of course, it’s surprising Waterford is even awake enough to make these pleas on Putnam’s behalf considering he’s out all night taking his own handmaiden to a brothel.

But Commander Price (holy shit, so many commanders) pushes back. He makes a call for accountability, and accountability is finally served — in typical Gileadic limb-chopping fashion.

The Real World: Twitter wasn’t having it with Woody Allen’s thinly veiled protests against a “witch hunt.” Allen, who underwent his own bad press in 2014, needs no help looking guilty as hell. The backlash against him wasn’t surprising, but society’s growing intolerance with banal platitudes kind of was. When actors like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon made statements about needing to do better for our “wives and daughters,” Twitter wasn’t having that either.

It’s become a scapegoat for men to point to the mere existence of women in their lives as evidence that they know how to treat women. Without some pushback from people who can see through the bullshit (like Commander Price), nothing will change. Case in point: Amid a $32 million sexual harassment settlement, Fox still renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract. Institutions don’t change based on principle — they change based on public pressure, so let’s hold our broomsticks high.

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02. We ignore transgressions when it benefits us to do so

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Gilead: No one is more hot and cold than Commander Waterford’s wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). In a society where women are no longer allowed to read or write, motherhood is Serena Joy’s one and only goal. In a dramatic one-two punch, Serena Joy discovers Waterford’s been taking their handmaid out on the town (in her clothes, no less); and while her head’s still spinning, we learn Offred is pregnant. Is Serena Joy mad? Yes. Is she going to turn Waterford in? No. It would jeopardize everything: her place in society, her image as a devout woman, her chance at a child.

The Real World: We have to admit, even with the nondisclosure statements Weinstein Company employees had to sign upon getting hiring, the complicity of those working closest with Harvey Weinstein is something of a gray area. As Ronan Farrow reported in The New Yorker, Weinstein had an m.o.: He’d make young women (actresses, assistants, etc.) feel comfortable by inviting a female executive to meetings — and then excuse the exec halfway through.

But what do you do when you’re a 20-something assistant and the man asking for a favor seems like the very gateway to the industry you’re trying to break into? What do you do when you’re a male director and have heard rumors but need funding? It’s human nature to shy away from issues that seem too big to confront. So how do we facilitate a culture that gives witnesses of sexual assault more power to report anonymously without losing their jobs?

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03. The sleeping-to-get-ahead trope ignores the way power dynamics often actually work

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Gilead: Just as women disguised themselves as sexual partners during World War II to serve as spies, Offred realizes if she wants to get into town to pick up a package for the resistance, she’s going to have to convince Waterford she wants to get it on (he has the security clearance, after all). Of course, we as a culture are going to look more kindly on a woman in a life-and-death situation, as Offred finds herself in, than on a more ambiguous character like House of Cards’ go-getter reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara). Whether even that is justified is a debate for another time.

The Real World: Was there anything more obnoxious to come out of the Weinstein commentary than Mayim Bialik’s op-ed in The New York Times about how she’s avoided unwanted attention by dressing conservatively? There’s still a tendency to believe that if a sex crime occurs, the woman may not be guilty, but, hey, you know there’s probably something she could have done to prevent it. There’s still a belief that if an actress gave a mega-successful producer a blowjob, that succubus slipped under his sheets knowing the payoff would be big: a good word to a director or, if she’s lucky, a leading role.

On TV, we have the luxury of knowing a character’s motives. In real life, not so much. We take it as a given that women have slept to get a role in a film, but we don’t often think about if ending up in that bedroom was a choice. We don’t appreciate that sometimes giving into oral sex is less terrifying than offending a very powerful man. “I know he has crushed a lot of people before,” Italian actress Asia Argento told The New Yorker. “That’s why this story—in my case, it’s 20 years old, some of them are older—has never come out.”

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04. There’s comfort in hearing other women’s stories

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Gilead: Offred gets through the first season thanks to a small inscription carved into a corner of her closet: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. It’s something of a gift from Waterford’s previous handmaid. Then, in the season finale, Offred finds the motherload. Her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) helps Offred secure a package of letters, illuminating all sorts of stories. “My daughter was taken.” “He forces himself on me.” The anonymous voices give Offred the second wind she needs to finally stand up for what is right — regardless of the consequences.

The Real World: As some people pointed out during the #MeToo campaign, women don’t own anyone their story. There’s no shame and certainly no obligation to come out. But there was definitely something of a domino effect. It seemed like the more people who came out, the easier it made it for women, even those who don’t usually get political, to speak out too. Hearing from others helps us understand what our own stories, especially in a culture that’s constantly trying to get women to doubt their own instincts, to feel like they’re overreacting.

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05. Sympathetic males may provide support, but often it comes short of doing everything they could do

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Gilead: One of the more difficult characters to peg down is Nick (Max Minghella), Waterford’s driver who is also engaging in a somewhat risky affair with Offred. He’s an Eye — a spy. He has the power to say exactly what’s going on in the house. The degree to which he’s using that power is unclear. But he still provides something important for Offred: real intimacy. She can reclaim her identity around him. She can be real around him. She can acknowledge how fucked up things have really gotten.

The Real World: Quentin Tarantino told the BBC, “I knew enough to do more than I did.” His ex-girlfriend Mira Sorvino told him about her own experiences, presumably seeking comfort and understanding. I don’t think we, as a society, expect our boyfriends, coworkers, brothers, and friends to do anything other than listen when we tell them about our experiences — but why not? Reporting sex crimes may be an uphill battle for every single woman for the rest of time, but how powerful would it have been for a big director to step forward and say, “Hey, I’m not working for this guy”? Before women’s rights can be fully realized as human rights, the fight needs allies.

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06. It’s never just one woman

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Gilead: As comforting as the Latin words inscribed in her closet are, Offred knows the handmaid before her couldn’t possibly have left alive. As Waterford flirts with her, slipping Offred elicit magazines and playing Scrabble with her after dark (whoa, slow down there buddy), Offred can’t shake the feeling that her predecessor sat in this same chair during these same late night secret meetings. Waterford isn’t about love with these women — he’s about power.

The Real World: Read Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker piece. It’s scary. It’s one thing to hear 60 women come out, as they did with Bill Cosby. It’s another to read about Harvey Weinstein using the exact same strategy over and over again for 25+ years (inviting a woman to his room with the pretense of talking business, then asking for a massage). Emily Nestor, a front-desk assistant at the Weinstein Company, recalled Weinstein bragging “that he’d never had to do anything like Bill Cosby.” As if sexual assault is somehow more impressive if you manage it without drugs. Do you want a trophy?

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07. Even when authorities are told, nothing is done

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Gilead: “Please don’t be sorry,” Offred pleads with a female Mexican diplomat at the end Episode 6. “Please do something.” The diplomat is the first person in a while to seem suspicious of the whole charade. She’s in Gilead on business: Before she makes a trade with Waterford and his men for handmaids (Mexico, too, is suffering from an infertility drought), she wants to assuage her own fears that the women might not be there of their own freewill. But when Offred confirms her fears, the woman’s not willing to change her commercial plans. Victims are simply expected to sooth everyone else’s conscious.

The Real World: According to the Times, Lauren O’Connor, a former executive at The Weinstein Company, circulated a memo to many of the company’s top execs in 2015, detailing two years of allegations against Weinstein. Board members, including Weinstein’s brother and partner Bob Weinstein, decided against investigating. O’Connor received a settlement and signed an NDA. Would things have been different if a male exec stepped forward? What recourse do employees have when HR departments are essentially PR-spin departments, instead of resources for employees?

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08. Threats force those in the know to toe the line

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Gilead: Lest we forget Serena Joy is the real person to fear in the Waterford house, she takes a freshly impregnated Offred on a field trip … to see her daughter for the first time since her capture. But she keeps Offred locked in the car for the whole visit. The message is clear: I know where your daughter is, and if you do anything to harm my future baby, we’ll both be childless.

The Real World: The other thing that was infuriating about Mayim Bialik’s op-ed is the assumption she had any idea what Weinstein’s victims looked like. Front-desk assistant Emily Nestor told The New Yorker her colleagues warned her about Weinstein, so she dressed “very frumpy.” But that didn’t stop Weinstein from inviting the 25-year-old out to breakfast. And then the mind games began:

Throughout the breakfast, she said, Weinstein interrupted their conversation to yell into his cell phone, enraged over a spat that Amy Adams, a star in the Weinstein movie Big Eyes, was having in the press. Afterward, Weinstein told Nestor to keep an eye on the news cycle, which he promised would be spun in his favor. Later in the day, there were indeed negative news items about his opponents, and Weinstein stopped by Nestor’s desk to be sure that she’d seen them.

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09. Predators sometimes look like allies

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Gilead: It’s hard to know what to make of Waterford in the first part of the season. Offred is so imprisoned that it’s really kind of nice to see her loosen up a bit in their secret late-night board game sessions. But the real argument for Waterford as not-quite-a-total dick comes in his defense to the council on behalf of his wife, Serena Joy. She wrote a book long ago and wants to write another. Seeing Serena Joy’s latent intellect and passion resurface seems to revive some love between the couple. Maybe Waterford isn’t such a bad guy after all … oh wait, minus the repeatedly raping his handmaidens thing.

The Real World: On the surface, Harvey Weinstein looked like a standup dude, too. He contributed money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He marched in the Women’s March. The Weinstein Company even distributed The Hunting Ground, a 2015 documentary about sexual assault on campus. At some point, we as pop culture critics started associating the contents of a film with the personal beliefs of the production team, at the very least of the director. Maybe that’s dulled our collective critical eye a bit. It’s at least something to consider moving forward.

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10. There’s power in numbers

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Gilead: We have no idea what fate awaits Offred as she’s taken away by police at the end of Season 1, but the season still ends on a victorious note. When ordered to stone their fellow handmaiden Ofwarren, the handmaids collectively refuse. In solidarity, they drop their cold, jagged rocks to the ground. With that action, each woman regains a semblance of autonomy.

The Real World: It’s tough. It’s not as simple as: “Why didn’t more people speak out?” When a company forces you to sign a contract against speaking ill of the company on your very first day, how do we hold powerful men accountable? We’re not appreciating the great legal risk those that spoke out put themselves in. But it took all these accounts before more women with more details spoke out. Zelda Perkins, Weinstein’s assistant at Miramax, was the first employee to break her NDA in an interview with the Financial Times on October 23rd. Without the collective outrage for the last three weeks — hell, even with the collective outrage — how many people would have the courage to do that?

Sources for the New Yorker retroactively went off the record before print. Even within the pages of The New Yorker, one of the most trusted publications in the country, Perkins feared retaliation. The New York Times, who broke the story, was immediately sued by The Weinstein Company. But because reporters were willing to report, women were willing to speak, former employees were willing to break contracts, and thousands of men and women on social media said #MeToo, public opinion on “locker room talk,” as Republicans called it during the campaign, is changing. Let’s keep at it.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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