Handmaids and ball culture triumph over Trumpism
In very different ways, The Handmaid's Tale and Pose remind us of the power of art to galvanise minorities
It is said that self-care is regularly doing the things that make you feel happiest, and for a good while that was watching The Handmaid’s Tale for me.
The show, if you’re unfamiliar, is an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s anti-utopian novel of the same name, which was published in the mid-80s. It is set in the fictional Republic of Gilead, where fertile women (known as Handmaids) are kidnapped, abused and used as reproductive surrogates for the most powerful figures of that country.
It is a harsh world, and it seemed to strike a chord with many living in Trump’s post-truth and totalitarian America. But we also live times of the #MeToo movement, and there was global interest in a primetime television show that finally starred women who, in spite of the abominable conditions they lived in, never recoiled.
Elisabeth Moss plays lead character Offred, whom we follow as she recalls a world before the Gilead regime. Most of the first season left you shaken, but it made for engrossing television. It wasn’t hard to see why it beat out many other top shows, including The Crown, This Is Us and House of Cards.
When Moss won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role, she read a line out of Atwood’s novel: “'We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank, white spaces at the edge of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
Then she paid tribute to the iconic Canadian writer, saying: “Margaret Atwood, this is for you and all the women who came before you and after you who were brave enough to speak out against intolerance and injustice and to fight for equality and freedom in this world. We no longer live in the blank white spaces at the edge of print. We no longer live in the gaps between the stories. We are the story in print, and we are writing the story ourselves.”
The speech encapsulated everything that the show was about – not only women's empowerment, but resistance. That’s why I loved that show – I wanted so much for all its Handmaids to fight and win.
Atwood herself felt that the show had “galvanised” the youth, suggesting they could be motivated to push back against Trumpism.
Yes, I watch television dramas to escape, but The Handmaid’s Tale has turned too brutal and too real for me to stomach. Perhaps it is a failure on my part to not want to accept that even though this is fictional, life has imitated art as often as art has imitated contemporary life: more and more women are revealing the identities of their abusers, some don’t get to expose them because they are killed and stuffed in bins (like Karabo Mokoena was by her deranged boyfriend, Sandile Mantsoe), and others are victims of corrective rape.
It used to be agonising viewing, but we did it anyway, because it seemed to be farfetched. But now it is harrowing to watch because you begin to imagine how you would handle seeing your mother or sister or girlfriend suffering similar violations as Offred or Karabo Mokoena. It is that close to home.
This is why I couldn’t finish season two of the show.
So I discovered Pose about a month ago, which has proven to be a most welcome antidote to the distressing The Handmaid’s Tale.
The former is a Ryan Murphy-helmed dramedy inspired by the ballroom culture of 1980s in New York City, a sort of TV-series nod to the symbolic and memorable Paris is Burning. It is a show that puts LGBTQ+ people front and centre: it tackles love and relationships, the onset of the HIV/Aids scourge, abandonment, family, and does it in a way that leaves you more hopeful than downcast.
Transgender activist and one of the writers for the show, Janet Mock, told Paper Magazine recently that she “loved the fact that it [Pose] was a period piece, and I think that we can learn so much about our current state by looking at the past and seeing how people resisted, survived, and thrived despite the many hurdles. I loved the fact that it was about a vibrant scene and the culture was created by people who were given nothing and created their own safe space.”
The deeper one goes into the series, the deeper one falls in love with it. For a while, its actors were engaged in social media campaigns encouraging viewers to spread the word to help sway the show’s producers and network to renew it.
The truth is that sometimes a show such as Pose will never garner the numbers of viewers achieved by other TV dramas, for obvious reasons, but what it will do is speak to pockets of viewers all over the world who have little to no representation of themselves on their TV screens, which is just as important a job for TV producers.
I think both shows were attractive to me because they broached subjects which are usually not immediately attractive or seen as mainstream enough – shows representing minorities. Both shows have shown me how powerful art can be – when it can galvanise those shunned or inadequately represented, that’s when it’s at its most impressive.