Melissa Viger ’19
The second season of Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” spends three episodes focused specifically on our protagonist, June, making her way out of the puritanical hellscape that is Gilead. Just when June (and viewers) can practically taste her freedom, though, it’s ripped away in typical “The Handmaid’s Tale” fashion. June is sent back to live with her master, where she endures more unspeakable abuses for the rest of the season.
It’s unsurprising then, that when you look up articles about the “The Handmaid’s Tale” online, some of the same descriptors keep coming up. “Brutal” and “torture porn” are two of the most common ones. Whether you agree with everything these writers are saying, these articles make at least one objective point: the show is brutal because of the sexual violence, abuse, mutilation, and depression depicted throughout the series. So much so that in the eleventh episode of the second season June apologizes for it. The episode begins with her telling the viewers, “I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story….but there’s nothing I can do to change it.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is far from the only show that’s been accused of being “torture porn.” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” and various other shows have been accused of the same. Yet, these are some of the most popular shows in recent history. Just as some were vowing to stop watching the series due to alleged gratuitous violence, it was revealed that viewership for “The Handmaid’s Tale” had doubled and the show was being renewed. Even with so much pain being depicted, people still tuned in. Why? What draws so many of us to shows where characters endlessly suffer and good things are far and few between?
One possible explanation is that the pain and suffering make even the smallest of victories sweeter and make the characters’ strength more inspirational. When June and Ofglen inspire the other handmaids to disobey their superior at the end of Season 1, it feels like a big victory, even though we know a punishment will follow it. When terrible things happen to characters we love, and they somehow continue to go on, their strength becomes inspirational. Maybe, if June can survive Gilead’s abuses, maintain her strength, and never lose her fighting spirit, we are strong enough to face whatever challenges we have in life as well.
Another possible reason we enjoy these shows has to do with meta-emotional experiences, or how we feel about what we’re feeling. A show so intent on making characters suffer over and over again (and “The Handmaid’s Tale” regularly comes up with new ways for them to suffer) provides us with many opportunities to feel empathy and sympathy. While watching one of the main characters lose an eye or her chance at escaping may make us feel anxious or sad in the moment, after it can make us feel good about what sympathetic people we are. Feeling bad or overwhelmed by heinous things happening to our favorite characters can lead us to conclude that we are good and humane people. Who doesn’t want to feel like they are a good person? Shows where characters repeatedly suffer give us the chance to feel like we are.
These shows don’t just make us feel better about ourselves as people, though, they can also make us feel better about our lives and problems. They make us reflect on how good our lives are compared to the characters on screen. Fortunately, for the overwhelming majority of “The Handmaid’s Tale” viewers, life isn’t as difficult as the characters’ lives. We all have difficulties, but most of them are nowhere near as bad as what the women in Gilead face. The world might not be a great place right now, but it’s far better than the oppressive and violent Gilead. It makes sense that watching this show (and other like it) could make us feel better about ourselves and the current (less than ideal) world we’re living in.
Finally, researcher and professor Mary Beth Oliver’s work suggests that we do not always watch television shows for pleasure, but for “truth seeking.” “Entertainment,” she says, “can be used as a means of grappling with questions such as life’s purpose and human meaningfulness.” This too makes a good amount of sense. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is about a dystopian regime that oppresses women through violence. It deals with an infertility epidemic and climate disaster. Most of the abuses and attitudes that are depicted on the show, however, either exist today, have existed in the past, or could reasonably exist in the future. The show forces us to confront these issues. It shows us humans’ worst impulses and how badly we tend to act when catastrophes occur.
Perhaps shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale” that feature a lot of pain are not necessarily enjoyable, but they help us better understand the human condition, and that’s why we are drawn to them. Besides making us feel better about ourselves and our lives, they have lessons to teach us. Maybe we aren’t looking to them to provide us with escapism, but with insight and realism.