Ahead of the premiere of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hulu’s 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s beloved dystopian novel, actor Elisabeth Moss would like to make one point clear: The show is “obviously” feminist.
She intimated otherwise during a packed panel discussion that took place at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s not a feminist story, it’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights,” she told audiences in New York City. Some fans were less than pleased with what seemed like an effort to distance the show from its, to use her word, “obviously” feminist underpinnings.
Women’s rights are human rights, but, according to many readers and preemptive fans of the show, there is no need to explicitly state that a TV series centered on the life of Offred ― a woman stripped of her societal power, forced into gruesome sexual servitude, and still willing to fight like hell for her freedom ― isn’t feminist.
“I’m not sure that that was exactly what I was trying to say, or what we were trying to say,” Moss told HuffPost on Tuesday, hours before Hulu released the first three episodes to stream. “I wanted to say ― and I’ll just say it right here, right now ― OBVIOUSLY, all caps, it is a feminist work. It is a feminist show.”
Moss identifies as “a card-carrying feminist,” who herself doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as being too vocal about your feminist views. In past interviews about her “Mad Men” character Peggy, she’s said she’s “super-proud to have been part of a moment that people can gain any inspiration from or connect with women’s rights.”
“I think what happened was that I left out a very, very important four-letter word, which is ‘also,’” she said of her “Handmaid’s Tale” comments. “It’s also a humanist tale. That’s all. Women’s rights are human rights. For me, they’re one and the same. And I welcome the conversations. Anything that brings feminism into the spotlight, anything that brings reproductive rights into the spotlight, is a great thing. Whatever that is. We should be talking about it.”
Moss plays Offred, the narrator of “Handmaid’s Tale,” whose “reproductive rights and human rights have been stripped,” who has been “enslaved because she is fertile” and consequently “sexually assaulted every month.” In the Hulu show, these rape scenes are carefully wrought, giving viewers a sobering glimpse into one aspect of the seemingly hopeless lives of the many lower-class women subjugated by Gilead’s theocratic regime.
“It was super important to us that it was very clearly a sexual assault and not something enjoyable by any of the parties,” Moss, who’s also a producer on the show, emphasized. “That it was clinical, that it was brutal, that it was emotionless.”
“For me, what I was trying to do as an actor,” she added, “was to try to imagine ― where do you go? For me, I felt like it would be so horrible that you would have to sort of not be there and that was the only way you could get through such a thing. We do two or three of them ― the ceremonies ― throughout the series, and each time it was really important for us to show that this is not something is remotely sexy. This is sexual assault.”
The show, created by Bruce Miller and executive produced by Warren Littlefield, is fierce in its dedication to realism. Moss was encouraged to not wear makeup in the show, not only to hew closely to the show’s source material ― the detail is outlined in Atwood’s book, in which handmaids are legally prohibited from wearing makeup ― but to allow the near-constant close-up shots of Offred to sink in.
“It does feel like you can see so much more of the character and so much more acting that way,” Moss said. “For me, I don’t want to get dressed up and pretty when I’m acting. I like to play challenging characters ― characters who are going through the challenges of life. It actually makes my life so much easier if I can use that hair and makeup process to the advantage of telling the story and seeing where the character is at.”
Moss’ character ― separated from the husband and daughter she knew before the rise of Gilead, back when familiar companies like Uber and Tinder had more pull over contemporary society ― certainly faces challenges rarely seen on TV before. In one particularly haunting scene, Offred and a group of handmaids are commanded to collectively attack a convicted rapist ― a directive some of the characters almost eagerly obey.
“It raises interesting questions, doesn’t it? Interesting questions about a prison system.” Moss notes of the scene, which occurs in the opening episode. “If you imprison these people and take away all of their rights and sexually assault them and treat them with violence, what happens to these people? How do they change? How do they adapt to the prison? These women are angry, and they are hurt, and they’ve had everything taken away from them including their children. When presented with the male figure, who they are led to believe has done something horrible similar to what has been done to themselves and what is done to them every month, it’s a representation of what might happen. What they might do. All that anger, all of that pain, all of that frustration comes out.”
“There’s also the point that can’t be overlooked or missed is that they have to,” she added. “That if they don’t participate in what’s called a particicution, that they will be killed or maimed or physically abused. They have no choice.”
Choice is a word that seems to once again summon the feminist allegory built right into “Handmaid’s Tale.” In the 1980s, Atwood herself was somewhat hesitant about aligning with the feminism of the time ― second-wave. “I didn’t want to become a megaphone for any one particular set of beliefs,” she said. Thirty years later, she still holds measured reservations.
But to Moss’ Tribeca comments, she’s clear: “They needed an ‘only,’ an ‘also,’ and a human rights definition of the F word, imho,” she tweeted.
“[’Handmaid’s Tale’] is first and foremost feminist,” Moss concluded on Tuesday. “And it’s also about many other different problems we are facing ― infringements on a lot of different human rights. I got the privilege of spending so much time with Margaret recently, and hearing her talk about this stuff. I know what this book is and I know what she’s talking about.”