Serena Joy is not a name, it is an expectation, and the character bearing that moniker in the hit SBS series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has spent the series desperately trying to live up to it. Until now, when the perfect façade is finally beginning to crack up spectacularly. She has helped her (well, really June’s) daughter Nichole escape to Canada, burned down her house and had her little finger amputated as punishment. By any measure, she is in the throes of a florid nervous breakdown.
As portrayed by Australian Yvonne Strahovski, Serena Joy is a beautiful, blonde ice-maiden; the infertile wife of Commander Fred Waterford. As a couple they are among the privileged Christian elite who rule Gilead, although, as a woman, Serena’s role is very limited. She silently chafes against her limitations particularly as she was once a leading exponent of the virtues of a rigid Bible-based theocracy before the revolution her side won. She is the living embodiment of the old rock-and-roll adage about not wishing too hard for what you want in case you get it.
Her slowly growing self-awareness is one of the most interesting trajectories in the series.
That Serena Joy is brilliantly named is hardly surprising, given that Margaret Atwood is a literary genius. Everything that is expected from women by a theocracy is embodied in it. A ‘good’ woman in most religious traditions is expected to serenely create joy in and for others. Her sole purpose is to quietly, unobtrusively and uncomplainingly smooth the way for her husband and children. If she is a privileged woman, she is meant to be a beautiful, elegant and silent ornament to her husband’s status and power. The only joy she is allowed must be vicarious. No matter how bored, tired, frustrated, sad, disappointed or miserable she may be, she must never complain or allow anyone to experience her negativity. After all, that would cast a real downer of the ‘joy’ she is meant to create for those around her. Well, those around her with power and status, anyway.
Serena Joy has worked hard to subdue any negative feelings. For most of the episodes aired so far she has exercised an iron discipline over her feelings. Her only relief has been in wielding the small power she has over the lowlier members of her household – June, the handmaid, and the various house-keepers called Marthas – coldly and cruelly. She can project onto them all her own frustrations and sense of restriction, and she does. In the first season and for most of the second she was an easy woman to hate.
Serena Joy is emblematic of Gilead as a whole. She is cracking as it also begins to crack.
But now it is not so simple to hate Serena Joy. In episode 3, particularly as she sought comfort from her cold, elegant, icily correct, monstrously narcissistic mother, I almost felt sorry for her. I also understood why she helped her/June’s daughter escape. Serena Joy’s as a species do not make great mothers and I think she had a moment of awareness about that. When her own mother admonished her tear-stained daughter by saying that all she wanted was for her to be ‘happy’, I realised that what those mothers require from their children – particularly their daughters – is that they only ever demonstrate joy as a payback for their mother’s repressed misery.
Any sadness, despair or crack-up is seen as a direct criticism of the mother and she, frankly, does not want to know. Every time I hear a parent say they just want their children to be happy, I wince. I wince a great deal as a result. ‘Being happy’ in that context too easily becomes a pressure, a reward for parents, and so any unhappiness is seen as a betrayal. Better to want your children to be as fully themselves as they can be and then when happiness comes it can be freely enjoyed and when its opposite inevitably arrives, it can be suffered without the additional burden of repression and guilt. The road to hell is paved with parental good intentions.
Oppression does not simply warp and deform those who are oppressed. It also exacts a price from those who do the oppressing.
There has been much debate among fans of the series about whether Serena Joy can change and even if she does whether she can be forgiven. My own view is that her slowly growing self-awareness is one of the most interesting trajectories in the series. She demonstrates that most people are not cruel because they are evil – unless, like another character Commander Joseph Lawrence, June’s new master, they are a psychopath. They are cruel because they are desperately unhappy and warped and lack any self-awareness or ability to reflect on their own motives and the consequences of what they do. Authoritarian religions actively resist self-awareness or analysis. They want adherents to blindly follow the rules, regardless. That is why they are so terrifying and repressive.
Serena Joy is emblematic of Gilead as a whole. She is cracking as it also begins to crack. Should she be forgiven? I believe in redemption. I believe that even the worst of us have reasons why we do what we do, and that no human being is a monster, even though some of us do monstrous things. That does not mean we forget what Serena has done and who she once was, but it means we can feel compassion about the suffering she has caused herself and even admiration as she learns painful lessons from her misery.
Oppression does not simply warp and deform those who are oppressed. It also exacts a price from those who do the oppressing. They must become monstrous, they may gain the whole world, but they have lost their soul. I look forward to seeing if Serena Joy can get hers back.
Jane Caro is a freelance writer. You can follow Jane on Twitter @JaneCaro.
The Handmaid's Tale is broadcast on SBS in the 9:30pm time slot from Thursday June 20. All episodes will be available to stream weekly on SBS On Demand. Listen to the award-winning Handmaid's Tale podcast 'Eyes on Gilead' here.