Like the handmaids of Gilead, I spent the better part of 2017 in servitude to the commander of my house. And by commander, I mean a tiny baby.
And like many new mothers who spend the better part of their days trapped on the couch underneath either a breastfeeding or sleeping baby, I watched more TV than I’d care to admit. Somewhere after hate-watching the entire Gilmore Girls reboot and finally watching all eight seasons of Weeds, I jumped into season one of The Handmaid’s Tale.
--Warning: this article contains Handmaid’s Tale Season one spoilers.--
I’d never read the Margaret Atwood novel of which the series is based and only vaguely knew its premise, so I went in blindly. Watching the opening sequence where Elisabeth Moss’s character June's daughter is snatched away by a group of armed men—while clutching my own sleeping daughter in my lap—was confronting to say the least. As I sat on the couch at midday, trying to muffle my sobs into a spit-up cloth so I wouldn’t wake the baby, I thought, “Maybe this show isn’t for me.”
I anxiously held my breath as I watched June’s clandestine Scrabble games with Joseph Fiennes’ Commander Waterford
Before long, however, I was hooked. I fell down a rabbit hole of white bonnets and red robes and within a week, I had finished watching the entire season. During feeding times, I clutched my phone reading every analysis and recap I could find, or watched Youtube video compilations that fans had created of Nick and June’s romance to the soundtrack of some melancholic National song.
Some mums I know struggled with themes of the show. One girlfriend and her husband tried to watch it when their son was three months old, but they tapped out half way through.
Two scenes from season two in particular were just too much. “The scene where someone steals June’s baby at the hospital when she’s just given birth, and also the scene where a woman gives birth with a crowd of women chanting around her and then immediately has the baby whisked off to its new mother,” she tells me. “I think that’s where we turned it off!”
Not me, though. I anxiously held my breath during June’s clandestine Scrabble games with Joseph Fiennes’ Commander Waterford, and would lie awake some nights thinking about the harrowing images I’d seen. The scene where handmaid Janine sings Bob Marley’s ‘Don’t Worry About a Thing’ while breastfeeding her newborn baby haunted me for days. But, just like that time I watched that very-upsetting-for-parents movie Manchester By The Sea, I couldn’t switch it off.
We turn to TV and film as we try to make sense of an increasingly unstable world.
There has been some research into the appeal of disturbing film and TV shows. One theory around why we watch traumatic films is that it helps us rationalise our world. Speaking to Wired, ethicist Chris Robichaud suggests fiction is an efficient way to deal with troubling times. “We can work our way through problems by telling stories better, at times, than by writing philosophical treatises,” he said. “You look at fiction to see how people are wrestling with serious problems.”
We turn to TV and film as we try to make sense of an increasingly unstable world. Given the parallels made between Gilead and Trump’s America, sparking the red robes of the handmaids to become a symbol of women’s rights, this theory makes sense.
Another theory is that it actually gives us a boost. In 2016, Oxford University researchers examined the attraction behind traumatic films, stating that it can increase pain tolerance and feelings of group bonding, by increasing levels of endorphins in the brain.
“The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system,” co-author Robin Dunbar told The Guardian. Dunbar and her colleagues found that study participants who watched a traumatic film boosted pain thresholds by nearly 18 per cent, and had increased feelings of group bonding.
I’m not sure what it was about The Handmaid’s Tale that sucked me in. Spending days alone with a new baby can be isolating and at times very, very boring. Consuming the series meant I was in touch with a cultural phenomenon during a time when I felt very much out of the loop. Unpacking each episode allowed my mind to be consumed by something other than feeding times and day sleeps. Now that I’m out of that newborn haze, I’m looking forward to ‘book-clubbing’ season three—just this time with other adults.
SBS will air the double-episode season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at 8.30pm Thursday 6 June, with episodes 1-3 available on SBS On Demand. New episodes will then air weekly on SBS, moving to the 9:30pm time slot from Thursday 20th June. All episodes will be available to stream weekly on SBS On Demand.