• Ann Dowd (left) plays Aunt Lydia. (SBS)Source: SBS
Women like Aunt Lydia exist and have always existed. In the show she is an enforcer; in real life we can recognise her as the moral campaigner.
Jane Caro

8 May 2018 - 10:45 AM  UPDATED 9 May 2019 - 4:28 PM

One of the most memorable moments of Michelle Wolf’s funny, witty and razor sharp  monologue at the 2018 White House Correspondent’s Dinner was when she nailed White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders with her remark: 

“We are graced with Sarah’s presence tonight. I have to say I’m a little star-struck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale.”

And, indeed, Huckabee Sanders does bear more than a passing physical resemblance to the character played by Ann Dowd in the dystopian Hulu series Wolf refers to. But that, of course, was not the sharpest point she was making. Aunt Lydia is one of Gilead’s enforcers, one of a tribe of older, infertile women whose job it is to train, discipline, punish and, if necessary, torture and kill the fertile handmaids.

Women like her exist and have always existed.

Gilead, for all 7 of you who are unfamiliar with either Atwood’s book or the series on SBS, is the new name for a post-apocalyptic America run as a kind of oppressive, woman-hating Christian fundamentalist theocracy along the lines of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Women exist only as privileged ‘wives’, enforcer ‘aunts’, breeding machine ‘handmaids’ or domestic slave ‘marthas’. There are also the sex worker Jezebels. 

Aunt Lydia as portrayed by Ann Dowd is a complex and multi-faceted character. Despite her cruelty and iron-clad control she also gives the impression of having some affection for her captives and, of course, the aunts, like the wives, have no real power. It is men and only men who have any rights in Gilead. 

Aunt Lydia may be a strongly realised fictional character, but as Wolf’s joke about Huckabee Sanders makes clear, we respond so strongly to her because we recognise that women like her exist and have always existed.

In every oppressive regime some members of the powerless and demonised group attempt to survive by identifying themselves with their oppressors. So it is with those women who identify as anti-feminists, or who protest outside abortion clinics or who excuse their sons for rape, sexual assault and abuse by always blaming the woman. 

They will never be completely accepted by the very men they support.

When I was young, I would say that there were many more Aunt Lydias than there are now. Back then they were the older female teachers who measured our skirt lengths and lectured us about keeping our legs together (literally and metaphorically). They were the legion of purse-lipped, disapproving women who tut-tutted at us when we stood about on street corners, hitching up our school tunics and smoking Marlboros while flirting with boys.

They were morals campaigners like Mary Whitehouse who campaigned against sex in the media in the UK, Phyllis Schlafly in the US who successfully campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment and Anita Bryant, the beauty queen turned anti-gay rights campaigner. In Australia they called themselves ‘The Women who want to be Women’ (I kid you not).

The Aunt Lydias are still with us. They are the women who tut-tutt at female politicians. They are the women who blame quotas, affirmative action and targets for women on boards for the crimes being revealed at banking Royal Commission with a straight face. They are the female politicians who vote against decriminalising abortion, for closing women’s refuges and for cutting funding to domestic violence services. They are Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellie Anne Conway who defend a misogynistic, self-confessed pussy-grabber no matter what lies he asks them to tell. 

They are also, it must be said, the 52% of white women who voted in the 2016 presidential election for a man who has no respect for women instead of a woman who has spent all her adult life fighting for their rights. 

In the short term it can look like a smart strategy to be an Aunt Lydia in a world run by men. I understand why many women would rather align themselves with the powerful than the powerless. In the long run, however, I think they pay a very high price. Never completely accepted by the very men they support, dance around and destroy their reputations for (that’s misogyny for you), they also do not identify with other women. In the end, they get hung out to dry.  

I have no idea how The Handmaid’s Tale is going to finish, but I’d put odds on Aunt Lydia coming to a sticky end.

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.

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