Iran and Issues of Representation in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale
This post contains some graphic imagery and spoilers for the Ofglen storyline in The Handmaid's Tale.
In honor of the Season 1 finale of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale that came out this past week, I thought that I would take some time to talk about a scene from the show (and its extra-cinematic context) that has been haunting me ever since I watched it in May. I've come to realize, however, that it is not so much the scene itself as the story behind it that I wrestle with and continue to reflect on.
In case you haven't yet seen or heard about the TV series, The Handmaid's Tale is based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name in which we enter a dystopian society called Gilead where women are stripped of all rights. Those who are fertile must be "handmaids," vessels to birth children for the society's elite. The story follows a handmaid named Offred as she moves through daily life in this new society while remembering her past life—a life where she had a job, a husband and a child. Most eerily, the book and show take place in what is understood to be somewhere around what was formerly known as Boston, Massachusetts. The knowledge that Gilead was once the U.S. makes both books and film all the more poignant for audiences during this particular era.
The scene that I would like to bring attention to comes from the third episode, "Late," in which a handmaid named Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) is convicted of "gender treachery," or having a sexual relationship with a woman. Because her womb is still fertile, Ofglen is spared death, but her lover faces a different fate. Both are shoved into the back of a van, where they spend their last minutes together muzzled and unable to fully communicate their love and sorrow. The van stops, the doors are opened, and the lover is shoved out of the van, as Ofglen watches Eyes place a noose around her neck as a construction crane lifts her up to be hanged to death. The doors of the van are swiftly closed, and Ofglen cries and moans as her lover is seen swaying from the crane's neck through the window.
The scene itself is a disturbing and powerful one. It's filmed in a single take, which makes the caliber of acting sustained throughout the performance all the more forceful in its message. And the blocking of the scene causes our eyes to linger on the top right corner of the screen, as Bledel's sobs of sorrow are overlaid onto the isolation of the woman alone in the air—still seen from the van's window.
Being the avid TV consumer that I am, I began to search the internet for material on this scene, Bledel's role as Ofglen, and the series in general. Which is when I came across this interview of showrunner Bill Miller in the Hollywood Reporter. Besides discussing how he and director Reed Morano translated iconic scenes from book to screen—and how they moved beyond the original plot in the series—Miller discusses the particular inspiration for the hanging of Ofglen's lover and the way that it was filmed:
What kinds of conversations did you have about the hanging scene and doing that as a rolling shot?
In terms of the punishment and the trial, it seemed to logically flow out of the world. I had seen images from Iran, of people hanging from cranes with various descriptions of how that had happened. Reed and I spoke with Alexis and it was difficult to do that shot of the hanging. Pretty much all of it is one shot, from the time she leaves the courtroom to the time they hang her lover outside the window. It was written to be one shot and Reed is an amazing filmmaker and really embraced it. Alexis doesn’t speak that whole episode; she doesn’t have a single line. That made it more effective, especially in that scene where they couldn’t talk to each other. It was all a big collaboration.
When I first read this interview, I was struck by this answer that Miller gave. It seemed that Iran was placed ever so casually within this technical description that it is both there and not there—a blip in the purpose of the larger work. Consequently, a lot about how Miller positions Iran in this interview is troubling. And it is the troubling nature of his response that I'd like to briefly interrogate through a small discussion about representation: representation of Iran and the Middle East, as well as its implications for US audiences. In essence, what I try to say below is that representations are powerful things, as they sometimes stand in for the thing itself that is being discussed.
Most salient to Miller's response is the placement of contemporary Iran (and its representation in photos such as the one above) in stark comparison to the dystopian society of Gilead. This itself is not unfounded territory—Atwood's original work made sure that all "practices" and events described in the novel were done somewhere in the world at some point in time. So it seems that the showrunner was keeping in line with the novel's stipulation. What makes this different, however, is the implicit understanding that the producers of the show turned outward in our contemporary moment to give fodder to the plot lines of the various characters. In other words, the audience is asked to believe that Gilead for some parts of the world is real without providing the crucial context of what is happening and why its happening. By leaving the audience with images and nothing more—by building a scene around a contemporary image that was not researched by production—the producers are removing any means of allowing its audience to discuss the implications of such acts. They are left only to speculate.
What also ends up happening is that this comparison reinforces an essentializing notion of what Iran is and who its people are. This is especially true when The Handmaid's Tale is consumed alongside other major films of the era whose plots have to do with some aspect (usually a terrible aspect) of Iran: Not Without My Daughter (1991), Argo (2012), Rosewater (2014). By having Hollywood constantly connect Iran to danger, it does not allow any other narrative about the country and its inhabitants to emerge. And, seeing as the average viewer of the series and reader of the Hollywood Reporter is not an expert in international studies, there is no point of counterbalance—no images and narratives in the mainstream that allow it any nuance.
A final implication of this comparison is the one it has for how we view the United States and the way that it operates. To explain further, let me excerpt another answer that Miller gave in this interview when discussing the development of Ofglen's story:
I was interested to see what it would be like for a woman in the criminal justice system. I researched what happened when a society went from being a thriving, modern country to a theocracy overnight and what happened to women and the criminal justice system. Everywhere around the world, including the Taliban system in Afghanistan, and it’s different to read about it than to see it. It’s so strange to us to see it happen to an American or what we consider an American. Look at all the rights we have. One of the ways to recognize that is to strip them all away.
With this answer, Miller is setting up a false binary between the U.S. and the Middle East. Yes, there are unfathomable things going on in the Middle East that need to be stopped. But there are also unfathomable things happening in the United States (including in our criminal justice system) that strip citizens of their rights, too. To say, "Look at all the rights we have," is to deny the fact that with this new political era, the future of reproductive rights are uncertain, and politicians are still trying to push through a Muslim Ban—one that also antagonizes brown bodies more generally in the US. To say that "it's so strange to us to see it happen to an American," is to deny a history of reproductive violence against women of color in the US and of Japanese internment during World War II. Not to mention the fact that the hanging scene can easily be linked to the relationship between sex/sexuality, race, and lynching in the US South. Crane or oak tree—the product is still the same. The disturbing aspects of these scenes are everywhere around us—one does not need to go to Iran to find them. With statements like this, we end up erasing our own sordid history in the United States.
It is with this last point that I see so much damage being done. By conjuring up a diametrically opposing binary between representations of violence in the Middle East and the (presumed) reality that in the US we have no culpability is to deny a history of the US in which violence against the Other is strongly embedded.