Slightly late to the party, but a few weeks ago I started watching ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on More 4. Of course, I now belong to the Netflix generation, which means that having to wait for a week before I can find out what happens next, is excruciatingly painful. Instant gratification – that’s what the world is about isn’t it? Or is that just me? Let me give you a few examples – I eat well for one day – why aren’t my clothes loose yet? I go swimming for 2 weeks on the trot – why haven’t I got my pre-children body back yet? I play the lottery on a regular basis – how am I not a millionaire yet? It’s ok, you can go ahead and roll your eyes. First world, privileged person problems! I know.
But I digress. I did start off writing about ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for a reason. I have really enjoyed watching the plight of June/Offred. I have delighted in immersing myself into her dark, dystopian world, scaring myself witless, making secret contingency plans in my head, if we had to, how would me and my nearest and dearest escape?
There are no spoilers here, read any synopsis and that will reveal more information than I’m about to. But there was one part in the episode that I watched yesterday that just didn’t feel true. I’m fully aware of the irony – you’re watching a story about a society that doesn’t exist, and I’m annoyed about something that didn’t ring true? Well, the whole point of reading or watching science fiction; dystopian societies; fantasy fiction is that even though the situations and the experiences that the humans are placed in, are beyond our reality – the very fact that they are people means that we put ourselves in their shoes and think about what we would do, and how we would behave in their position.
The series operates, as many narratives do, through switching between the present and flashbacks. I was watching a flashback, when something happened that really annoyed me. Only because I knew as a woman, that it felt contrived, insincere and not at all rooted in how people behave. Once you’ve read what I’m about to say, you may think it’s such a tiny fault, and it is. But it has been playing on my mind since last night – so here we go.
Before everything ‘went wrong’, prior to June becoming Offred, she had been leading a happy life. She had a husband whom she loved deeply and a beautiful daughter (who was difficult to age; anything between 5 -8). Without revealing too much, once the excrement had hit the fan, they decided that the only course of action to take, was to run away. Whilst trying to escape, they ended up hiding in a well stocked, cabin, in the middle of nowhere. And now I shall come to the part that I found difficult to digest….
In the flashback, June and her daughter are making pancakes, a perfectly inane non event. June is laughing whilst her daughter is stirring the mixture. Simultaneously, she is talking to her daughter and constantly turning to her husband, ‘making eyes’ at him. Impressed with her daughter’s ability to ‘stir’, she asks in a seductive voice, of course aimed her husband, ‘I wonder where you learnt that from!’ The camera shot then shows her turning towards her husband and looking at him pronouncedly, as though she would like to pounce on him there and then.
To be honest, that scene filled me with so much rage, it stopped me from being able to enjoy the rest of the episode.
Why? Such a tiny thing? Why?
It just didn’t feel true. I don’t know why I felt angry – perhaps I felt betrayed? Perhaps it was the realisation that the programme makers don’t actually understand people in real relationships. They got the dysfunctional aspect; nailed the disturbing elements – but the real everyday part – no.
Perhaps it was because I had been putting myself in June’s shoes. All the way through, I admired her refusal to submit to her fate. I approved of her silent rebellion. I totally understood her doing whatever she had to do, in order to survive because she had the bigger picture to think about. An endgame in sight.
But flirting with your husband, in front of your child, when you’re trying to escape and your nerves are fraught as the whole world collapses around you? No.
Here’s how I see relationships – and I’m not just talking about mine, i’m making an observation of many good relationships that I have seen over the years. When you first start out in a new relationship, there is that element of huge excitement and nerves. That’s the electricity or spark that people so often refer to. Excitement charged with nerves. Those good butterflies in your stomach. Excitement and nerves. You dress well, you go over and above to make a special effort, everything is tidy, everything is new, everything smells of – I don’t do this normally; I’m doing this to impress you.
The next stage is realisation – this is actually going somewhere really good. We can actually make this work long-term. And the nerves go. You are filled with excitement and hope! This person is your soul-mate. The one you’re actually meant to be with. And the world is good!
The following stage – you might decide to have children. Let’s do this. We love each other. Let’s start a family.
This is the decision that actually means you will never be the same again. Ever.
All the way up to giving birth to my eldest daughter, I’d still held some things back from my husband. I’d still been painfully self-conscious, even though I knew I didn’t need to be; I was. There were certain things, I thought, I’d never do in front of him….
Almost 7 years ago, there he was by my side, holding my hand, encouraging me, keeping me calm, holding my hair back when I needed to throw up, rubbing my back, reminding me to breathe. I remember turning to him at one point; the contractions were so painful, I felt completely out of control and very seriously announced, ‘I can’t do this!’ I wasn’t sure what my plan was, there was no contingency, smack, bang in the middle of labour – I felt that I was in too deep and needed to back out. I needed to be unconcious, wake up, and for the baby to be here. Looking back, I still find that moment hilarious. I hadn’t slept for 3 nights because the contractions had just been getting stronger and more powerful. I was exhausted (or so I thought at the time). SInce then, I’ve realised that exhaustion is relative. Anyway, I’d had enough. The women who opted for Caesarian ops were the smart ones I felt.
Of course, he calmed me down. Reminded me about taking deep breaths. Talked about how there was no doubt that I could do this. A few hours later, he watched as I gave birth. People talk about how incredible birth is – he spoke about how it was an absolute miracle to watch. Going through it – there is no room for ‘dignity’, you can never be self conscious in front of your partner again. Once your partner has seen you give birth, they’ve seen everything.
Once you’ve been through that together…and you have a tiny, little life that you are responsible for; who is totally dependent on you; then you know what real exhaustion is. Most crucially though, your relationship with your partner changes – beyond recognition. It’s never about what you two want ever again. It’s about what the family needs. You both will always hopefully find each other attractive; but flirting in front of the children? Nah! You haven’t even got the head space for that anymore.
Once you’re in the family stage – your partner brings you comfort. The excitement, is almost replaced with relief that they are there. They have your back. They are the only one who understands what you are going through day in; day out. The excitement is still there – that never goes, (hopefully), but it’s more about the things that people on the outside might view as mundane and quite ordinary. A good night’s sleep. A couple of hours watching or doing something that you really enjoy. Having a drink or dinner with friends.
And when you watch your children doing something that is funny, or they have surprised you; or they have done something that reminds of your partner – you are not overcome with desire for your partner. You share the secret look of a co-conspirator – look at what they’ve done! Look – they get that from you! Look – how the heck did they learn to do that? And that develops into a feeling of relief – at least we’re doing something right. The hilarious thing is that I’ve just described the emotions that you might feel in perfectly ordinary times. But if you were ‘on the run’, surely your most heightened emotion would be – I must protect my loved ones.
So that – that is why that one misplaced look of lust in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – completely flipped my lid last night.
One other emotion that I was left with though, to end on a positive note…don’t take the people you love for granted. Love them everyday with as much energy and ferocity that you can muster. Love is the most powerful energy that we possess. So give as much as you possibly can.