A human story or a feminist story? Atwood and Moss on The Handmaid’s Tale

Sharon Lauricella's picture


Lead actor Elisabeth Moss caused a stir in advance of The Handmaid’s Tale’s premiere on Hulu by stating that the film “is not a feminist story.  It’s a human story because women’s rights are human rights.”  Rather than approaching the series with a feminist agenda, Moss reported approaching it with a human agenda, citing Offred’s roles as a mother, friend, and wife, all of which she sees as speaking to the human – rather than the female – experience.

Social media didn’t take well to the perceived rejection of feminism in the series, and suggested that actors ought listen to Atwood, who openly asserts the inherent feminism in the book and series.  Atwood swooped in via social media to quell the ruckus, stating via Twitter that users should be kind to the actors as they wanted to be inclusive: in her comments, Moss meant that everyone is represented in the story, not just women. 

Atwood further addressed that feminism can sometimes infer “Hiss Boo” or “Yay Cheer” – in other words, feminism can be vilified, or it can be celebrated.  She suggested that the actors are “Yay Cheer” feminists.  The actors, though, are neither wordsmiths nor writers: they are promoters of their art, and thus seek a wide audience for its consumption.

Having viewed Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s hand, and a feminist agenda, is evident.  While it could be argued that the series “uses” feminism to sell media, it is far more obvious that the feminist agenda is clearly outlined:  violation and control of a woman’s body is inhumane, biological essentialism is destructive, homophobia is grievous, and patriarchy is both dominant and violent. 

Though disturbing, the series mysteriously meets, in Atwood’s recent words, “’Feminism ‘Yay Cheer’”.  The dystopic effects of patriarchy are hauntingly represented, and the series has the potential to convince “Feminism ‘Hiss Boo’” that we must look not simply toward equality but, as feminist theorist bell hooks argues, toward ending “sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” 

The series is more than a contemporary repackaging of the age-old plights of a patriarchal culture.  It can be a turning point for a more nuanced understanding of the necessity that, as Offred does in the series, choosing love is the first movement toward freedom (hooks, 2000).