Season 1, Episode 6: A Woman’s Place
Today’s installment of our coverage of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is about the 6th episode, “A Woman’s Place”. (Find out what we had to say on episode 5 here.) We finally get some insights into how Gilead started and how the policies developed through flashbacks, as well as insights into the geopolitical climate with the visit of the Mexican ambassador. Our brains were spinning with this one, so let’s get to it.
KD: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, this episode. Just as I was finished processing June and Nick’s liaisons, we meet the Mexican ambassador who is a lady! Did not see that coming. Her interview with Offred made me dig my nails into my hands - in what universe are slaves free to speak in front of masters? Why would you even bother? The questions about choice and happiness were particularly infuriating, especially when we learn later exactly what the purpose of her visit is.
As our resident imprisonment expert, were you as frustrated as I was?
EH: Yeah, so, this episode was fascinating for the information we got about the issues facing the world outside of Gilead. I’m not sure what was the point of having Offred battle with her conscience on speaking to the Ambassador. I thought the Ambassador’s reaction to Offred further confirmed how people can justify oppressive systems for their own benefit. Clearly she was facing a crisis in her home country and was able to convince herself that the system in Gilead wasn’t a problem. I was also intrigued to see the lengths to which Gilead official’s would sanitize the new system in order to gain favor with diplomatic neighbors, by washing the blood from the walls at the start of the episode and in removing all the ‘damaged’ girls from the reception.
Everything we learn about Serena Joy in this episode adds layers to the themes of imprisonment in the show. Remarkably, we see how she gradually became imprisoned by her own words. Another example of moral justification, similar to the Mexican Ambassador, she is complicit in creating a society where women cannot read the book she wrote on domestic feminism.
Really interesting stuff to watch and she struggles with eventually deciding it’s more important to support this moral and social code over her own agenda. However, as the resident scholar on women and religion, I wondered how you handled all these revelations about just how involved she was in creating this new society, and her own system of control?
KD: The idea of domestic feminism is one I find deeply rooted in religious ideology, to be frank. In order to buy the idea that the best way to be a woman, the most fulfilling way, is to be a homemaker is deeply rooted in the idea of “traditional gender” roles. This language often ignores that gender is a social construction which is informed by biological sex, but is not determined by it. Treating gender as a biological determinant in the 21st century is rarely found outside of conservative religious circles. All of Serena Joy’s language in her flashback talking about her ideas were deeply rooted in this thought.
The world before Gilead is clearly broken and these folks feel compelled to do something about it. They clearly believe a theocracy is the answer, as they have a clearly shallow understanding of history and seem to believe things were better in “the good old days”.
What made me chuckle a bit was that she created this enforced patriarchy and then seemed to believe she’d be the exception to the new rules. The hubris is hilarious - if also gut wrenching - and reminded me of many women I’ve encountered in my own work. I’ve spoken to hyper-conservative religious folks of various faiths who want to create a less violent Gilead, but have had no thought to the implications of its execution. Women who want to define womanhood entirely by motherhood, for example, don’t stop to think about women who are unable to bear children or what would happen if their own child died.
Honestly, as I watched Serena Joy more and more throughout this episode, I couldn't decide if I was more or less empathetic. Like, babe, you made this bed. You made choices. I’m sorry you thought yourself better than other women, but extreme patriarchy believes you only have worth as a fetal incubator. Just because you happened to be an important dude’s wife doesn’t mean your incubator status is any different. And in Gilead, where wives cannot bear children, they’re in even more limbo!
Serena Joy reclaims some of her agency by throwing the reception, even though Commander thinks it’s unnecessary. She reminds him of how she truly is - capable, brilliant, organized - instead of the shell their brave new world has forced her into. I felt glad for her that he truly saw her for the first time in a while, and then, admittedly snapped right back into my state of “well, choices have consequences, lady. Sorry yours are crap.”
EH: I agree with you about Serena Joy, I usually don’t struggle with empathy for characters, as I fully believe in trying to understand every perspective in a given story, but she also has to take responsibility for her actions. Knowing all the power she possessed as a woman of great capability, and she sacrificed that for the ideology and then reserves the right to be upset about her own subjugation. I’m sorry, love, that’s not how it works.
Yet, this whole episode she is striving for validation and legitimization for the sacrifice she made, it’s a fascinating contradiction. It’s interesting to see the twist at the end, and the gender flip, that the male assistant to the Mexican Ambassador is the one who ends up offering to help Offred find her family. Her guilt over lying to the Ambassador forces her into a moment of vulnerability and honesty, but again we have been primed for the Ambassador’s seemingly insensitive reaction, where she places a higher value on her own country’s survival, than the realization that the Handmaid’s are forced into a system of oppression. How did you feel about that last interaction? And the news that Offred/June’s husband is alive? What an emotional shift for Offred leading us into the next episode.
KD: I sat with my hands clenched together at the staggering vulnerability of both of them. I was so proud of June and so glad the Ambassador laid it all out there - my country is dying, no one else has provided a viable plan, I’m going with this one. I’m reading a lot about the founding period of the United States right now and so much of her language felt reminiscent of how the southern states talked about slavery. It doesn’t matter if they’re people, we see no other option to feed our families and build our economy. Once someone makes that decision, they’ll do any level of mental gymnastics to stay there.
And Lucas being alive was a jaw-dropper! Tangible hope for our girl for the first time and I can’t wait to see where this goes.