The Languages of Violence in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
*Content Warning: Rape and violence against women
Sexual violence is built into the fabric of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. It is legal and legitimized as the only means of human survival. But when every sexual interaction in Gilead is either legal rape or illegal fornication, it can be difficult to articulate and name the various ways that women are subjected to sexual violence throughout the show. This difficulty itself is part of the show’s importance, as it forces us as viewers to reevaluate our own inability to name the traumas of rape culture and shows how we use language to obscure those traumas.
Before it was updated, the Wikipedia summary for episode 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale read “Offred takes drastic measures to get pregnant…” Although Offred and Nick have sex, on Serena Joy’s insistence and the assumption that Commander Waterford is unable to get her pregnant, it is a gross misstatement to imply that Offred is able to take any action at all. We don’t have a word for what happened between Nick and Offred, nor the complexity and subtlety of the coercion and violence that it represents. The euphemism of The Ceremony, on the other hand, encodes Gilead’s justification of mass rape and the linguistic mechanisms that obscure its violence.
Nick’s flashback in episode 8 allows the viewer to witness yet another stage in planning the structure of Gilead. Nick glances in his rearview mirror at Commander Waterford and two other Commanders as they conceptualize The Ceremony. Declaring that “it’s not rocket science” to round up fertile women and force them to have children for the elite men, one of the Commanders decides the fate of the women who will become Handmaids. Waterford says that the Wives would never agree to such an arrangement, so the third Commander suggests that the Wives also be present for impregnation. “It’s less of a violation that way,” he says. They further rationalize the mass rape of women by pointing to Biblical precedent in the Old Testament story of Jacob, preferring to call this “act” a “ceremony.”
This scene shows that the male architects of Gilead were fully aware that what they do is rape, and as the architects, they are in the positions of power to integrate sexual violence into the very foundation of their society. To make such a violation acceptable, they consciously sanitize the language of sexual violence, ultimately obscuring the realities of traumatic sexual violence and dissolving any form of sexual consent. Because the ceremony isn’t rape according to Gilead, it might feel strange or hysterical to call it that in a review or recap of the show, but it is important for ourselves to call it what it is lest we too become comfortable with sanitizing our understanding of rape and the language we use to talk about it. The Ceremony then is not a euphemism for sex; it is a euphemism for rape that both the Commanders and the Wives consciously participate in.
Both the language of the show, and much of our commentary about the show, seem unable to call Offred’s sexual interactions with the commander and Nick what they are—rape. A Vulture recap says that Serena Joy “ wants Offred to sleep with Nick,” an old-fashioned euphemism that implies mutual consent, and obscures the violence of the encounter. The difficulty we have in describing this encounter and properly assigning agency where it actually exists is due to the strategic deployment of language to camouflage sexual violence and erase the experience of victims. Even when Offred is able to say, out loud, that she and the other Handmaids are being raped, her ability to name her trauma is invalidated by the linguistic constructs of Gilead and their use of violence to defend them.
Even though the entire society of Gilead revolves around the act of rape, the show itself treads lightly in its depiction of sexual violence against women. The Ceremony is depicted starkly and frequently, but the choice not to depict, for instance, the encounter between Offred and the Commander in the brothel in episode 8 is a welcome respite. In addition, the framing and music choices for scenes between Offred and the Commander highlight the ways that violence against women can be quiet, subtle, and never leave a bruise. The stripping away of Offred’s agency is not complete when she leaves the Red Center. What is left of her personhood is erased, bit by bit, every time she is forced to submit to the Commander’s advances by the structural consequences that come with resistance. The Handmaid’s Tale is an important exploration of both sexual and structural violence, of consent and coercion, and the way that language can be both harnessed and co-opted to name or obscure trauma.