…though with plenty of sex. Just, much of it isn’t the kind you want to watch, or at least I really hope so.
I’ve been enjoying Harlots (…yeah, there’s no good way to write that) and, while I don’t know if “enjoying” is the right word for watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” in 2017, I’ve found it very well-done and compelling. I didn’t set out to make this the Spring of TV Shows About Women Defined By Sexuality In a World Somehow Even More Sexist Than Ours, nor do I think Hulu did, but it does seem to be a theme. Also bright colors, tiresome religious fanatics, and men being ninety-three percent useless.
This is where we’re going today. Spoilers for everything through Episode 4 of Handmaid’s Tale (and the book) and everything through Episode 7 of Harlots.
Like I said, these are both stories focused on women, specifically women who aren’t “respectable,” in situations where men, particularly white men, have way more power. And they also set up scenarios that I’ve seen used for romance in both published fiction and fanfic: the virgin about-to-be-prostitute who needs a protector and the jaded nobleman who’s been burned by women; the servant and the master of the house who starts encouraging her societally-forbidden interests; the woman who wants to get away and the man who’s in a position to maybe help her but can’t let his superiors find out. I’ve read a fair number of variants on these dynamics and, don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed them.
But both these shows do a good job of showing the other ways it should–and usually *would*–go, and it’s not romantic at all.
One of Lucy’s would-be “keepers” in Harlots is cute and urbane–he also gets all weird with a knife and a pomegranate, enjoys her discomfort, and oh, right, actually belongs to a club of serial killers. (I was going to say the Hellfire Club with extra murder, but it turns out that the actual HC was also way less rapey and admitted women as equals (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellfire_Club_) so well done, 1700s hedonists; also they probably had very little to do with Jean Grey’s confusing love life, which is another point in their favor.)
The other guy, also physically attractive and kind of puppy-dog earnest when we meet him, spends his wife’s money so recklessly that her tenants suffer (thanks, 1700s), is ludicrously and disgustingly petty to his servants, and…is also a rapist, with the extra-creepy motivation of getting back at his mistress for not taking him seriously/maybe flirting with another guy by sleeping with her younger sister. And I find him more resonant than Guy 1, because Charming But Actually Murderous is a thing, but Guy 2 is really what the men who make a public show out of “being hurt before” or “tired of women’s games” or whatever tend to be like: petty, pouting, and deeply resentful of any suggestion that they might not get and deserve whatever they want or that the people they’re paying to act nice might not actually love them.
Similarly, the Commander in Handmaid’s Tale, as other people (especially on Previously.TV, the Tor.com reread, and the AV Club) have noted, is really invested in the idea that the woman who has to have sex with him should also have to enjoy his company. Both Atwood in the book and the writers of the series do a great job at using the trappings of romance — the secret meetings, the witty banter, the small acts of kindness — in a way that makes it clear just how awful they all are in that situation. In a very different scenario, this could maybe be a genuine attempt to connect by someone whose choices are also limited (although even then, given the grotesque power imbalance, there could be no meaningful consent), but it’s very clear that the Commander is one of the people who set up this whole horrible world. He made the restrictions, which makes it an absurd pantomime of generosity when he grants Offred small exceptions to them. Like the asshole in every customers_suck story who complains when the waitress doesn’t smile enough, he has to be aware on some level that she’s not choosing to be there, and yet he wants the appearance of joy, or of genuine desire.
Similarly, I like that the guy who thwarts June and Moira’s escape starts out being nice and helpful. He’s not barking orders or insulting June like Coffee Shop Douche in flashbacks. He offers a hand, he’s understanding…and then he makes sure she goes back to the hellhole she escaped from. It was a good touch. They’re frequently nice and helpful, right up until they have a reason not to be.
There are men with good intentions in these shows, but they’re not in a position to do much with them. In Harlots, William and Daniel mostly serve as the voices of conscience for Martha and Charlotte, respectively. (William going after Harriet’s kids may be the exception. I’ll report back after I see how that turns out.) Neither are rich, or powerful, and for the time and place, both face racial animus, William more so. Two constables seem to want to do the right thing most of the time, but end up covering their own asses more than doing any good. Charles and Emily seem to hate each other most of the time, and he spends much of the first season as an enforcer for his creepy mom, even if he does treat her nicely when Quigley’s not looking. Nick, in The Handmaid’s Tale, “wishes” he’d just driven off with June rather than hand her over to the state torture squad, but…he didn’t, and if he’d tried, they’d likely both have ended up dead or worse. Luke seemed to be a good guy, but he’s also either dead or in Canada, and either way he’s not a lot of help.
One of the AV Club’s comments about Harlots, which I agree with, is that it’s good there’s no white male savior figure in the picture, and I feel the same about The Handmaid’s Tale. The whole “power corrupts” deal seems to hold true in both universes, and associating with power…well, sometimes it helps you. Sometimes, occasionally literally, it just gets you fucked.