Let’s talk about the violence on The Handmaid’s Tale

Some say it's gratuitous. Others think it's necessary. Where do you stand?

05 Jun 2019

To call the opening of season two of The Handmaid's Tale "shocking" would be an understatement. The Handmaids in June's (Elisabeth Moss's) city are brought to an undisclosed location, their mouths covered with restrictive harnesses. Aggressive male soldiers violently push the women from point A to point B, screaming at them to stay in line. Eventually we learn they've been taken to an abandoned baseball field now filled with nooses. The fear on the Handmaids' faces is palpable. When those nooses are placed around their necks, their fear becomes absolute terror.

But it's all a scare tactic. The Handmaids aren't killed; Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) just wanted to browbeat them back into submission. (They "rebelled" against her in season one's finale by refusing to stone Ofdaniel.) It was a reminder that Gilead's power structure is primitive, tyrannical, and brutal—and if they "disobeyed" again, the hanging might actually happen.

This all unfolds within the first 10 minutes of season two, and the violence only escalates from there. In one scene a Handmaid is forced to place her palm over an open stove flame. Minutes before this we see another pregnant Handmaid chained to a bed. In episode two we learn about the Colonies, a prison where infertile, "disobedient" Handmaids are forced to dig holes in toxic soil. The women are also routinely electrocuted, dismembered, and, in some cases, subjected to genital mutilation.

A lot of gruesome activity happened in season one, but it went up several notches for season two—so much so that think piece after think piece argued The Handmaid's Tale had descended from necessary political commentary to pure "torture porn." Many viewers agreed:

If the new season of Handmaid’s Tale is violent armed revolt, I’m in. If it’s another six episodes of motiveless rapey torture porn I’m out. Atwood’s source material competently established everything it needed to along that theme in Season One. Say something new or stop.

— J.E. Anckorn (@ultra_lilac) May 29, 2019

I don't know if I can keep watching The Handmaid's Tale. The scene at the end of E3 is just torture porn that's not in the book.

— Laura Snapes (@laurasnapes) May 3, 2017

I really want to watch the new series of Handmaid's Tale but I also feel like the show doesn't have anywhere else to go (but more torture porn). Unless series 3 is the revolution.

— Sally (@magog83) February 4, 2019

I wish I could say that I am excited for season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale,

But that’s like publically admitting that you are strangely into torture porn at this point. 😂

— Brandie Peters (@brandiepeters_) June 4, 2019

The fact that the guy behind The Handmaid's Tale said he wants to drag this shit on for 10 seasons makes me so mad, esp after the way this past season went. Season 3 better deliver w more actual plot progression & less torture porn or I'm out

— Kristina (@kriskebob) July 12, 2018

What’s the message of tonight’s Handmaid’s Tale? That she’s an adulteress so she deserves it? I’m going to need more than false morality and torture porn to keep me going.

— Ayelet Waldman (@ayeletw) May 10, 2018

Their feelings are certainly valid. After all, season one managed to scare the hell out of everyone without the seemingly gratuitous violence. Instead the showrunners used psychological manipulation to paint a picture of this dystopian world—one where women are stripped of their rights and everyone who isn't a white, straight, cisgender man is persecuted. A world that, when you think about it, could easily become our own if we're not vigilant. This is what The Handmaid's Tale aimed to convey, and it worked—without making viewers overtly squeamish.

But what if The Handmaid's Tale wants to make its viewers squeamish? Sometimes I think it should. Some of the horrors the series highlights actually happen in the world, even now. The abortion bans taking place in the United States right now make it feel like women's rights are slowly chipping away. So maybe a show like The Handmaid's Tale—with all its painstaking "torture porn"—is exactly what we need to see to wake up and take action.

"I do not see it as any type of porn," one viewer posted to Facebook about the series' more gruesome moments. "These things are happening across the world and not seeing it does not make it go away. It is meant to make us disgusted and sick and hopefully we learn what an oppressive government is capable of. We should feel frightened by it."

"What's happening in The Handmaid's Tale isn't torture porn to every nation," another fan wrote on Reddit. "If it's fantasy and 'far from happening,' be thankful that it feels that way too, because it's a reality in so many nations around the world that people would always turn their backs against."

I’m fascinated by people who think The Handmaid’s Tale is unrealistically violent. It makes me think you aren’t from the US. There are serious thinkpieces on state-sanctioned rape being passed around right now from incels on major news sites. THH isn’t that far off reality.

— Elizabeth, The Pumpkin King 🎃 (@ohemgeelizabeth) May 6, 2018

One fan posted an entire Twitter thread about why The Handmaid's Tale isn't needlessly graphic:

Someone on my TL saying the Handmaid's Tale is torture porn

It's not an easy show to watch, and I understand that. But it's not torture porn unless you make it torture porn

Allow me to explain:

— Dev (@probablysatann) July 14, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale is an insight into:

- Our underlying views of women's roles in society
- The danger of religious extremism, and allowing it to go unchecked
- How women find power in situations of oppression
- How bigotry and extremism are inseparable
- Why we should never>>

— Dev (@probablysatann) July 14, 2018

be idle about political leaders, especially now in 2018

It's extremely relevant to our country's situation right now, as well as any country where there is oppression by extremists, religious or otherwise (ex: Taliban)

While I completely understand that The Handmaid's Tale >>

— Dev (@probablysatann) July 14, 2018

is not easy to watch and I definitely don't blame people who can't sit through it, you can't just dismiss it as torture porn

People get off to all kinds of shit, but this series was never intended to cater to them >>

— Dev (@probablysatann) July 14, 2018

It's meant to send a message about why this stuff is horrible, and why it's also /entirely possible/

— Dev (@probablysatann) July 14, 2018

So is The Handmaid's Tale truly too violent, or is it simply holding a mirror to what the world is and could become? One thing is certain: If the show continues on this path of violence, it has to lead somewhere. There has to be a payoff, preferably in the form of June burning Gilead to the ground. With everything going on in the world right now, it'd be nice to see that too.

Season 3 of The Handmaid's Tale starts on Channel 4 Sunday 8th June.