The Handmaid’s Tale

The Dark Side of Mankind
Radboud Reflects

There are few television series as grim as the Handmaid’s Tale. The popular series shows a near-future where the vast majority of the human population has become infertile. The few remaining fertile women are held as ‘handmaids’ for the ruling elite and are forced to bear their children.

Why is the series such an enormous success? And in what way do current political and societal developments impact our perception of the series?

The story of the The Handmaid’s Tale (Bruce Miller, based on the book of Margaret Atwood) takes place in Gilead, a patriarchal totalitarian theocracy build on the dogmas of the Old Testament. The women in Gilead are stripped of their rights and are subordinated to the will of a select group of men (the Commanders), who rule the country with an iron hand. In order to restore population growth the handmaids are assigned to serve as slaves in the households of the Commanders, where they are subjected to ritualised rape. Any kind of resistance in Gilead is ruthlessly cut down. Anyone who deviates from the social norms of the regime is exposed to corporal punishment, amputation or public execution. In the series we follow handmaid Offred and various other women in their struggle against oppression and their fight for freedom.

The Handmaid’s Tale seems to get to us. Some scenes are profoundly disturbing and almost invoke a visceral reaction of disgust. How is this possible? Is this the result of powerful visuals? Or are it the political themes that the series address that create a sense of urgency? Cultural studies scholar Sara Janssen explains why the series succeeds in making us feel uncomfortable and tells us in what way Atwood’s story inspires gender activists in the United States.

What explains the success of the series? Is it connected to the gradual growth of conservatism in society? Or are we primarily fascinated by how people in the face of an imminent threat – the potential extinction of mankind – are overwhelmed by a totalitarian ideology? Together with political philosopher Anya Topolski we assess the political relevance of the Handmaid’s Tale. What real-life events inspired the dystopian series? Can historical comparisons to Gilead be made? And in what way does the series impact contemporary political activism?

During the evening cultural studies scholar Sara Janssen and political philosopher Anya Topolski will talk about the visual strength of the series, oppression and resistance and the implications of the series for political activism. The different topics will be introduced by different scenes and fragments from the series. Program manager Tjidde Tempels will lead the discussion.

This program is in English.

Sara Janssen is a cultural studies scholar and works as assistant professor in Visual Culture at Radboud University. She obtained her PhD in Film Studies at the University of Kent where she investigated contemporary alternative pornography as a form of activism. Her research interests include visual culture, feminist theory, sexuality studies, film philosophy, aesthetics, and theories of embodiment.

Anya Topolski is a political philosopher and works as associate professor in ethics and political philosophy at the Radboud University Nijmegen. She obtained her PhD in Philosophy at the KU Leuven in which she explored the political thought of Hannah Arendt and the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas and contemporary Jewish thought. In her current research projects she focusses on diversity, discrimination and critical philosophy of race.

Tjidde Tempels is an ethicist and works as program manager at Radboud Reflects. He leads the discussion.

Participation costs € 7,50 | RU employees, Alumni Benefits Card-holders pay € 5,- | Students and pupils and Radboud Reflects-subscribers have free admittance.

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