The problem with The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy


The Handmaid’s Tale is trying to make Serena Joy more and more sympathetic this season, but is she worthy of forgiveness?

Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has always been a challenging series. Its dystopia — defined by misogyny, totalitarianism and Christian fundamentalism — makes it difficult to watch, especially when Gilead’s climate is not so far off from that of the United States. Basically, it’s hard to tune into The Handmaid’s Tale because its reality serves as a cautionary tale for our own.

In its second season, however, the show has given me pause for a different reason: its characterization of Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the Wife of protagonist June/Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss) household. The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be working overtime to present Serena Joy as someone worthy of as much compassion as any other character. I have complicated feelings about this, to put it mildly.

Like the vast majority of its women, Serena has been victimized by Gilead. Unlike the vast majority of its women, Serena had a direct hand in building and shaping Gilead, as we found out in season 1. Serena wasn’t stripped of her life and rights like June, Moira, Emily, Janine and the rest of the Handmaids; she happily trashed them alongside her high heels. It’s not until Gilead has settled into its routine that Serena begins to suspect she created a monster.

Margaret Atwood originally wrote Serena Joy as a composite of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. Meanwhile, the series’ version of Serena is basically Schlafly — the woman directly responsible for the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment — with the glamor of a Fox News anchor. In true Schlafly fashion, Serena Joy fearlessly led an anti-feminist campaign by using a platform that never would have been available to her without feminism. Serena made impassioned speeches about why women should “embrace [their] biological destiny,” ditch their careers and identities and just focus on being wives and mothers.

In case the irony wasn’t obvious enough, Serena apparently had no qualms spreading the barefoot and pregnant gospel, despite having no children herself and being wholly dedicated to her work.

Of course, once Gilead started running at full capacity, Serena was forced to give up her job and pretend to be happy while her much less capable husband became a top leader in the regime they both helped build. Suddenly she had to sleep in the bed she had made.

As The Handmaid’s Tale‘s most recent episode, “Women’s Work,” reveals, Serena hasn’t drunk the Gilead Kool-Aid — or, if she has, the effect is wearing off. She disobeys her husband’s wishes and Gilead law and, with June’s help, arranges for a top pediatrician-turned-Martha to treat a sick baby. If Serena really believed men are superior to women, and really thought that obeying her husband was more important than treating one of Gilead’s few babies, she never would have done that.

But she did. Because Serena knows that women are equal to men, and can be wives, mothers and so much more. I suspect she always did.

Serena pays for her actions. Her husband beats her with a belt in front of June. Later, as Serena tearfully inspects her bruises, June offers her help. She feels sorry for Serena, and the viewer is probably supposed to, too.

I don’t — and I do. Serena did the right thing and obviously, domestic violence is terrible and wrong. Yet I’m having trouble caring much about her or her arc in season 2. Great, Serena is slowly starting to resist Gilead. But that doesn’t change the fact that she helped bring Gilead about in the first place.

Maybe — a la Michelle Wolf’s “Aunt Coulter” joke — “Serena Joy” can be the code word for women who defend and normalize harmful political and social norms, fall victim to them, and then expect the world to treat them as heroes. You know, the Megyn Kellys and Gretchen Carlsons of the world.

Normally, I’m not a black-or-white person; I tend to see the world in grays. But Serena’s self-pitying, hypocritical, slow burn of an epiphany has me siding with the furious Emily (Alexis Bledel): “Anyone helping Gilead deserves to be blown apart.”

In many respects, Serena is worse than Gilead’s top brass because she knows that the society is backward and unjust. She’s a devout Christian, but she doesn’t actually hold with the notion that women are “the weaker vessel.” She is upholding a system that is stripping almost everyone — herself included — of their humanity. So, I can’t be on her side even if she does admit she hates knitting. Too little, too late.

Next: The Handmaid’s Tale season 2: How is there worse to come?

I appreciate The Handmaid’s Tales efforts to create three-dimensional characters. Villains worthy of empathy make for compelling stories, as series including Orange Is the New Black and Killing Eve prove. Yet there’s something about the show’s treatment of Serena Joy that I just can’t quite abide. Perhaps getting to know her feels too raw, and it’s just impossible to overlook all she has done to wreck her life and so many others. Maybe it’s that she doesn’t seem to care about Gilead’s horror until it starts to negatively impact her.

No matter the reason, I don’t root for Serena Joy, nor do I really want to. She’s done too much damage for me to defend her, even if she has been beaten and humiliated. June seems to be forgiving her, but that doesn’t mean we have to.

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are available Wednesdays on Hulu.