Last Friday, the cast and creators of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale gathered in New York for the Tribeca premiere of what some are calling one of the best new shows in years. But the celebratory mood turned sour after a panel in which stars Elisabeth Moss and Madeline Brewer distanced themselves from the show’s feminist themes.
The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s major dystopian novel of the same name, unfolds in world in which the U.S. Government has been overthrown by a religious theocracy. The ruling class, the Gilead, use women as surrogate wombs. The Handmaid’s Tale has become newly urgent in the age of Trump, something the cast has repeatedly acknowledged in the run-up to Wednesday’s premiere.
But when the subject of feminism came up during Friday’s post-screening panel, both Brewer and Moss left some people scratching their heads when asked if they consider the series a feminist work.
Moss, who plays the show’s central heroine, Offred, said she doesn’t see The Handmaid’s Tale as a feminist story, but a human story.
“It’s a human story because women’s rights are human rights,” she said. “So, for me it’s, I never intended to play Peggy as a feminist. I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They’re women and they’re humans.”
Moss’ comments drew a heavy backlash. Critics chided the actress for purposely distancing herself from “the f word”. Brewer, who said she doesn’t see the show as “feminist propaganda,” drew less criticism than Moss, likely because her profile isn’t as high.
“I think that any story, if it is a story being told by a strong, powerful woman…any story that’s just a powerful woman owning herself in any way is automatically deemed ‘feminist,’" Brewer said Friday. “But it’s just a story about a woman.”
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t Brewer’s first foray into prestige television. After stints on Black Mirror and Orange is The New Black, the 24-year-old may have finally found her breakout role as Janine, a character who’s arc is perhaps the most tragic of all the Handmaids. Ahead of the premiere, we let Brewer set the record straight about what happened Friday.
“I was absolutely surprised,” she said when asked if the swell of criticism caught her off guard. “But in watching the clip and reading exactly what I said, I can completely understand where I misspoke. I kind of preemptively corrected a would-be three-minute explanation of feminism and its meaning to myself personally with a defense of the show and its meaning.”
Brewer explained that her words came from what she felt was a need to defend the word feminism “before it was even attacked.“ Despite the backlash, she maintains her belief that she show is about humans, with one caveat.
“Of course it is about feminism,” she told me “It is overtly and expressly feminist in its message and its characters. It’s written into its pages and stitched into its spine. If we at all wanted to do justice to the book, then of course this show is political and feminist and humanist and scary, just as the book has been for the last 30 years. Anyone accusing me of being afraid of the word feminism or who thinks I would ever let someone censor me from talking about it really knows very little about me.”
Brewer says that the cast was imbued with a new sense of purpose in the days following Trump’s election win.
“I remember a very dark cloud over my world and a new fire in my heart to do this book justice and let its message change lives in the same way it has for 30 years,” she said. “We have this opportunity to bring this message into peoples homes. We have this opportunity to bring to new life to Margaret’s words, and hopefully remind people to stay awake.”
The first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are currently streaming on Hulu.