The Paradox of Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale

Many of us are still reeling from the 14-week-long state of emotional paralysis that was The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2. There were moments of supreme triumph, tears, utter astonishment and bitter disappointment. Never before have I delighted at the sight of someone getting (literally) stabbed in the back or revelled in the echo of “go fuck yourself, Fred.”

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Like many others, I have spent the last several weeks somewhat masochistically looking forward to my weekly dose of the incredibly disturbing, yet completely addictive dystopian series. Rape, drownings and plot arcs aside, one character, in particular, has captured my horrified fascination: the evolution of Serena Joy.

As watchers of the show, we are positioned to feel both intense loathing for the Commander’s wife and an element of sympathy for the brutality to which she falls victim. As one of the architects behind the ruthless subjugation of her own sex, Serena is an accomplice in the rape, torture and murder of countless others. Worse still, she justifies these crimes under the guise of her religiosity, adopting the arrogance of all fundamentalists by claiming that her actions are willed by God.

What saves Serena from being merely a two-dimensional “evil” type is her unravelling faith in the patriarchal autocracy of Gilead. From the beginning, it’s obvious that Serena doesn’t consider herself intellectually or spiritually inferior to her husband or indeed any man. She accepts her disempowerment as the necessary price she must pay to achieve her ultimate dream: motherhood. But once she herself becomes the object of physical brutality, the tide that has long been threatening to turn makes a run for it.

Of course, Serena’s growing consciousness of the evils around her must evolve gradually if her character is to hold any credibility. The show constantly works to hold our believability; in one scene Serena is the almighty evil bitch we love to hate, and the next we steal a glimpse of the cracks underneath her Gilead-perfected veneer.

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The first manifestation of Serena’s fading belief is apparent in her self-loathing nature, as she becomes filled with a sense of inadequacy at being unable to bear a child. She projects this frustration by abusing the women around her: slapping Reida at the baby shower after June absent-mindedly reminisces about her own shower for Hannah. It’s clear Serena resents June for being given what she craves most: a child and the love of a husband. Instead, she suffers mistreatment at the hands of her vile partner, but rather than turning her anger on him, she desperately seeks to assert her power by further subjugating the other women around her.

After episode 9’s visit to Canada, Serena’s doubt in Gilead grows. To see herself through the eyes of others as the object of derision and scorn is something she clearly finds difficult to stomach. When she and Fred first arrive, the commander is quickly whisked away to discuss important “manly” things whilst she is given a picture-based itinerary of ‘cultural activities.’ Serena resents this patronization and these feelings are compounded by the fact that she is clearly more intelligent, articulate and competent then her wife-beating husband. Yet she is treated, even by those outside of Gilead, as little more than an invalid.  Her conversation with her female host reminds Serena of the life that she has given forfeited. And her meeting with the American envoy further exacerbates the seeds of doubt, and of course, her confrontation with Luke is the most rattling. How can one be expected to react when one’s husband is called out as a rapist?

The catalyst to what may be considered Serena’s quest for redemption comes after the death of Eden. A pious and devout child’s life is extinguished in an utterly senseless fashion. There is a supreme irony in the logic of a society which puts fertility and childrearing at its foundation and yet kills people with impunity, and shows a callous disregard for the value of life itself. It is after the death of Eden that Serena has her metaphoric ‘come to Jesus’ moment, finally realising that no man, woman or child is truly safe in the world she helped create. After the urging of June, and the wellbeing and future of her daughter in mind, she seeks to incrementally change Gilead by asking the commanders to allow women and girls to read the bible.

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In Gilead, as in medieval Europe, reading the bible is a privilege reserved for the elite. Indeed, for much of European history leading up to the 16th century it was illegal to possess a Bible in one’s own language. The upper echelons of society considered the idea of the common man reading the bible to be an affront to the status quo. Much better for him to rely on the interpretation of his betters and not disrupt the delicate balance of power, a sentiment shared by the commanders of Gilead. By asking for girls and women to be permitted to read the bible Serena literally asks permission for the acquisition of knowledge, and this notion is abhorrent to the commanders. In this society only men have the right to knowledge and the power it bestows.

Serena is punished for reading the Bible by having her ring finger removed, in accordance with the laws of Gilead. The fact that Fred allows this to happen is extremely telling. The flashbacks reveal that Fred once respected and supported Serena and encouraged her to pursue her ambitions. His allowance of this abuse reveals that all relationships, including that between a man and a wife become warped and distorted in Gilead. It also supports the old adage that absolute power is a corruptive force.

In the closing minutes of the season, Serena proves that she is not wholly without a soul. By allowing June to escape with the baby, she willingly forfeits her right to motherhood, the thing she desired above all else. She realizes that this world of her making is no place for a child, especially not a daughter. It takes no small degree of heroism and humility to realise that your child would be better off elsewhere. June’s decision to honour Serena’s choice of name shows if not a belief in redemption, then at least gratitude for Serena.

Did you watch The Handmaid’s Tale? Let us know in the comments.