Life

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 Is Gayer, but Not Better

How four queer fans think writers could fix a show that loves to torture its gays without really understanding them.

Clea DuVall and Alexis Bledel as Sylvia and Emily in The Handmaid's Tale.
Don’t hide the dykes!
Hulu

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, which grimly kicked off April 25, is even more depressing than its predecessor. It attempts to flesh out issues from Season 1, including how homosexuality functions in the Gilead universe. Still, despite the show’s efforts, it rarely feels like the series—or the conversations around it—is particularly conscious of queer viewers. Its LGBTQ representation thus far has been equal parts revelatory, befuddling, and, of course, painful.

The following is a conversation among four Slate colleagues about what it’s like to watch The Handmaid’s Tale as a queer person, and how our perspectives often feel conspicuously absent from the show.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Spoilers ahead.

Lena Wilson: So, we’re all here because we’re some flavor of gay and we watch The Handmaid’s Tale. Do you think that aspect of your identity affects your viewing experience?

Alex Barasch: I’m a gay trans guy, and both of those aspects of my identity have impacted my viewing experience to a certain extent.

Christina Cauterucci: Definitely. I never watch TV shows as a not-gay person, so I’m always hoping for a good gay storyline. I love that The Handmaid’s Tale has at least two gay main characters, though one—Moira, played by my true love Samira Wiley—gets far less screen time in Season 2 than she did in Season 1.

Wilson: Even in Season 1, Moira never had much backstory that was about her gay identity in the way that Emily’s was. Something that pisses me off immensely is that the show’s interpretation of the June-Moira meetup at Jezebel’s in Season 1 cuts out an exchange from the book where June asks Moira if she’s okay doing sex work as a lesbian.

Barasch: The fact that Moira identified herself as Ruby (the name she was given at Jezebel’s) during her hookup with another woman once she was safe in Canada in episode 203 was deeply upsetting. She’s clearly got an immense amount of trauma to work through, and I hope she gets that chance as the season goes on.

Wilson: That same episode introduces the weird backstory where June (Elisabeth Moss) is jealous of Moira because her feminist mom (Cherry Jones) thinks being a lesbian is hardcore.

Cauterucci: Being a lesbian is hardcore.

Shasha Léonard: In the book, June’s relationship with her mother is much more complicated. I feel like they tried to depict that with the car scene in the show where they sing together.

Barasch: It feels weird for “My mom disapproved of my job, my life partner, and most of my choices” to ostensibly be balanced out by, “but we sang together in the car sometimes.”

Léonard: Haha! I think the mom is supposed to be a hardcore feminist in the show. The mom in the book is similar, but I think in the show she serves to highlight how different June is now, post-Gilead. It’s all about June.

Wilson: I think the show’s fatal flaw is its fervent insistence that June should be a kick-ass protagonist. The entire point of her character in the book is that she’s a passive observer!

Léonard: Oof. The airport scene between Emily (Alexis Bledel) and her wife, Sylvia (Clea DuVall) had me choking up. “They can’t scare us back into the closet” still rings in my head.

Cauterucci: Can we talk about Episode 202, “Unwomen”?

Barasch: Something Season 2 is doing well is taking current policies and prejudices to their logical endpoint. “Unwomen” took real anxieties our community has right now, and choices we have to make each day, and gave them Gilead-level stakes. Emily and Sylvia’s problems in trying to emigrate with their son aren’t unlike court cases calling gay families’ validity into question in America right now. I know of a few binational gay and lesbian couples who’ve been interrogated about genetic links, whether assisted reproductive technology was used, etc., in the way we see on the show.

Cauterucci: It also made me think of very recent U.S. policy, before DOMA fell, when gay families weren’t offered the same immigration protections as straight ones.

Wilson: That’s chilling. I assumed they were asking about the reproductive technology to see whether or not Emily was handmaiden-level fertile.

Barasch: That was probably part of it, too! I know Mark Joseph Stern has written about similar cases (this year!) for Slate as well.

Cauterucci: Two of my friends, lesbian parents, had to go to court to get the non-birth partner on their kid’s birth certificate—even though it was her egg! This was after gay marriage was legalized! We’re still forced to justify our partnerships and parentage to the state, more than straight couples.

Wilson: I thought the exchange between Emily and her gay male colleague, Dan (John Carroll Lynch), was so interesting for this reason. He says something like, “I thought mine was the last generation that had to deal with this bullshit. I thought you guys were so lucky.” And she replies like, “Well, not anymore.”

Cauterucci: In my experience, it’s been mostly older gay men who’ve advanced that view, not young people.

Barasch: Right, Dan’s own husband called him a “collaborator.”

Cauterucci: And, of course, his silence did not protect him—he’s hanged just a few scenes later.

Barasch: Seeing “faggot” spray-painted on the ground under Dan’s body felt like a punch in the gut.

Wilson: I feel like I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship with this show, because in a lot of ways it’s like it’s not “for” me, even though it should be. I don’t need to see gay people die to empathize with them and feel terrified for them.

Cauterucci: The whole show is like that for me—honestly, it’s made it hard to watch. My partner compared it to Mad Men: The show is ostensibly trying to criticize social oppression, but it kind of reinforces it with all its gratuitous misogynist/homophobic torture.

Léonard: I was wondering how straight people saw “Unwomen,” especially when the government dissolves Emily’s marriage.

Wilson: I hardly know any men who watch the show, and I don’t know how to feel about that. Like, I have to put myself through this slog to feel like I can participate in the cultural conversation about my own oppression, but you can just opt out? But I also don’t want them learning from the show in many ways.

Barasch: I suspect it feels a little too real for the people who are conscious of this kind of oppression in their daily lives, but probably like an outlandish stretch for the people who aren’t.

Cauterucci: I also don’t want straight people/men to raise the bar for what oppression and state violence looks like.

Wilson: What did you guys think of Serena’s backstory in Episode 6 (featuring an unexpected cameo from Elise Bauman of iconic lesbian web series Carmilla)?

Cauterucci: Wow, deep cut!

Barasch: I wasn’t sure about the “this started with no-platforming on campuses” thing. It felt a little like the show was trying to shoehorn in another hot-button issue. And is the gunshot to the stomach why she can’t have kids, or was she already infertile?

Léonard: The gunshot was an “aha” moment for me. It explains a lot about the need for handmaidens in society if Serena (Yvonne Strahovsky) was the first Rachel or Leah. If Serena was at the forefront of Gilead and the political reform, but could not have children, it’s very possible she made handmaidens a thing.

Wilson: Woah, mind blown, Shasha! And I agree with the shoehorning, Alex. I feel like THT wants to be politically relevant, but it doesn’t realize that its source material already really, really is.

Cauterucci: That’s how I felt about the Muslim family hiding their religion and helping June in Episode 3. Like—we get it. The first season didn’t have that much baggage because it was written before Trump’s election.

Wilson: It was also almost entirely based on the book. Showrunner Bruce Miller is basically going free-range now. The show frustrates me so much because it gets distracted from the terrifying social issues at its core and instead addresses issues it thinks are “hotter.”

Cauterucci: I also really wanted to talk about the gay wedding in the Colonies in Episode 5. Those scenes reminded me of the best parts of Orange is the New Black, showing queer people making family and joy in the most oppressive spaces.

Barasch: Agreed, though I did not want the wedding to be almost immediately followed by a funeral.

Wilson: I thought it was dumb that they had Emily oppose the wedding, which Janine concocted.

Cauterucci: Didn’t she come around, though? I think it’s fair that Emily is so defeated that she can’t see the value in making any hope or beauty anymore.

Léonard: After she kills the wife in 202, it’s clear Emily is bitter as fuck.

Wilson: My issue is that the fight was between Emily and Janine specifically. Is Janine still semi-brainwashed by Aunt Lydia, or is she Ally of the Year? Pick one!

Barasch: Agreed on Janine’s inconsistency, but I can understand that Emily’s been broken down—although I’m not loving the trend of straight women inspiring their lesbian pals to keep up the good fight. First it was June with Moira, now it’s Janine with Emily.

Cauterucci: Ooh, great point, Alex. Straight women, who aren’t having their clits cut off, are telling lesbians to buck up.

Wilson: Wow, yeah! Still, I thought Emily killing the wife was totally out of character. Why would someone who’s been so brutally subjugated by violence use it against another human being? It felt like a simplistic way to wrap up the plot. Full disclosure, I will die on this hill, LOL. I have a similar issue with rape-revenge movies.

Cauterucci: I liked the female rage in that moment where she kills the wife. It’s complicated—commanders’ wives are victims of the same patriarchal violence—but I think it was a good commentary on the complicated intra-gender stratification to have Emily use the wife as a proxy for the men she’ll never be able to get her hands on.

Wilson: Maybe I would feel differently if the episode wasn’t written and directed by men. Not saying Bruce Miller should quit his job if he wants to be a real feminist, but …

Cauterucci: That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Why would anyone allow men to tell this story? It makes me think of Ryan Murphy and his brilliant idea to make a miniseries about the #MeToo movement. Maybe not every project is your project?

Wilson: Even the male perspective that I would actually care about—the gay male perspective—is totally absent from this show. Were they all wiped out in a mass genocide? Are they in hiding? Are some in the upper echelons of Gilead government?

Barasch: Well, we see a gay man put to death in the first episode of the whole series (with a pink triangle to mark him, no less). And in 203, we meet a guy conscripted into the Guardians whose unit was responsible for the death of a guy he dated in college. But Dan, Emily’s friend, is the first “substantial” gay male character we’ve had, and he’s … really not!

Cauterucci: I would have loved to see a gay Commander or something. The show gives us so many lesbians forced to have sex with men; there must be plenty of gay men forced to have sex with women.

Wilson: OK, let’s wrap up. How do you think Season 2 is going compared to Season 1? And Alex, I want to know what you think about the lack of trans representation in the show!

Barasch: I do wish we had some trans characters! I think it would complicate the conversation around “biological destiny” in an interesting way. It’s also been a little weird for me, because “gender traitor” is language you sometimes see applied to trans people now. As a guy who could theoretically bear children, I’ve spent some time wondering about what my place in this world would be—although I suspect I’d be labeled a gender traitor and it would be left at that. I guess any trans people would meet a horrifying fate like the majority of the LGBTQ characters we’ve seen so far. Trans people would certainly be denied hormones and access to medical transition generally, because that would render them sterile.

Wilson: I think it’s very interesting that in the book, Moira describes herself as butch, but in the show, Samira Wiley is definitely not so. And so in the show, it almost seems like Moira gets the somewhat-privileged status of handmaiden because she’s not gender-nonconforming, and thus not immediately visible as a lesbian. We never see what happens to non-passing gays, and therefore may never see what happens to trans people.

Barasch: Right. I really don’t think we’ll get a trans character. It’s hard to know whether representation in a show like this would be worth celebrating anyway!

Wilson: My overall take is that I appreciate THT making any kind of effort at gay storytelling whatsoever, but the execution needs work, and they’ve backed themselves into a corner by focusing so heavily on June. I loved seeing Alexis Bledel say the word “dykes” and kiss Clea DuVall, but I’m tired of so much misery with so little satisfaction. THT should rotate the flashbacks through the characters more often—it would help with worldbuilding issues. June only occupies so many identities, and thus can only impart so many perspectives!

Barasch: I want more of Moira and Emily! They’re some of my favorite characters, and it’s clear there’s more to explore there. I’m holding out the faint hope that a gay couple will carve out some happiness without one of them dying.

Léonard: So, do we have hope for the gay characters on the show? What do we want?

Wilson: I think what I ultimately want is a show that’s written as if gay people are watching it.

Barasch: I don’t think Emily and her wife will be reunited at this point, but ideally Moira will get the space to start to heal post-escape.

Léonard: I do feel like Moira is building towards something. I hope the writers use her in a way that does her character justice.

Wilson: In conclusion: less June, more Moira?

Léonard: Less June, more Moira, Emily escapes the Colonies. I do not want Emily to die there with Janine whispering straight things in her ear.

Wilson: From our lips to Bruce Miller’s ears.
All right, thanks for a very fruitful discussion, everyone. May the lord open, or whatever the fuck.

Léonard: BLESSED BE THE GAYS!