Who Even Cares What the Cast of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Has to Say About Feminism?

The problem isn’t the actors' refusal to call their show feminist, but our mounting expectation that pop culture exists to fill a hole left by politicians.

If you’ve been on the internet in the past week, you might have caught wind of a controversy surrounding the cast of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, who appeared at a panel during the Tribeca Film Festival last week in which they declined to call the series a “feminist” work. Among other outlets, Vanity Fair and MTV News ran pieces decrying the cast’s refusal to say “the f-word,” including star Elisabeth Moss, despite the show’s depiction of a dystopian, theocratic society in which women are forced to bear children for powerful leaders until they’re discarded like eggshells.

“Almost immediately,” MTV News’s Rachel Handler writes, “it became obvious that most of the people onstage were uncomfortable speaking about the series in an overtly political way — unintentionally demonstrating that, societally, we may be closer to an Atwoodian dystopia than we thought we were even a couple months ago.” Handler has a point, but to me, what this episode really demonstrates is that Hulu’s P.R. machine presumably has a tight grip on this very buzzy new show and would like to avoid alienating potential viewers.

Of course it’s a problem if Hulu really is muzzling the show’s actors (or, as the New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz floated, if they’re taking their cues from the author of the show’s source material, Margaret Atwood, who has given similarly wishy-washes responses to the question of whether her novel is “feminist”). But to my mind, the real problem isn’t the refusal of actors to call their show feminist, but rather our mounting expectation that pop culture exists to fill a hole left by politicians — that it’s the job of television stars to cure society’s ills, or at least point us in the right direction.

The Handmaid’s Tale dustup comes at a time when critics, as the Canadian writer Jaime Weinman recently argued for Vox, “are more likely to praise a work for having a political or social message, and they’ll also criticize a work for not confronting its own implications.” There’s an urgency to a lot of arts criticism these days, not simply because Trump is president, but because of a growing understanding that the pop culture that wallpapers our lives isn’t mere “entertainment” but has a real effect on how we see and move through the world — exacerbated by the fact that many of us see and move through the world largely through pop culture and its carrier, social media.

As Weinman acknowledges, critics are more likely these days to critique a film or show’s “messaging” as well as — or even in place of — its aesthetic value. “In the current decade,” he writes, “outlets like Twitter have helped give a platform to a more diverse range of critical voices, and caused establishment critics and producers to be more aware of the issues they raise. And it helps that these issues tend to draw attention, in an era when arts criticism often struggles to stay relevant.”

As any online critic or editor will tell you, the clickability of politically-tinged reviews plays a big part in the trend toward critiquing a work’s political message. Similarly, as we’ve seen with The Handmaid’s Tale, the film and TV industry’s promotional efforts over the past decade — particularly those ever-present panels — have essentially become clickbait incubators.

The Tribeca panel debate doesn’t so much reflect our incoming dystopia as it does the packaging of stars into messengers for their films or series — a job that, in the age of social media and the 24/7 nature of television distribution, now involves sitting on a series of high-backed stools on a series of brightly-lit stages at a series of promotional events throughout the year, smiling and taking questions and waiting for your words to be collected and thrown back at you online in a highly clickable headline just moments after they’ve been uttered.

Just look at the wording on Vanity Fair’s take, headlined, “Why Won’t the Handmaid’s Tale Cast Call It Feminist?” Call me cynical, but I find it hard to believe no one at Hulu anticipated this line of criticism (if, in fact, the network had something to do with the panel’s reluctance to “f” off). As writer Laura Bradley points out, “The word ‘feminism’ has long been a lightning rod — not just for this project, but in general. Especially in recent years, it seems to have become a P.R. stumbling block for female celebrities: some get accused of trying to take advantage of the movement for their own gain, while others have been reprimanded for failing to understand what feminism actually is.”

Intentionally or not, Bradley’s evocation of the “P.R. stumbling block” that the word “feminism” has come to represent indicates our craving for easily-packaged feminist heroes who incorporate their work seamlessly into their personas. In her recent book Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, Jessa Crispin writes about a 2005 Bust interview in which Björk responded “no” when asked if she identifies as feminist. As a result, the artist still routinely pops up on online lists of women who refuse to call themselves feminists, even though, as Crispin points out, Björk is “often credited with being one of the most innovative and daring musicians of her generation, regardless of gender.” She continues:

She has collaborated with and supported women musicians, fashion designers, video directors. She has spoken frankly and openly in interviews about the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. She has proven herself to be an exemplary human being and creator, and she is a tremendous role model for young aspiring musicians. If we understand that the problem feminists have with Björk has nothing to do with her actions and is only about her language and way of identifying herself, then we can recognize that this is about a feminist marketing campaign and not a philosophy.

In her piece for MTV News, Handler is surprised that when asked why they signed on to the project, the Handmaid’s Tale actors and showrunner Bruce Miller brushed off the influence of politics and rather spoke about the characters, the talent involved, and the brilliance of the source material. It’s quite possible they all made a secret pact to deny the show’s political overtones in public. But honestly, I find it much easier to believe that an actor would jump aboard a project because of the writing and the other talent involved than because he believed in its message. A Margaret Atwood novel that’s never gone out of print, starring Peggy Olson? That’s a no-brainer no matter who’s sitting in the Oval Office.

It would be nice to think that the talent involved in The Handmaid’s Tale shares its anxiety about the future of women’s rights, and we have no reason to believe they don’t. But why is it so important to hear them say it? I wish any actual political debate about women’s reproductive rights got half the attention that this so-called controversy over remarks at a Tribeca panel got — which I’m sure is exactly the kind of calculation that lead a group of women dressed in the red robes and white bonnets of the book’s Handmaids to crash the Texas Senate chambers in March, when senators were considering several pieces of highly restrictive abortion-related legislation. I doubt this story would have spread as widely as it did had those women not showed up in full costume; even so, how many people who saw it float through their Twitter feeds recall exactly what was passed (Senate Bill 415, “a regulation that would effectively ban a safe and common procedure used for second trimester abortions”) and how many simply recall the spectacle itself? I know I had to look it up to remember the details, which isn’t to say the costumed onlookers were a distraction — just the opposite. They helped bring attention to an important, real-world political issue, an example of how pop culture can function as society’s collective imagination.

It’s one thing to take inspiration from a TV show; it’s quite another thing to expect an actor playing a role, no matter how iconic, to represent our political interests in the real world. At the Tribeca panel, the moderator, Elle editor Robbie Myers, called The Handmaid’s Tale a potential “motivator” for the scores of women who are “getting involved politically at a rate that they’ve never been involved before” following Trump’s election. In her piece, Handler ties the debate about The Handmaid’s Tale and the f-word to Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, a Democrat with a sketchy record on reproductive rights that Bernie Sanders, DNC chair Tom Perez, and deputy chair Keith Ellison felt comfortable shrugging off in their endorsement of Mello.

As Rewire’s Jodi Jacobson pointed out last week in a biting editorial, it’s baffling and infuriating that the DNC leadership “can’t seem to grasp that there is no justice without reproductive justice; that women can’t enjoy full citizenship if they can’t decide whether, when, and with whom to have children; that access to abortion is a public health imperative; and that childbearing and childrearing are fundamentally economic activities no matter what tent you are pitching or where you pitch it.” Or, as Handler put it, Sanders and Perez “washed their hands of any real responsibility to their female voter base in the interest of having greater appeal.”

The analogy to the Handmaid’s Tale cast’s prevarication on the feminist question is clear. But at the risk of dismissing the undoubtable influence of pop culture on the way people live their lives — if a woman (or man!) feels moved by Hulu’s efforts to run for office or join a campaign, by all means — The Handmaid’s Tale is not the DNC. Elisabeth Moss is not Elizabeth Warren. Of course we all carry deep within us the hope that our favorite TV and movie stars won’t turn around and pull a Sarandon. But we place far too much import on the offhand remarks of celebrities trotted out like show ponies to whip up excitement for their latest project.

Frankly, who cares what these highly-paid actors have to say about women’s reproductive rights? Unless they’re announcing that they’re all donating their salaries to Planned Parenthood, I don’t really need to hear them profess their feminist bona fides so an audience at the Tribeca Film Festival can nod and clap and be assured that their Friday-night binge-watch is aiding the #resistance. Who even cares what Elisabeth Moss has to say about feminism? The woman is a Scientologist! She is an actor. She is not Peggy Olson. She is not a lawmaker. She is not a hero.

When I say it doesn’t matter what Elisabeth Moss has to say about feminism in the age of Trump, I don’t mean it doesn’t matter to her fans, or to fans of The Handmaid’s Tale. But it certainly shouldn’t matter to those Americans who believe that women should have unfettered access to reproductive health care, including abortions, and that anything less is a violation of fundamental human rights. It’s a suffocating impulse to shackle artists with the same kinds of concerns we ask our political representatives to shoulder, and it’s a waste of precious time and energy.