This essay was originally published on The Equal Group’s blog. This version only reflects minor changes.
A closer look at The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Unorthodox- what connects them and what separates them?
In 2016, the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, made an archaic comment in response to criticism from his wife which his administration later downplayed as a joke. On this visit to Germany, he said, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” However, this ‘joke’ he made is unfortunately the reality of several women, from the past, at the present times and hopefully, not in our future to come as humans. Calling it the reality of women does not confine it to the borders of Africa, as we can also see it within various groups across the world, although with reasonable progress in the western world. When talking about women, especially providing them with a greater role in the society, certain men show disapproval. They believe women are already in their rightful place or have been given enough as their gender deserves.
The world is still run under a patriarchal system. Even when women receive what they truly deserve, we expect them to be thankful like it is a blessing from heaven. These are rewards and positions they should have a fair shot at. What if more women are meant to be on the attack, salvaging their own freedom, rather than mellowing on the defense, singing, “Que Sera Sera.“? Practical examples from both fictional and non-fictional media, such as Unorthodox, depicts how a Jewish woman under strict religious regulations, flees an arranged marriage for freedom in a new continent. Also, in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a married woman in the harsh 50s escapes the shackles of being bound to the ‘living room’ for a new journey in stand-up comedy. On The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in a dystopian world, where a particular set of fertile women need to fight out of the ‘other room’ which they have been cast into as baby machines, for a shot at freedom outside this sterile land. Seeing these three television series in 2020 has strengthened my understanding of certain topics and themes which I would like to discuss. It’s the fun part of the whole experience, isn’t it?
Just with the loglines below, taken from IMDb, readers who have never seen these shows can form a mental connection about these women from different eras who face similar fights.
“Story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman who flees her arranged marriage and religious community to start a new life abroad.” – Unorthodox
“A (Jewish) housewife in 1958 decides to become a stand-up comic.” – The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
“Set in a dystopian future, a woman is forced to live as a concubine under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship.” – The Handmaid’s Tale
The strength of the leading women regardless of the situation and medium
The major thread that connects these distinct shows is the strength and power which the women find. This strength they display, despite the unfavourable situation around them, is motivated by certain circumstances that they have had to face. Esther Shapiro, the lead character in Unorthodox, has faced fears of being disowned by her highly religious family to find strength in the elevated status she can attain without them. Despite having no educational background or skills, her strength keeps her going to establish a new independent life. Same as with Midge Maisel in the titular series; being dumped by her husband motivated her. The conditions in the 50s have not been set to make her succeed. Nevertheless, this inner power keeps her going. Offred, in the Handmaid’s also suffers from such unpleasant conditions where she has been reduced to a mere baby machine in a violent and fear-ridden environment, only to find strength in the motivation that there is still a chance she ends up with her daughter. Despite the strength that these women share, the modes of storytelling differ. It ranges from the non-fictional dramatic aspect of Unorthodox, which is based on the 2012 autobiography of Deborah Feldman that also finds a few moments to be light-hearted, despite the issues it depicts. These moments may come naturally because of the viewer’s non-familiarity with this set of ultra-orthodox people and their customs, or scenes when Berlin feels like an extra-terrestrial world to the unsophisticated Esther who is leaving her immediate and extremist society for the first time.
Mrs Maisel transitioning from being a ‘living room’ wife to a stage master means lot of comedy and wit. Coming not just from the main character, but also from others in her life who find it difficult to understand this newly chosen career path. I would also categorise it as a period drama because it deals with certain subjects that women faced in this era, as well as other social and political issues. Mrs. Maisel first learns about such issues when she finally breaks out of her shell of comfort, constant provision, religion and limitations of the 50s. Women being raped and tortured would never be funny and The Handmaid’s Tale does not even try to be that. It is strictly a dystopian drama boasting Sci-Fi elements and remains tonally dark throughout its thrilling three seasons. As Lisa Miller of The Cut wrote about the second season, “I have pressed mute and fast forward so often this season, I am forced to wonder: ‘Why am I watching this’? It all feels so gratuitous, like a beating that never ends.” This is a credit to the acting performances and rightfully done so that viewers feel as uneasy as the situation the handmaids find themselves in. Anytime in future we see our ever-evolving world heading down this lane, it should occur to us to violently make use of the brakes.
Men are systematically involved regardless of the era
On similarities, these trio of women find themselves in societies and institutions built by men to help satisfy the dreams of men thoroughly. Men are the builders, the overseers, the foreseers and the gender who enjoy the benefits of the respective communities. Oppressive and many times hypocritical men are in charge. They are very prominent from the ultra-orthodox community of the Brooklyn Jewish to the dystopian world of Gilead where the handmaids find themselves. In the fictionalized American union of Gilead, the men who sit at the table, guide the laws which see that handmaids are absolute objects of reproduction in the ‘other room’. While the better standing non-fertile women of the society—the commander’s wives—keep their place as a homemaker which is still reserved to the living room and the kitchen. Mrs. Maisel’s parents believe she should reconcile with her husband and remain ‘uninformed’ and ‘privileged’ at home rather than going head to head with other men in the misogynistic comedy industry of the 50s.
In a particular touching scene in Netflix’s modern Unorthodox, Esther’s husband pleads with her to return home, promising her a little bit more freedom from his side as he grasps the nature of bondage that the ultra-orthodox practices have condemned his wife to, after failing to be aware over a long period of their young marriage. Crushingly, she reminds him that he would never want to leave this Jewish community because it is a community that serves his (a man’s) needs but not hers, although she understands he knows better and the good intentions he has. Nevertheless, it is not still enough for her to return. Before this moment, I had never thought about it this way fully. Those who partake and enjoy the benefits of inequity are less inclined to be observant and more inclined to be indifferent. Although, it is often not by a conscious choice. Our privileged experiences have not just woken us up to look through the lenses of the ill-treated. This is something we should learn to do going forward- getting out of our comfort spaces of privilege to look through the sociological lenses of the oppressed and trying to make changes as much as we can.
Emancipation and destination of these women
Lastly, a critical bond which the female-led series share is the fight for freedom from the shackles of male oppression. All in distinct worlds, they all share the dream of breaking out of an unpleasant situation into a new world that might not be prepared for them. Midge Maisel, the aspiring comedian, needs to convince her folks back home that this is the right route for her while battling religious limitations which do not agree that being a comedian is an honourable career, most especially for a woman. They would rather see her as a sales attendant at a fashion-cosmetic chain store or a telephone operator. The late-nights and the long tours should be for a man, while the woman stays back at home, taking care of the family. Still, she has high hopes and fights to break from her Jewish traditions into the world of comedy.
On a slightly harder struggle in Unorthodox, as already mentioned, is a young lady married off at an early age, leaving her lifelong community behind for a buzzing multicultural European city. While forced into an arranged marriage in Brooklyn, she decides she must find her way in a new city while equipped with very little educational or street experience. This is based on real-life events that happened and erases any doubts about the authenticity of the experience. Things like this certainly happen. This community has intentionally raised her without basic life skills, such as education to ensure that if she ever falls outside the walls of their confinement, she would always come running back for help. During a crushing scene, when Esther is tracked down by her armed husband’s cousin, he tells her that he hasn’t come to arm her with the weapon. Rather, to provide her one with which she can take her life when life becomes unbearable without her Hasidic community. This makes the outer world a scarier place for her and further motivates her to leave them behind, revealing the emotional, physical, and psychological hurdles ahead.
On a darker and fictional dystopian note, it remains Offred’s dream to escape the shackles of Gilead alongside her daughter. Also, The Handmaid’s Tale acts as a metaphor for the world in which women exist today. Debatable examples such as the strict clothing similarities between the hijabs of Muslim women (in some parts of the world) and the striking red attire of the Handmaids with their white hats. It also discusses women’s freedom concerning decisions connected to their bodies. Gilead is strictly a society where women have to be strictly heterosexual cos they’re needed for their childbearing abilities (and nothing more). Failure to adhere to the established laws attracts stiff and sometimes gory punishments of various degree. This is the totalitarian world in which the handmaids, with the lead of Offred, need to flee from.
Three different periods. Three similar challenges and a looming constant in the male form. Notwithstanding, women can be whatever they want to be, and they should not shy away from pushing for liberation in oppressive settings that want to lock them in ‘rooms.’
Taking a closer look at Buhari’s statement, it is evident that gender inequality occurs in all social classes (although it is arguably worse where there is poverty). The extraordinary stories analysed above, convey comparable lessons using different tones and processes. Women are expected to tone down their ambitions, thereby making marriage their greatest achievement in life and childbearing over a career in comedy, bodily freedom and finding their true worth. As seen, two major social pillars used by men to ensure this subjection are religion and culture. Firstly, the fictional nation ran under the laws of Christ and the other two where the women come from highly Jewish families where their traditions are held in high regard. However, their strength and courage are steps to liberation. Even in our world, actions by female leaders around the world during the ongoing pandemic prove their strength and equanimity. Closer to home, the efforts of the Feminist Coalition of Nigeria during the EndSARS campaign further proves that the future might just be female.
Men should either come along or get booted to the curb. For what it’s worth, it’s for a better world. So, why not?
Funnily but not surprising because of the heterogeneity of the media landscape, they all stream on three competing services. It makes me glad in some way that all 3 don’t belong to one studio as it might have been years ago.
The Handmaid’s Tale (3 seasons, 36 episodes) starring Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Joseph Fiennes, Samira Wiley, and O.T. Fagbenle streams on Hulu. In Europe, The Handmaid’s Tale can be found on Amazon Prime due to the absence of Hulu in the region. This 2017 original Hulu series won 8 out of 13 Emmy nominations in its first season.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (3 seasons, 26 episodes) starring Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Michael Zegen, Tony Shalhoub, and Marin Hinkle, streams on Amazon Prime. It debuted in 2017 and has won multiple Emmy awards in the comedy series category, majorly for the acting performances.
Unorthodox (1 season, 4 episodes) starring Shira Haas, Amit Rahav, and Jeff Wilbusch, streams on Netflix worldwide. It was nominated in four major categories as a limited series and took home one award for best directing.
What are other connections you have noticed as a viewer? Let’s discuss in the comments section. If you merely want to rave about the awesome shows or express reservations about my lengthy essay, off to the comments section.