‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ offers a terrifying warning, but the hijacking of feminism is just as dangerous

While “The Handmaid’s Tale” warns of a feminist dystopia, “Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On” shows what happens when we allow our movement to be coopted by patriarchy.

Last week, two new series were released which, at first sight, seem to tell very different stories about women.

Netflix’s Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On (HGWTO), produced by the same team as the 2015 documentary Hot Girls Wanted, was described by many media critics as taking a more nuanced approach to the porn industry than the earlier documentary, by showing how women can be empowered by both making and performing in porn.

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, on the other hand, is a terrifying “fictional” account of a patriarchal dystopia, where women cannot hold jobs or own property, and serve as either breeders, cleaners and cooks, or trophy wives. Those who resist are exiled to toxic waste dumps or worse. Atwood has asserted many times that her book, on which the series is based, is not really fiction — she drew inspiration from accounts of how women are actually treated around the world.

So while HGWTO purports to show how we can beat men at their own game, The Handmaid’s Tale portrays how men beat women into submission. The contrast seems stark.

But in reality, both shows have a common underlying theme: that women’s true role is to be fucked. In HGWTO women are fucked to make money; in The Handmaid’s Tale women are fucked to make babies. Both narratives convey a form of biological determinism; that women are subordinate sexual vessels whose primary purpose is to serve the needs of men. And in both shows, it is women who, in the name of sisterhood, do the dirty work of men by playing the role of taskmasters to control the lives of other women.

The first episode of HGWTO featured “feminist pornographer” Erika Lust waxing lyrical about how women need to own their own sexuality by becoming pornographers. The tale told here by Lust is that when women get behind the camera, they can make artistic “erotic” movies that speak to women’s sexual fantasies, instead of mainstream porn’s focus on men pounding away at women’s orifices. This episode was carefully crafted to tell a story of women’s liberation from patriarchal oppression via empowered porn sex.  But this narrative unraveled very quickly when we saw what Lust actually meant by “feminist porn.”

Lust’s rather bizarre idea of a compelling “erotic” movie for women was to portray a woman pianist living out her fantasy of playing the piano naked while being “pleasured.” So Lust finds Monica, a woman who is both a pianist and willing to play out this fantasy, concocted by Lust. The problem is that Monica is new to porn and lacks any experience, while Lust hires a mainstream male porn performer, resulting in the usual degrading porn sex — pounding penetration and hair pulling included. Monica finishes the scene in obvious pain and traumatized, looking like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. But remember, this is a “feminist” porn film, so Lust, acting all sisterly, gives Monica a big hug and a glass of water to make her feel better. And then asks her to fake an orgasm for the final scene. So much for authentic female sexuality!

It was stomach churning to watch Lust manipulate and cajole Monica into making this film, and lying through her teeth as she explained that she is doing something different from the boys. Despite all the talk about aesthetic value and women’s sexuality, HGWTO is just a clever piece of ideological propaganda. Lust, just like the boys, is making money from sexually exploiting women; unlike the boys, she wraps herself in a feminist flag as a way to differentiate her brand in a glutted market.  In Lust’s world, sisterhood is powerful because it provides cover to pimp out women in the name of feminism.

Lust’s duplicity would fit perfectly into the Republic of Gilead, the fictional country in The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaids are sent to a kind of patriarchal boot camp run by “Aunts,” who do the dirty work for the men. The Aunts manipulate and cajole the Handmaids into believing  that they are on their side, by training them to fulfill their god-given roles of producing babies. Of course, should a Handmaid step out of line, there is always a handy cattle-prod nearby that the Aunts use to shock the Handmaids into submission. And when the Handmaid fulfills the duty of reproducing, then there is a sisterly hug from the Aunt.

Watching both shows brought to mind what Mary Daly called the sado-ritual syndrome of patriarchy,” where atrocities against women are ritualized as a way to render women’s humanity — and suffering — invisible. One key element of the ritual is an “obsession with purity.” In porn and the Handmaid’s Tale, the women are “ceremoniously bathed” albeit in different ways. Monica’s “bathing” takes the form of being plucked, shaved, and worked on by makeup artists and hairdressers who collectively turn her into a generic looking hypersexualized porn performer, thus erasing her identity and individuality. The Handmaids, on the other hand, have to cleanse themselves in a bath and then put on a ritualized garment for the “ceremony,” an Orwellian term for being raped by her master.

Another key element in this ritualization is the use of women as “token torturers,” which, Daly argues, both exonerates the men and turns women against each other. Lust and other “feminist pornographers” talk as if they are producing erotica for women when, in actuality, the porn movies they produce serve the male gaze and male sexual pleasure. Similarly, the Aunts with their cattle-prods are the front line enforcers, but in the background are a bevy of machine-gun toting men chomping at the bit to kill a woman should she step out of line.

In one telling scene in The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator tells us that she can’t trust anyone, including  other Handmaids, because they could be agents of the state.  As feminism becomes increasingly watered-down by a neoliberal ideology that rebrands the sex industry as female sexual empowerment, we have to ask: Has our movement been colonized and hijacked to the point that it is now the Handmaiden of patriarchy?

Gail Dines
Gail Dines


Gail Dines is a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Wheelock College and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. She is founder and President of Culture Reframed.

Like this article? Tip Feminist Current!

Personal Info

Donation Total: $1

  • occupylove

    “Has our movement been colonized and hijacked to the point that it is now the Handmaiden of patriarchy?” I would have to say ..Yes.. ! And yes we must reclaim it!

  • FierceMild

    I actually recently read The Handmaid’s Tale and thought it was really…blah. I mean, I personally know so many women who have more or less that exact life (sometimes even with the machine guns) that it seemed sort of weird that anyone thought it was a critique of anything. It reads more like a really accurate description.

    • Dana

      Yeah, but still points for Atwood for describing this as an undesirable state. We are living in 1984 as well, but it’s still fascinating to me how apparent that was to halfway decent people from decades away.

  • QuietDesperation

    You’ve got it wrong. The point of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t ” that women are subordinate sexual vessels whose primary purpose is to serve the needs of men.” It’s that there are men who *believe* that idea religiously, and if they got enough power, they would enforce laws that restrict women’s rights to control their own bodies. It’s amazing that you would confuse a dystopian vision of a world that exploits women with approval of exploitation. And a look at what’s going on with the present administration in the US should demonstrate that the sentiments behind the antagonists in The Handmaid’s Tale are still current in a large segment of the population.

    • fxduffy

      “It’s amazing that you would confuse a dystopian vision of a world that exploits women with approval of exploitation.”

      Yes, thanks Quiet. I thought I was going nuts reading this. I said to myself: ‘Is this by Gail Dines?’ Hey I’m glad you said this because I doubt I would have felt secure enough to make your point. I would have just skipped this as another head-scratcher and moved onto a more lucid piece. I mean, our we missing something here??

      • will

        I don’t think Gail Dines “confuse[d] a dystopian vision of a world that exploits women with approval of exploitation” at all. She’s pointing out the parallels between a film that acknowledges patriarchal atrocities with a TV series that peddles the very values that are condemned in Handmaid’s Tale as “liberation”. The movie condemns the idea that women exist to be fucked while the TV series celebrates the notion that women exist to be fucked, yet we are supposed to accept both at face value without acknowledging the insane contraction in doing so.

  • Olivia

    She does have the Jezebels part, which is basically like a giant brothel just outside of Gilead. Moira kind of describes it as ’empowering’ for her, but I think as readers we’re supposed to see that that isn’t the case.

    • calabasa

      Oh really? Hmm. Maybe I’ll have to go back and give it a re-read. I stopped reading midway through because it left a little pit of unease in my stomach…not the subject matter, but the way it was portrayed to matter (as others have said, this is already happening, but not, at the moment, to white Western women, which is why this regressive dystopian future was seen as so much “worse”)…I stopped reading midway through. I guess that part comes later? I’ll have to give it a second chance.

  • Morag999

    It’s been ages since I read it, too. But I don’t think you’re mis-remembering; I believe that you interpreted it as she intended. Atwood, far as I can recall from some of her essays and/or interviews, is not anti-pornography.

  • FierceMild


    • genny

      And the libfems who want dudes to think they’re cool so they can get dates with them.

  • FierceMild

    Nope. You’re bang on. There was a sort of background implication that porn critical feminism getting into bed (literally) with the conservative military machine is what led to the dystopia.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I think probably it’s not only that they have been indoctrinated (though I agree many of these ‘aunts’ exist in our culture, who’ve told themselves the culture is working for them somehow), but also that they believe they can escape oppression if they participate in the oppressing themselves. They are trying to escape the same fate as the handmaids (consciously, I believe… at least in some way) by joining the oppressors instead of fighting back.

    • Sue McPherson

      I imagine many women believe wholeheartedly in feminism to begin with as it offers explanations for many of our experiences (starting with the feminine mystique, for some at least). But not theory is perfect. there are always flaws, and one of these is that, as Margaret Atwood’s book points out, the differences between the sexes as to desire, and biology, not to mention the actual physical component, leads to women siding with some men against some women. So yes, the ‘aunts’ in our society do collaborate with men in order to have more opportunities in life. They may think at the beginning that they are better than other women, but unless they are in denial, they surely have to recognize the part they are playing eventually.

      • marv

        “the differences between sexes as to desire” is not simply biologically based. Desire is also sociologically fashioned by patriarchal gendered structures. Atwood’s theory was flawed by putting the onus on natural drive variations between men and women. Imagine how problematic it would be if people argued some races have greater innate urges than others.

  • Meghan Murphy

    You are right that they are complimented, buoyed by the support from men, they continue to act against women’s interests and side with the boys. But that *is* opportunistic.

    I’m not saying all women who work against feminism are doing so consciously, but I think that many do, in some way, know they are making a choice. Even if they aren’t doing so consciously, so influenced by internalized misogyny that they legitimately believe patriarchy works in their own best interest, somewhere deep down, they are choosing to side with the enemy, against men. Have you been keeping up with the series? In last week’s episode, there is most certainly a moment of recognition from an Aunt — it’s clear she knows that what she is doing is wrong, but feels she has no choice but to keep doing it, if she is going to survive and not be sent to the colonies or whatever. Women choose to work work men/our oppressors in order to survive and get by. They may convince themselves they are doing something they believe in, sure, but the reason they do that is to survive and to try to gain power and safety in patriarchy.

    • Croos Ters

      Care to link me? This is the first article I’ve read.

      As for your argument, I think that many of the more intellectually skilled female anti-feminists certainly might be intellectual mercenaries. This is not common as, in our society, women don’t have to do this anymore as feminism, regardless of how stupid libfems are, is very mainstream in most of the Western world.

      I’ve had a theory about Christina Hoff Sommers that I’ve been developing for a while.

      If you listen to her speak, you’d think that she got her “flash of genius” that feminism was wrong in the late 80’s and published Who Stole Feminism?, her famous work which was accurately described after its publishing as being the sophistic anti-feminist drivel that characterizes her work.

      However, if you look for more than a few seconds, you can sense something markedly off about her speech. You instinctively know most of what she says is a mix of half-truths and garbage, yet you notice she seems to do so in a way that uniquely appeals to conservatives.

      Everything she says uses buzzwords conservatives love. “Choices” “market wages” and, most insidiously, “women are more caring”.

      All of this pushes all the buttons of conservatives and libertarians so well that many of them don’t bother to analyze why those choices are caused by patriarchy, as most believe traditional gender roles to be either sacrosanct or bio-truth.

      If you notice her academic record on JSTOR, you’ll notice that she hardly has more than 16 hits. Compare that to Michael Kimmel and Judith Butler, other philosophers of gender. They have over 15K hits and 30K hits apiece.

      This is the crux of my hunch: she’s a sub-par academic who couldn’t get tenure, therefore she turned her skills to what sub-par academics with good debating skills do: pandering to fringe ideologies.

      As a bio-archaeologist and paleoclimatologist, I see this all the time. Most “academic” climate change deniers and creationists are, if you look past the the fancy credentials, are extremely below average in terms of their work.

      There was a great video by YouTube user and Ph D biochemist TheLivingDinosaur about how two academics on pay at Answers in Genesis, the premier American Young-Earth Creationist organization, were, despite their paymaster’s claims, extremely sub-par. One had only published 3 articles and never got more than third-string authorship. The other was dead wood.

      It makes me think that they’re either delusional or highly skilled at lying to rubes who’ll accept any argument from authority.

      Most anti-feminist faux-feminists with credentials are either contrarian provocateurs (Camille Paglia), ideologues (Cathy Young), religious zealots (Phyllis Schlafly) or paid shills (Christina Hoff Sommers).

      • Meghan Murphy

        Yeah, I mean the only reason why Sommers is known at all is because she panders to MRAs, and they LOVE when they can find a woman who claims to be a feminist to share their talking points. They see it as a kind of ‘gotcha’ to feminists, ignoring or pretending not to realize that actual feminists don’t care what Sommers have to say and don’t for one second believe she is feminist.

  • SaraCats

    Incredibly insightful article! I really enjoyed the first HGW as it showed some of the abuses of the amateur porn industry up close and directly from the women experiencing it. It’s sad that the creators seem to feel that they had to take the opposing stance to appease the “sex positive” libfem crowd with the only “acceptable” viewpoint.

  • Sue McPherson

    ” These women are either so deeply indoctrinated into the oppressive ideology (be it a religion or a political ideology; both fulfill the same effect), that they actively go out of their way to cook up baloney about women and defend abusive men.”

    I believe part of the problem may be in seeing it in terms of either/or, that women are either for feminism (for women) or against them. Alternatively, we can look at the problem from the perspective of sexual differences, recognizing that in general it is men who usually have greater needs and drives than women. And it is up to women to negotiate their path in life. Saying that some women defend abusive men is simplying complex issues. Some women defend decent men who simply like sex a lot, managing to get themselves in trouble over a technicality, nowadays due to the matter of consent. It is women’s lot to deal with these men without alienating them so they can get what they want out of life. But in the course of this navigation, some women get hurt, and some men do also. And the ones who get hurt are generally the ones with the least amount of power in society, not the ones who have done the most harm.

  • Robert Swain

    Serving the need of men is a cultural issue and should be overcome. The issue of the role of breeding and biological determinism is a general fact of life that in the biologic scheme of things one carries the child and one deposits semen. Without that happening at some level, the species will die out. The over arching question becomes, in a supposedly advanced species such as our own, how we agree and legitimize roles beyond what is merely defined by biology and not let biology make assumptions about who is in control.