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?