When The Handmaid’s Tale first became available on SBS On Demand, I binged-watched it. I am now watching it on live TV, an episode a week and taking notes with the idea of writing a series of blogs, identifying the underlying themes that occur throughout the series.
I have recently seen Episode 8, “The Jezebels” and it is about a brothel.
This is no dystopian scene. This happens here and now, in every part of the globe, where women’s bodies are bought and sold – for men’s use and abuse – through pornography and prostitution. I felt compelled to write about this episode in particular because it is so relevant and current –it is what is happening in our world, today.
This episode is where Commander Waterford takes June (Offred) to a brothel. He first prepares her. He shaves her legs – he with the razor sharp weapon, in control; she the hapless recipient unsure of what is to come. He dresses her, preparing her like a doll – to be presented, objectified, to meet his standards of the sex object to his liking, to meet his needs.
Throughout the scene, where he watches her put on the (illegal) make up he has supplied, June’s face shows fear, uncertainty, powerlessness. For him the process is erotic; of his making; in his control. And the subterfuge, the fear and excitement of doing the illicit, add further to his pleasure.
It is the epitome of the ‘70’s feminist slogan
“Rape is about power, not sex”.
As they travel in the car, at Checkpoint 1 June becomes Mrs Whitford – only wives are allowed to travel past this point. At Checkpoint 2 she becomes invisible – needs to be hidden – for no women are legitimately allowed into this area. They enter the back way into the brothel.
The contrast between the brothel and world June has just come from is vast. The world she has come from is ‘moral; asexual’; women are covered up, silent, confined to their strict roles of wife, biological producers of children, servants and the Aunties, the guardians of women’s morality and roles.
Brothels are of course illegal. When June makes this point to the Commander, his response is ‘Officially but we turn a blind eye. We are human after all.” Well, apparently the men are!
She asks who they are, and he describes the men – leaders of the community; international visitors being entertained.
She replies: “I meant the women”.
The women are those who could not be assimilated and he describes lawyers, sociology lecturers – the more educated women not conducive to being trained to be handmaidens or servants. But they too have lost their identity. They have become sex objects – to be used and abused physically and sexually by men.
At one stage June walks alone down the luxurious hall of the hotel. She is assailed by the sounds of violence and abuse coming from the rooms. She catches a glimpse of a group of men anally raping women. She witnesses a man fetishing over a woman’s arm stump.
These scenes are evidence not of choices freely made by women to sell their bodies. These women – all women – are not seen as human. There is no humanity in a woman’s body being sexually objectified where her personhood is made irrelevant, destroyed. She is just a body – a body that can be used, misused, abuse for male pleasure. And what kind of pleasure is this that finds excitement and satisfaction in violence and abuse of another human being. This is what happens in today’s prostitution industry, in our towns and our cities across the globe. The dehumanisation and humiliation of women.
June finds her best friend Moira working there. She had been caught while trying to escape from the Handmaid’s enclave. She is unable to return because she is seen as a “corrupting influence”. Her choices are the colonies or Jezebel. Such are the choices that women have today – no choice. She has lost hope of escape.
“It’s not so bad here”. “Forget about escaping. This is Gilead. No one gets out.”
This takes me back to a previous episode where June’s companion Handmaid warns her not to cause trouble, to ruin this for her. Before Gilead was prostitution on the street for her – violence, abuse, poverty, homelessness. This is a better world for her – food, shelter, and a level of safety. This is not about real choice – it is choice in forms of victimisation.
In the final scene of the episode, Mrs. Waterford gifts June with a music box with a ballet dancer. Alone June comments
“A girl trapped in a box. She only dances when someone opens the box, when someone winds her up.”
Prostitution is not legitimate work. It is degrading, it is humiliating, it is abusive and dangerous. It is not about choice – there is no such thing as real choice when there are only limited options. This episode of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ depicts the here and now of the prostitution industry in our world. The decriminalisation of prostitution only legitimises the degradation and exploitation of women, the sexual objectification and oppression of all women at the power of men.
For more information about prostitution and the Nordic model visit my blog post