12:00pm PT by Amber Dowling
'The Handmaid's Tale' Star Talks Domestic Feminism, the Emotional Toll of Infertility
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the sixth episode of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, "A Woman's Place."]
It turns out that blue wasn't always Serena Joy's signature color. The Handmaid's Tale took a deep dive into the past for "A Woman's Place," an episode that marks one of the biggest departures from Margaret Atwood's tome yet.
The episode centered on Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and delved into a world pre-Gilead when she and her husband, Fred (Joseph Fiennes), were still conceptualizing what this caste system could look like, and mandatory procreation was still an inconceivable idea. The scenes showcased Serena's part in it all, revealing she had written a book and was once arrested for protesting, meaning that her voice was one of the loudest ones for a change such as this.
Meanwhile in the present-day narrative, trade delegates from Mexico arrived for a dog-and-pony show as they too explored ideas on how to save the declining population. At stake? The handmaids, who may or may not become trading tools in the near future.
To break down some of the episode's bigger revelations, THR caught up with Strahovski to discuss female power, the meaning of the term "domestic feminism" and her reactions to the show given the current political climate.
What do you imagine Serena Joy pictured when she was first campaigning for this world?
I have a sense of this ideology that she stuck to, this idea of what she called domestic feminism. I feel like she was so stuck on the excitement of the idea that you could make reproduction a compulsory thing in the nation to fix the planet and to fix the birth rates. I don't know that she had thought it through entirely. There is a naivety that surrounds that. It was so ideological in her mind that she didn't know it was going to get to this point, obviously. It's this weird duality that she has to hold on to what she knows is not the greatest situation, but she was such a fighter for what she believed in that now she has to stick to it. And she has to survive within the parameters. I don't think she's even ready to realize just how bad the damage is. She's feeling the effects of it but she's not ready to stand up and say that actually, it's not right.
How did her own infertility with Fred affect their behaviors in creating Gilead?
It played a huge role in it; it personalized a global issue for them. That's always going to be affected in anything, when something is personal to you and you're experiencing it yourself … for sure it would have made a difference.
Was there research involved in portraying that?
I have friends who I've seen go through a lot of different challenges when it comes to having a baby; some a lot more drastic than others. The main thing that strikes me out of all of it is how emotional it is. That was something that was important for me to convey, is that even though she's a bad guy she still has emotions and she still has feelings. Even though we're not supposed to like Serena and what she's doing, she's still a human being and she still cries. So that was important to me, because the book doesn't really sort of give her a lot of empathy or sympathy. I really wanted to humanize her from that emotional aspect.
Serena has some power to change the way things are … at least just for Offred in her own household. Why does she choose to act the way she does?
It's a combination of surviving now that she's in these parameters that she self-created or was part of creating. It's that notion of, "Now I have to make do with this and survive." It's partly enjoying the power, that confusion that authority figures have when they feel like they can be abusive in their power. And I think it's also her belief system. She still has faith in this system, even though it's awful for her and the women around her. She still wants to have faith in it because I don't think she quite lost everything. Until she's lost everything, then maybe we could see her crumble and realize that she could say something or change the way things are. But I think she's still holding on to one thing and that is this idea that she can have this baby. That's the light at the end of the tunnel for her, that this baby is going to come through Offred, and she will do whatever it takes to get this baby because once this baby comes everything will just be baby. She's not ready to see that that in itself is a Band-aid solution.
Serena takes some of her own power back in this episode. What kind of evolution does the character go through in finding her voice?
You definitely got a glimpse into how she used to take control and how she used to have a voice — she used to be The Commander, for a lack of better word — in their dynamic. Just the very notion of how she stands up in the ballroom in front of everybody to make a speech. It seems like a small thing, but it's a big thing for her to take her power back. And maybe talking to the visiting trade delegates has something to do with that, because she does get called out about how she used to rally, she used to have a voice. They ask her, "How do you feel about women not being able to read your book anymore?" That hits a nerve. It's this strange line that she walks of, "Yeah, I got screwed in this deal, but I'm still going to stick to it." There are a couple of different breaking points where she does try and take her power back. It's beautiful. There's that scene where The Commander touches her again, which is sort of also what she's seeking out of all of this, is just that basic human need for connection.
How does that reconciliation affect their relationship — and also Serena and Offred's relationship — going forward?
It will affect Serena and The Commander going forward in a positive way because it's almost like they have their own little secret … because you're not supposed to be doing that. It helps, but that's also a Band-aid solution because as we'll see in future episodes, The Commander has his own secret life going on and he's seeking fulfillment in other ways, which only makes Serena even more alone. It's the desperation and striving for connection. In terms of those scenes between Serena and Offred, she's not supposed to want to connect to Offred, but you get glimpses of maybe they could be friends. Maybe they could have something beyond this sort of horrible relationship, but she just can't allow herself to go there. It's been so long that she's been pent up without a voice. She doesn't know how to connect anymore. So when The Commander does finally come in and touch her, it's overwhelming for her in that moment.
What does the term "domestic feminism" mean?
It's very loose, these terms that they use of traditional values and domestic feminism. It ties heavily into the idea of a woman following her biological destiny, meaning women have ovaries and uteruses and we are able to carry children, so we should primarily and solely focus on that. And let the men do the work. She actually really believes that this was the way, this was how they were going to save the world. This domestic feminism is a branch-out term for this biological destiny idea. And then further expanding on the traditional values of staying at home and being a mom and keeping the house, which is what they ended up doing. It's really weird as an actor. You're trying to play someone like Serena and trying to justify all these weird things like domestic feminism and all these loose terms that are kind of vapid. It's interesting because you sort of justify all these things for yourself, and then I sort of end up with an understanding of how this woman ends up in this place and why she believes these ideologies that I don't relate to. But it's also a scary process because then you apply it to the real world and you think, "Wow, I wonder if that's what these people are going through, they feel stuck and they feel like they don't have a way out and that's why they're not trying to change things and stand up for people."
In terms of the show's overall relevance, has any of that hit you harder post-premiere?
I remember talking to one of the writers on-set pre-election and joking around and saying, "Oh, wouldn't it be funny if Trump won? Our show would be really interesting." And then post-election, all the headlines coming out about derogatory comments toward women and the idea of women losing their rights about their bodies and then the Women's March. It was crazy going through real life and seeing everything happening around me and reading headlines like that and knowing what we had already shot and what the writers had written long before any of this happened. It's just so fascinating, the timing of everything. It's not like we could have planned for something like this. So the response has been really interesting to watch too, and to see people hungry to watch something like this that I think reflects people's direct fears about what they're worried our society could turn into. People have real fears like this, which is why it is so topical and so many people want to talk about it.
Has doing the show made you look at things any differently?
When I watch the show, I get really worried. I feel alarmed when I watch it, because what the show does beautifully is depict how easily we could fall into a society like this. It doesn't seem like such a long road to get to where we are in Gilead in the show. So it is alarming to me to watch it. But at the same time this is as much a story about hope as it is a warning sign of where we can go. There is that resistance movement and that's showing in life. People are uniting more and having a voice more. The Women's March in itself was such a historic, monumental event that happened, that needed to happen. But it's also depressing to see people not understanding why we needed that and being aggressive about it. There are so many sides to this story. I feel all of them. One minute I'm inspired and one minute I feel alarmed.
The Handmaid's Tale episodes are released Wednesdays on Hulu. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below.