Yes, these white girls have it hard. Shocking as both shows are, I’m acutely aware that what I’m seeing is a best-case scenario.
By Aarushi Agni
Elisabeth Moss stars in the Hulu original series, The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel. Moss is also known for another ‘strong female’ role – that of the enterprising secretary turned copywriter on Mad Men, the trailblazing AMC period drama.
When Mad Men premiered, I was a 16-year-old budding brown woman, blissfully unaware of the male gaze. It was 2007, and T-shirts were more likely to be emblazoned with words like “angel” or “cutie” than “This is what a feminist looks like.”
When friends recommended I watch Mad Men, I dismissed them, seeing the slow-paced television show set in a 1960’s Manhattan ad agency as more backwards than nostalgic.
A decade later, getting sucked into The Handmaid’s Tale led me to consider Elisabeth Moss in a way I hadn’t before. In my thinkpiece-and-podcast tour of the show, I stumbled onto many allusions to Mad Men. Heavy sigh. It was time for me to check that shit out.
I immersed myself into the offices of Sterling Cooper, 1960. After watching handmaids-in-training being branded with cattle irons for speaking out of turn, seeing a drunk ad man in a suit look his secretary up-and-down seemed quaint–endearing, even. Unlike in the dystopian future of Gilead, the 1960’s white American woman could read, work, and own property.
Watching Mad Men post-Handmaid’s Tale, I picked up on some bewildering parallels. In the world of Sterling Cooper, secretaries function similarly to handmaids. They work for powerful men, attending to every need, sometimes a girlfriend, sometimes a confidant.
As office manager/sex symbol Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) informs Peggy on her first day, sexuality is built into their job description: “He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress and the rest of the time, well,” knowing head-tilt.
At the time when many women took on work as secretaries to find husbands, during the era of sexual liberation and birth control, it’s a forgone conclusion that the new secretary will sleep with one of the ad men. Before the elevator doors open on her first day, Peggy is hit-on by a gaggle of copywriter cads, who place bets on who will win her affections.
Peggy quickly finds that women in the office are expected to fulfill a role between wife and worker; they are expected to be immaculate specimens of female beauty and pretty good at typing memos, too. More than once Peggy is counseled by other women to show more leg and lose weight to placate the gaze of her boss.
Before the end of the first episode, Peggy sleeps with doucheface junior copywriter, Peter Campbell, when he shows up drunk at her door for a little premarital out-of-bounds nookie. While consensual, the clandestine encounter feels a little too inevitable, the power imbalance evident.
As a viewer, it’s never quite clear why Peggy goes there. The situation feels too transactional to be sincere, but Peggy’s resilience in the fall-out establishes her as a key player in her office, who stands to get ahead in future interactions with Peter.
Elisabeth Moss plays the same card as Offred. Handmaids are ceremonially raped by their masters, for whom they are named (Offred = Of-Fred. Touché, Margaret). Like so many other women stripped of power and reduced to their physicality, Offred realizes that the very quality keeping her bound, her femininity and fertility, is also a source of power in this new world.
Her high-status master, Commander Waterford, is easily manipulated with flirtation. With some simpering, she extracts illicit perks. The pursuit is devastating, but Offred plays the game, motivated by an unflinching purpose: to find the daughter who has been stolen away from her.
In both cases, Moss plays a woman doing more than what is possible in her world with very limited options. As Offred she illustrates her bravery when she tells the Mexican ambassador the truth of her enslavement, and as Peggy she asks her boss, Don Draper, for equal pay for equal work. Most of the time, she is cautious, realizing her position is always tenuous.
Yes, these white girls have it hard. But shocking as both shows are, I’m acutely aware that what I’m seeing is a best-case scenario.
As bad as white women have it in these worlds — they navigate fascist regimes and clinical depression, rotary phones and bad small talk — women of color have it worse. Both shows portray their non-white characters with a flatness I’ve come to expect of mainstream American television.
While both Mad Men and Handmaid portray avoid caricaturing their non-white characters, they don’t exactly give them nuance. In a deliberate maneuver, Handmaid director Bruce Miller did away with the book’s plotline of racial cleansing in favor of diverse casting. Though well-intentioned, in execution the effect is disorienting. The white woman is still centered within the narrative, even as her privilege is understated.
Are we supposed to believe that black and brown women in Gilead are doing the same as the white women? Miller presents the idea that Gilead is post-racial because fertility is a top concern. And yet—we have yet to see a black person as a member of the Gilead elite.
Mad Men showed a whitewashed cloister of Manhattan society. There are few non-white characters for its New York backdrop. When they are present, people of color are maids, elevator operators, waiters or other service workers. Besides a few choice lines, Black characters are shown as humans of no particular interest to the main characters. Depressing? Maybe. But what we see is a realistic portrayal of the patronage relationship Madison Avenue executives had with Black people.
The story of subjugation of women, removal of their reproductive rights, their systematic rape and enslavement is not a new one. Of course, feminists are shook when they watch The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s easy to see connections between the state-controlled fertility and conservative attacks on birth control access. Mad Men shows a world just after the widespread use of birth control, and Gilead is a world post-birth control and almost devoid of consent.
In Mad Men, we see the growing pains of a society where white men give up just a small amount of their privilege. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we see a darker story, where white American women are dethroned from their position at the top of societal ranks, and made to understand the tortures inflicted on Black American women for centuries.
Tellingly, a handmaid (of color) tells Offred that her current situation is far better than her pre-Gilead of homelessness and drug addiction. Now, she has a roof over her head and a family that’s nice to her. Offred’s master, Commander Waterford laments, “Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some.”
Author Bio: Aarushi Agni (@aarushifire) is a writer, stand-up comic and musician, in Madison, WI, where she also works in nonprofit journalism. In August, she will begin her Creative Writing MFA at Pratt in Brooklyn, NY. As a comic, she’s opened for people like Aparna Nancherla, Jackie Kashian and Maggie Faris. For the last three years, she has produced Yoni Ki Baat, a yearly monologue showcase celebrating the intersectional stories of women of color. She’s the lead singer of folk-rock band, Tin Can Diamonds. She founded the intersectional feminist zine, Brown Girl Lifted, in 2015.