Hindsight is 20/20 for the US, the UK, and Mrs. Waterford of 'Handmaid's Tale'

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Earlier this year at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, comedian Michelle Wolf told Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, "I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale." A more accurate comparison from Margaret Atwood's story, however, might have been to Mrs. Serena Joy Waterford. Aunt Lydia is responsible for training new handmaids and keeping them in line by any means necessary (cattle prods and hand-burning ceremonies included), but it is Mrs. Waterford that poses the most complex questions for 2018 audiences.

Though Season 1 made clear that Mrs. Waterford had a hand in the formation of Gilead and its policies, Season 2 is now showing the full extent of it. In episode 6 -- "First Blood" -- we see her, in her pre-Gilead life, enthusiastically taking on speaking engagements about her family values book, "A Woman's Place," in the face of increasingly hostile protesters.

In 2018, scenes of angry division are soberingly familiar. In recent years, the world has seen all manner of guest speakers cause chaos on college campuses. In 2015, second-wave feminist Germaine Greer faced protesters at a British University over her anti-transgender comments, and Milo Yiannopoulos caused chaos on his own college tour.  Earlier this year, protesters disrupted a talk from anti-feminist figure Christina Hoff Sommers.

Mrs Waterford isn't just realistic then, she is totally recognizable. We already know her. She is a woman who does not support the rights of other women. She is a woman whose ideas about gender roles are informed by her religious leanings. And if she existed in real life, you can bet your bonnet she'd be heading up a local chapter of Concerned Women for America (an organization that, like the Waterfords, believes "secular thought threatens the values we hold dear"). She'd also probably be hitting Fox News to talk about it at every opportunity.


The reason Mrs. Waterford is such an important figure to have on television right now goes deeper than all that though. Having achieved all of the societal changes she once fought for -- a return to traditional gender roles and an unerring focus on producing children (even if it involves the systematic rape and dehumanization of other women) -- she finds herself a profoundly unhappy and lonely woman. Now the fight is over, and her right to an intellectual life has been outlawed, she is isolated from both her husband and all of the other (enslaved) women in her midst. When Mrs. Waterford is spiteful to, or violently lashes out at, the women beneath her, it's not mindless sadism -- it's out of sheer frustration with her own situation.

Mrs. Waterford's theories about Gilead were infinitely simpler than the reality, and the stress and regret of it all radiates through her face (thanks to a masterful portrayal by Yvonne Strahovski). The Handmaid's Tale is most often viewed through a lens focused on the importance of women's rights, but in Mrs. Waterford's storyline, there are lessons to be learned about the power of indoctrination and blind faith. She is someone who wanted to inflict her fervent beliefs on others, without fully thinking through what the consequences of them might be for herself. She is someone who saw only the big picture, not the smaller details that would ultimately ruin her life. She forged ahead, laboring under the idea that what she was doing was for the greater good.

Mrs. Waterford's slow, painful realization that she is living in a hell of her own making is also reminiscent of modern politics in more ways than one. In the UK, "leave" voters are expressing regret, en masse, over Brexit. Similarly, there is a rash of Trump voters who have begun to express woe over their chosen President's policies. There are now so many of these individuals, there is an entire Twitter account dedicated to unifying their voices.

In a recent article by business owner and Trump voter, Mary Buchzeiger, she wrote: "I'm angry and scared… for my community and my country, which is about to be blindsided by a bad policy forged of best intentions." You can imagine Mrs. Waterford experiencing similar thoughts, as it dawns on her just how trapped by her own (and her husband's) ideas she really is.

Mrs. Waterford is a reminder of how 2016's political pandemonium was shaped. In an article about Brexit for The Guardian, Jane Green, a co-director of the British Election Study, pointed out what we now know all too well. “When you have a strong view about something, you’re likely to reject information that’s contrary to your view, reject the source of the information and rationalise the information. We select information that’s consistent with our views, because it’s more comfortable and reaffirming.” Mrs. Waterford's blinkered beliefs got her into this mess -- and thanks to recent world events, we can completely understand how and why.

In a different social and political period, Serena Joy Waterford would simply be a Lady Macbeth for modern times: power hungry at the expense of all else, belittling of her husband any time he shows even a moment of weakness, and destroyed in slow motion by her own misguided ambitions. But in our current climate, she is a reminder that a willingness to sacrifice other people's well-being in the pursuit of your own is likely to end badly for everyone. Ultimately, her story is a reflection of -- and a warning about -- the dire consequences of political isolationism.