The Handmaid’s Tale and the Art of Stating (Sounding) the Obvious

I recently finished my second watch of Hulu’s TV series adaptation of The Handmaid’s TaleI’ve been a fan of the book since I read it as a teenager, and it’s something that’s stayed with me; “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” was a phrase that helped me through the bleak aftermath of Trump’s election last year. It’s a book that’s all about the way that the system can grind you down, but unlike something like 1984, seems to suggest that there’s always room for hope. The TV show takes this even further, illuminating the various small victories the main character Offred (Elisabeth Moss) achieves in a way the book can’t: in her smug smirk as she walks away from the house, and especially, in its choice of music in those moments.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been lauded as well-shot, well-written and well-acted, but one place where critics haven’t been so kind is its choice of music. Mostly the point is that it’s “too obvious,” and kind of cheapens the impact when a show all about The Patriarchy ends with the classic feminist anthem Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” (1963). The one that made me roll my eyes was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” (1977) over the season finale’s end credits, which to me mocked the ambiguity of the episode’s ending (similar to the book’s). There’s also “White Rabbit” (1967) by the Jefferson Airplane, a song I love and have sung at many a Rock Band or karaoke night, being used when Offred first enters Jezebels, the secret Playboyesque “gentlemen’s club” for government officials and foreign dignitaries. Along with it being on-the-nose for a descent into a den of sin, the song’s more about drugs than sex–the primary thing Jezebels has on offer.

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Overall, though, I’m more positive about The Handmaid’s Tale’s music than a lot of critics. I was less so on re-watch, where I could see it all coming, but I still didn’t find them as jarring as I felt like I should. That surprised me. I’m generally someone who likes musical choices to shock me, or at least give me something to think about–not just to go where I expect them to go. I bring it up a lot with my favorite example of “it’s more about how you use music in film than the music itself”: Forrest Gump. I love the ’60s rock music that fills its soundtrack, but not when it’s spitting back like a parrot the actions or dialogue we just saw/heard. (Granted, I have a ton of other issues with that film, too, but the music is one of the most glaring.) For more on that, see this essay. Going back to The Handmaid’s Tale, it helped me illuminate where obviousness works–and doesn’t–in film music.

I think there are three primary ways to use it. The one that most clearly applies to The Handmaid’s Tale is catharsis. The Handmaid’s Tale is a brutal show, and it throws you into the deep end of this deeply misogynistic, homophobic, and otherwise cruel world and asks you to understand why the characters have come to view this as normal. While we’re spared moments like Janine’s (Madeline Brewer) eye-gouging, we see others, like the cattle prods used on disobedient Handmaids, or when a man gets his hand cut off as punishment for adultery. And sometimes the implications are all you need, as in Ofglen’s (Alexis Bledel) horrifying fate at the end of episode 3 (that I’m not going to describe because you should go in as cold as possible if you haven’t seen it yet). The really obvious pop music cues seem designed to confirm our horror. While the Handmaids’ retainer Aunt Lydia insists that this is the new normal, and the Handmaids and Jezebels seem to have adapted to varying degrees, the music reminds us that we don’t have to accept that. We aren’t in that world. In the case of “You Don’t Own Me” it does that very directly, but with something like “American Girl” it’s a more subtle reminder reawakening us to the real world we live in–particularly given that the America of the title no longer exists, replaced by Gilead. (in that sense, it’s reminiscent of the use of Beethoven 5 in the penultimate episode of Fullmetal Alchemist (2003), an aural cue that we’ve crossed over the gate into the Real World.) Overall, the effect is emotional catharsis that reminds us that the show is on our side, even if its characters and world are not.

handmaids tale emily

A second place where obviousness is justified is when the message needs to be that obvious, when the possibility that some viewers won’t get it is more troubling than it coming off too preachy. An example of this is LGBT romantic arcs that use cliché romantic music cues that might come across as “schmaltzy” when applied to a heterosexual couple, but it needs to be done so the more obtuse viewers aren’t confused–especially if the creators are restricted in what they can convey through visuals or dialogue. (The best recent example of this is Yuri!!! on Ice, but this shows up in Western media, too, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Glee.) One could make an argument that The Handmaid’s Tale does this with the ending of episode 3, where Ofglen’s scream dissolves into Jay Reatard’s furious “Waiting for Something” (2006), which extends and validates her anger. I’d say this is closer to “catharsis,” but it could be that some of why it’s such a horrific fate could be lost to viewers who don’t share her anatomy. The musical framing–along with the sound of her scream–makes that much clearer, as it needs to be.

The last one is campwhich doesn’t apply to this show except that some of its sloppier musical choices can unintentionally come off that way. (The triumphant instrumental music at the end of episode 4, with June’s line “We are Handmaids. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches,” falls into this for me, especially with how the framing seems to suggest she’s found some power in being a Handmaid. She hasn’t–not yet, at least–and it cheapens the smallness and hollowness of the victories she has achieved.) But The Obvious–pointing it out and then stretching it as far as it will go–is at the heart of camp, and the music should follow suit.

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Perhaps why this all comes off as so jarring in The Handmaid’s Tale is that the show prefers subtlety in its visual language. As Anne Helen Petersen put it in this excellent piece for Buzzfeed, it’s full of the “female glance”: the camera often briefly considers something and then flits away, with no dialogue to explain that choice, leaving the viewer to consider it in a similar way to the characters. It directly follows certain characters’ (mainly Offred’s) line of sight much of the time, another decision fraught with ambiguity: are we just following the character or is there still a reason for the camera focusing the way it is? And why in this moment?

Yet the sound-world of The Handmaid’s Tale is never this careful or subtle–and I don’t just mean in terms of the music. The dialogue also interrupts the carefully cloistered world of Gilead, filled as it is with June’s inner monologue, with Handmaids and other women breaking decorum with each other into swear words that would be otherwise forbidden. Taken together with the music, it forms a strange sort of audiovisual counterpoint, where it’s less that they disagree with each other than take wildly different approaches to get there. Whether that division ultimately works is up to you.


Anyway, hello again. Long time no see! I’ve decided to finally go back to using my blog, after a long hiatus. I’m not done talking about anime–I have several anime-themed posts planned for the near future, in fact–but I’ve been watching more non-anime television and film this year, so I’ll be posting more about those than I previously did. A lot of these will also be shorter, quicker takes, which I hope is cool! Please let me know what you think in the comments, if you’re still reading.

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Twelve Days of Anime #1: From Tumblr to ANN–How I “Became” A Critic

dost day 3

This first post in 12 Days of Anime is one I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and it’ll probably be one of the longest. I want to keep up my engagement with this neat little aniblogging project, but with so many Ph.D. application deadlines coming up in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got a lot of work to do, so some of the pieces will be shorter. (Knowing me, they will probably still be really long by most people’s standards, though.) I prepared this one for a while beforehand, since it’s kind of a history of where I’ve been as a critic and where I’m going. And the story of my engagement with the anime fandom on Tumblr, since I can’t tell the story of myself as an anime critic without telling that one, too.

I criticize Tumblr and its approach to media a lot, but I wouldn’t be here without that website. It didn’t make me a media critic; I’d tried off-and-on throughout my history of “posting prose on the Internet” to get other people to pay attention to my thoughts on media. I was active in music and nerd-franchise “fandoms” on Xanga as a teenager, and I had various abortive attempts at media blogs throughout college. (One of the highlights was an attempt at a “queer analysis” of Harold and Maude.) And of course, I’m focusing my graduate studies and future career on musicology, which is basically the academic version of doing this with music. My early Internet attempts didn’t really get off the ground: Xanga was a fandom community through and through, and while my followers were content to gush with me about whatever song or band member I liked, they lost interest when I wanted to break that music apart and talk about how it worked. They made me feel like I was just a pretentious band geek showing off how much more I knew about music than they did. (Fun fact: If you become a critic, this attitude will never go away. You just learn to start ignoring it, since it normally boils down to either “I’m not interested in criticism in the first place” or “I’m jealous, because I want to do what you’re doing but don’t know how.”) I wasn’t able to get an audience for my previous blogs without having previously established myself in a community interested in that stuff, and so inevitably I got busy with school or other websites and they withered away. It was only on Tumblr where it stuck—stuck enough that it gradually morphed into getting a regular gig talking about media for a much bigger audience.

(Autostraddle also played a big role in this, obviously, but I was originally picked up by them to write about news and politics. I started writing about anime and other media for them largely because I wanted to and that was because I was having so much fun doing it on Tumblr. So while it was the Autostraddle writing samples that have probably done the most for my career, I still think Tumblr played the bigger role and is the more interesting conversation.)

Tumblr has a lot of issues in how it executes its ideas, but it still sure is nice to have a large social-media community with such a strong focus on social justice, progressivism and especially activism. You probably wouldn’t have so many young people protesting in the streets over Ferguson and Eric Garner right now if not for communities like Tumblr. It’s also nice to see so many people interested in engaging the media they like on how it deals with marginalized groups like women, racial minorities, the LGBT community and people with disabilities. It was a lot of this focus that made me fit into Tumblr’s community so well, since I’ve been looking at media that way for a long time. I took a lot of classes in women’s studies, queer theory and the like in college, and spent a lot of my free time on feminist blogs like Pandagon and Jezebel. Since I was already thinking about media a lot as a music major, it was natural those interests would merge. Tumblr gave me an audience for that. I was talking about the media issues they wanted to hear about—”social justice” and so forth—and I was usually more knowledgeable about stuff like film form than most of the people I was engaging with on there.

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But that’s another reason I had to eventually move on from the site. A lot of people like being the “smartest person in the room”; I’m not one of them. I like being someone who feels like I can learn something from the people around me, and when I realized that most of Tumblr and I were dealing with media from such fundamentally different starting points, I knew I was never going to last there. I’ve talked about this on my post about fanfiction culture, the difference between “fiction-as-world” and “fiction-as-message,” and my critical approach (and I think, most critics’) is more about the latter. I also think it has to do with what Film Crit Hulk calls the four levels of media consumption; Tumblr is largely dealing with level 1 and (especially) 2 consumption, and I think most stuff I would truly call “criticism”—and certainly the vast majority of what I personally find useful and enlightening—is level 3 or 4.

So in a sense, where Tumblr stumbles is the same place where sites like TVTropes stumble: there’s too much overlap between the “fandom” part of engaging with media and the “analysis” of it. And those will always be strange bedfellows, because “fandom” is about engaging with media to such a personal level that it becomes a part of your identity—inherent in the name, in fact—and about escapism, about treating media as a separate world you can jump into when life gets you down. Not that critics don’t engage with media like that in their own way sometimes: I certainly have plenty of conversations with fellow critic friends about shipping and headcanons and other fan nonsense, and I think most people become critics or artists because of a strong personal investment in the media they consume. But “analysis” is fundamentally the opposite of that highly-personal, escapist approach, because it’s about taking apart the media to see why it works that way and, if it’s focused on issues like sexism or racism, about looking at how this thing you love might be subconsciously feeding you some awful messages. This is why, as long as Tumblr clings to “fandom” approaches to media, their “feminist media criticism” will always be limited to self-congratulatory back-pats for why they like what they like and weaponizing it against people who like the “wrong” things. Good criticism, though, acknowledges that art can have other redeeming qualities, and in fact this is often how stuff with pretty toxic messages succeeds in seducing people who should know better. Great art has a long history of being weaponized by all sorts of horrible ideologies for a reason. None of us are immune to that, and it says little about how good or bad of feminists or other flavors of progressives we are.

To give a specific example of the mentality I’m criticizing here, let’s talk about “headcanons”—specifically of the queer/trans/autistic variety that are so popular on Tumblr. (For those who don’t know, a “headcanon” is a personal belief or theory about something in fiction–usually a character–that isn’t “official” canon but may as well be for the person expressing it. Think TVTropes’ Wild Mass Guessing feature, or check out the many Tumblrs devoted to posting these from different people.) Tumblr often frames this as “analysis,” but what does it actually add to the conversation about a piece of media? Well, it’s useful to point out once or twice how “gender-passing” characters can be trans, how characters who show interest in the opposite-sex could also have off-screen same-sex interests. The invisibility of bisexual and trans people in media other than in the most clichéd, stereotypical depictions contributes to our oppression. There’s only so much that can be said about that, though, and it has very little to do with the particular piece of media compared to the larger media climate and conversation around these identities. And when it turns into these really defensive posts about how Asuka is totally a trans girl and if you disagree you’re a cis hetero shitlord, it’s completely ceased being about the media itself, as opposed to your personal investment in it.

As a bisexual person, I understand the impulse for this, especially in media that lacks canonical representation of your sexual orientation/gender identity/etc. But it isn’t analysis, and it plays into some toxic fandom attitudes of overly-personal investment in media that hinders actual analysis. (After all, if you’re convinced this character is basically you, it’s harder to interrogate how well they’re written or how good of a representation of that group they really are.) It doesn’t deserve the defense it so often gets of “Death of the Author,” a philosophy that came about from acknowledging that works take on lives of their own and influence culture and other media beyond what authors originally intend. The life it has in your own individual head, a life it has because you read that into all the media you consume, is only a small part of that if at all. It just ends up privileging your head over the author’s head (aka the person who actually put thought into creating this), and says nothing about that larger climate.

okosan will not allow pudding or himself to be ridiculed

Anime fandom is where I’ve engaged the most on this, and so it’s the most potent example of how seductive, yet ultimately fleeting that engagement with media was for me. I got big into the Fullmetal Alchemist fandom on Tumblr shortly after re-watching the 2003 anime series, and because what people were telling me about the manga and Brotherhood anime looked really interesting. FMA is a fandom that’s filled with drama, even by the standards of most anime fandoms, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a low-fantasy alternate-universe full of cool powers, fun characters and (especially in “Mangahood”) intricate world building, so it’s got the “escapist” appeal down pat. Yet it deals with more serious, fraught real-life issues than most shonen manga, the kinds of issues that lead to fights all on their own. It’s full of well-developed, compelling characters and relationships between them, and there’s not much in the way of canon romance—fertile ground for shipping wars galore. Most importantly, the franchise includes two basic versions of the story that work with the same blueprint, but take the characters, plot, tone and especially themes in wildly divergent directions. And there are few things nerds love arguing about more than which edition of a franchise property is the best.

The original FMA series is my favorite anime, and I have a pretty strong opinion on why I prefer it to the manga and Brotherhood. It was hard not to get sucked into that world where I was encouraged to take someone’s different opinion on this matter personally—and on everything, not just the version wars. I was really lonely, so I also got very invested in fanfiction and shipping, and that included the accompanying “wank” about how “totally canon” my favorite slash ships were (even if deep down I knew I was totally kidding myself). Participating in that was crucial to belonging in that community, and it earned my blog a lot of readers. Yet, it also weakened my abilities as a critic when I couldn’t separate my personal investment in this piece of media, and in its fandom, from a broader critical evaluation of it. I really could only do that when I separated myself from the fandom, largely by getting more involved in the anime fan community on Twitter rather than Tumblr.

(Is it it just me, or does it say something when a medium where you only talk in 140-character spurts has more thoughtful critical engagement than a blog-based website like Tumblr? That’s a topic for another post, but it’s food for thought.)

How “personal” your engagement with media can be as a critic is its own fascinating discussion. A piece of criticism is, essentially, one person’s individual reaction to a piece of media, and that’s inevitably going to vary from person to person based on their life and media history. Certainly, it’s frustrating and stupid when groups like Gamergate suggest that any approach that isn’t completely universal—like feminist or other “social justice” approaches—don’t belong in general-audience reviews. How women or LGBT characters are treated is so tied in with how I experience media that I can’t just remove them from how I write about it, and I don’t want to anyway. Yet, there’s a difference between experiences and perspectives I share with lots of other people (other women, other LGBT people), and highly idiosyncratic stuff that likely won’t apply to how anyone else experiences that piece of media. Reviewing is, at heart, about giving your audience an idea of what to expect, and they won’t get that if you spend half of it ranting about how “the fandom” ruined some subplot for you, or how you can’t like this character because he looks like your crazy ex, or whatever. What’s more, not being able to separate that out often leads to the overly-personal “my fandom is part of my identity” behavior that’s so common in places like Tumblr, that I think is toxic no matter what you do with it.

I mean, really.

I mean, really.

Getting involved in “Anitwitter” and meeting other people who engaged with anime on the level I do did a lot to help me separate out those feelings, and develop more of a distinct critical voice about anime (and film/television in general). The best thing about it was that, to that community, it didn’t matter what you shipped, what version of a franchise you liked, or how you felt about this-or-that character. What made good criticism was about if it made you think or started a conversation, and I realized that’s always how I’d engaged with it. I slurped up Todd VanDerWerff’s Glee recaps at The A.V. Club every week when I watched that show, even though I often disagreed with him—because he got me thinking critically about it in a way no other critic, and certainly no one in the fandom, did. I also realized that even my friends on Tumblr who shared my opinions on our favorite shows weren’t really engaging with them in ways I found compelling anymore, and so I couldn’t help but leave that community behind.

Getting a job at a website as big as ANN kind of seems like it should be the culmination of my critical journey this past year, but of course I’m still learning. I still have trouble owning my more unpopular opinions, being able to tell which “unusual” approaches might actually interest my audience or not, and so on. And after all that time in Tumblr “fandom” communities, I really have a hard time examining when a more positive opinion is my own and when I’m unconsciously going along with the consensus on it. Writing and criticism are a journey, though, and anyone worth their salt will constantly be reexamining and changing their approaches. The best thing is I’ve finally found a group of people I want to take this journey with, and that makes it all the more rewarding.