It’s quite clear that the dystopian sexism of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are controlled and abused based on their reproductive abilities, has a certain relevance today. That topic came up frequently during a panel following the show’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere last night, even though it seemed like the cast and creative team was reluctant to delve into just exactly how their work fits into the current political moment. But when the conversation turned to the show’s feminism—another trait that wouldn’t seem up for debate—star Elisabeth Moss offered a controversial counterargument.
Moss was answering a question drawing a line between her character Offred and her Mad Men role of Peggy Olson when she circled back to the moderator’s previous query as to whether the cast considered the story a feminist one. “I mean they’re both human beings. They’re the same height. I really echo what [castmate Madeline Brewer] said, honestly, for me it’s not a feminist story—it’s a human story, because women’s rights are human rights,” Moss explained. “I never intended to play Peggy as a feminist; I never intended to play Offred as a feminist. They’re women and they are humans. Offred’s a wife, a mother, a best friend. She has a job, and she is a person who is not supposed to be a hero she falls into it and she kind of does what she has to do to survive to find her daughter. It’s about love, honestly, so much of this story. For me, I never approach anything with any sort of political agenda. I approach it from a very human place, I hope.”
Almost immediately those comments began to receive blowback from people curious as to why Moss and Brewer would try to downplay what would otherwise seem like obvious feminism. (Brewer had argued that it is not “feminist propaganda.”) Actress Erin Darke, who appeared in Amazon’s Good Girls Revolt, issued the following missive.
But indeed this is an argument Moss, who self-identifies as a feminist, has previously made, though with slightly different wording. In an interview with Time she said: ”A question I get asked a lot in interviews: Do you gravitate toward feminist roles? This is a question I struggle to answer because I don’t necessarily feel like they are feminist roles. I feel like they’re interesting women. The Handmaid’s Tale is considered one of the great feminist novels. I actually consider it a human novel about human rights, not just women’s rights.”
The panel also covered other topics, like the terrifying brilliance of Ann Dowd, who explained that “it gets kind of fun terrorizing people,” and how the show may shift perspective away from Offred, who drives the novel’s first person narrative and has a voice-over when the series begins. “In the book you stay with Offred but in the show you might not stay with Offred the whole time, you know? You’re just going to have to watch and see,” director and executive producer Reed Morano said. “But whoever you’re with, you’re probably going to feel wherever you are you might stay just as unsettled as they do.”
Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 26, at which point you can debate its feminist merits—it has many—for yourself.