Humour and The Handmaid’s Tale

Humour and The Handmaid’s Tale might not seem like two concepts that would go together. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about how the US Government was overthrown by a fundamentalist totalitarian regime that strips people – especially women – of basic human rights. Handmaids are even subjected to ‘ceremonies’ once a month where they are raped when they are at their most fertile in an attempt to impregnate them. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute. It is one of the most disturbing shows that has ever been aired (and the book, which is somewhat less graphic, is just as heavy for audiences).

However, humour serves an important function in life. It doesn’t just help give us a laugh – which can be necessary in dark shows – but it can be a tool of subversion. It’s a way for people who are marginalised to punch up, no matter how many times Ricky Gervais tries to say it is about punching down (sorry, but that is called bullying and it isn’t funny). One of the first things totalitarian regimes try to do is crack down on freedom of expression. Humour can be used to call out and mock oppressive systems and those who are empowered by them. It is always one of the first victims of fascism.

The Handmaid’s Tale has grown in confidence from the first season. While season one was dour and appropriately so as it set the scene of just how vile Gilead is,  since then the characters have been allowed to define just some of their own boundaries within this miserable and oppressive life. They have little freedom and little room to manoeuvre but they try anyway. They test the strict limits which are enforced upon them and reconnect with each other through humour when isolation is often thrust upon them and friendships are forbidden. The laughs in the show punch up even when the ‘jokes’ goes beyond dialogue. They smack at Nazis and they throw a spotlight on just how fucking dark everything is and the absurdity of it all. Whether it’s mocking the rather pathetic and futile attempts Serena makes to try to bond with the handmaids when hosting her lunch, or the dark quips from Commander Waterford about being hanged next to his wife; they are designed to deliver subversive dark humour about the ridiculous, outrageous and ludicrous situation that is Gilead. This was made stark when the jaunty ‘It’s all too beautiful’ boomed as Emily sat nervously awaiting the Commander for what she believed would be their first ‘ceremony’.

Time and again June would make some snappy remark and clap-back at the Commander or Serena. It would achieve nothing but a smile for herself and a cheer from the audience, and she would always be punished for speaking out, but it showed that Gilead could not fully control her.

The Handmaid’s Tale is going out of its way to highlight just what a disgusting prospect Gilead is but it’s actually doing dark humour right. Too often, comedians punch down at the victims of marginalisation and oppression. The Handmaid’s Tale mocks and ridicules oppressive laws and oppressive people. The handmaids aren’t the joke – the oppressive order is, and so are the people who enforce it. This is how humour should be done.

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