Pop Culture Meets Culture: “Good man” entitlement in The Handmaid’s Tale … and in real life

In an early episode of the dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred is advised that the Commanders — the powerful men, within the regime of Gilead, who enslave and rape Handmaids like her — enjoy being given the chance to forgive their Handmaids; they like to feel generous. And sure enough, we see this dynamic play out throughout the series, as Offred’s own Commander, Fred Waterford, continually shows that it’s not enough for him to have control over her body. He also needs her to validate him, emotionally and intellectually. Sometimes that means playing Scrabble with him; sometimes it means having non-consensual sex with him, outside the confines of the equally non-consensual but much more business-like Ceremonies, which are meant solely to impregnate Offred with a child she will be forced to give up to him; and sometimes it means pretending to be grateful for the kindness he probably genuinely believes he is bestowing upon her (as if it’s possible to be kind to someone while also denying them their basic human rights).

There are two common threads woven through almost every scene shared by Offred and the Commander, throughout the first and second seasons of the show: A) Fred Waterford, a high-up official in a dictatorship founded on the denial of women’s rights, believes himself to be a fundamentally good guy, and needs that belief constantly affirmed by women in general, and by Offred in particular; but B) his need to feel like a good person never leads him to seriously examine the goodness, or lack thereof, of his actions. Sure, he sometimes does what he sees as “favors” for Offred, but these favors are only ever motivated by a desire for Offred to be happy with him, so that she’ll give him the emotional response that he needs from her. Offred’s own happiness — not how she acts toward him in the moment, but how she actually feels about her own life —  never factors into these gestures. Because if he really, honestly asked himself what would make Offred happy, he would come to the obvious conclusion that she, and all other handmaids, would need to be freed from their slavery before true happiness was even on the table for them. Actually doing good would mean relinquishing the monstrous power he’s granted himself, and it would never occur to him to do that … but neither would it ever occur to him that he isn’t entitled to feel like a good person, regardless.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately. From the Kavanaugh hearings to the comeback attempts of Louis CK and Jian Gomeshi, it seems impossible to escape the insistence of male public figures that their careers shouldn’t be derailed by accusations (or admissions, in CK’s case) that they’ve abused or assaulted women. And there are always a disturbing number of voices willing to come to their defense, voices that often muddy the waters in the process, shifting the discussion toward abstract concepts like “forgiveness” and “reputation”, and away from the much more mercenary argument these men are actually making: that they still deserve all the money they used to make, and all the power they used to enjoy (and, in Kavanaugh’s case, a lifetime appointment to one of the most prestigious and powerful jobs in the most powerful country on Earth). Why? Because they really, really want it, of course … but since they understand that most people wouldn’t see that as a good enough reason, they’re quick to add that they’re also just really good guys, and that good guys shouldn’t be treated like this. How women should be treated, on the other hand … well, they never seem to have done much thinking about that.

And that is, precisely, the problem. Could these men atone for what they’ve done? Well, we don’t know, do we, because they haven’t actually tried. Kavanaugh and Gomeshi deny any wrongdoing whatsoever. CK apologized, sort of, but only after others exposed what he’d done, and if he’s done any actual work to fix himself or the damage he’s done, he hasn’t shared any evidence of it with us, the public, whose money, and forgiveness, but mostly our money, he wants. Like The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Commander Waterford, these men think their positions of power are intrinsically deserved, because, they insist, they’re good guys. But, also like the Commander, they — and, sadly, many of the rest of us — seem to have completely divorced the idea of being a good person from the practice of doing good things. Too many of us have accepted the backward logic that actions are made good or bad by our perception of the people who commit them, and not the other way around. Here’s a radical idea: how about we decide how deserving someone is of forgiveness based on what they’ve actually done to actually show that they actually want to earn our forgiveness, and don’t just feel entitled to it? How about we stop taking men (and everyone, sure, but let’s face it, especially men) at their word when they tell us they’re good people, and start demanding that they act like good people before getting credit for it? And how about we stop being so goddamn naive about the fact that literally anyone can seem superficially “good” when it benefits them to do so, and start judging people, instead, by what they’re willing to give up to be good?

Commander Waterford thinks he deserves to be considered a good person, even while he denies that other people deserve to be treated like human beings. Commander Waterford insists that he’s a kind and generous man, but would never give up an ounce of his power or privilege to prove it. Commander Waterford is a monster. Men, don’t be like Commander Waterford, and don’t let other men get away with it, either.

 

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