Why I Won't Watch 'The Handmaid's Tale': On the Freedom of Opting Out


I am The Handmaid’s Tale’s prime target audience. I’m a feminist with a deep love for Margaret Atwood (Cat’s Eye was the only book I recommended to anyone for at least a year). The mere mention of Elisabeth Moss is enough to pique my interest in almost anything. It only makes sense that I should be rabid in my love for Hulu’s award-winning show.

Except I stalled out at episode seven and haven’t been able to bring myself to keep watching since.

People always ask me about the show, and I always stumble, sheepishly apologizing as if not watching were a personal failing. In fact, it was in a conversation just like that when it hit me. My good friend and I were discussing the show and I started to fall back on my usual promises: I would catch up eventually! I would go back! I’m just taking a break! And she paused and said that if I needed to just give up because the show was too much, I shouldn’t feel bad about it. “Why torture yourself?” she asked.

And suddenly it clicked. I could finally accept what was clearly true, what for months I didn’t want to admit . . .

I am never going to finish The Handmaid’s Tale. I have no desire to finish it. I’m opting out.

The show was full of things I loved. I was fascinated by the way the story deviated from the book. The casting was pitch perfect. Yes, it faltered and stumbled, but its moments of beauty and brilliance always outshone its missteps. It brought me to tears. By all rights, I loved it.

But if I loved it, why did I stop? And more importantly, why would I refuse to go back?

And that’s where context matters.

After the 2016 election, things felt, to put it bluntly, pretty fucking bleak. Suddenly it seemed like everything was on the line, and budding activist that I am, my schedule was soon full of community organizing meetings, midterm campaign rallies, protests, and digesting an endless amount of news.

I jumped into the show when it debuted, but quickly fell out of it. I told myself at the time that it was just too heavy for the moment. We were only a few months into our new presidency and it seemed like the world was exploding every other week. So I gave myself a break. “I’ll go back in the fall,” I said. Fall and winter were always my preferred seasons for digging into heavy dramas anyway. The days grow shorter, we switch to hibernation mode, it’s objectively the perfect time for TV’s darker offerings.

But as the temperatures dropped and the year wound down, the newscycle reached a brutal fever pitch. The #MeToo campaign, going strong since October (despite being created by Tarana Burke in 2006), felled one Hollywood heavyweight after another. The stories swirling around Weinstein were growing more stomach-churning by the minute, not to mention those of the Spaceys, Lauers, and Louies. 

At the same time, Alabama’s special election to fill Jeff Sessions’s senate seat was ramping up. Roy Moore campaigned as the Republican frontrunner, despite his reputation as a predator that prowled the mall trolling for underage girls. The strong condemnations from fellow Republicans turned meek. The President loudly proclaimed his support. The women speaking out against him were called liars as the same old story played out. A he said, she said where the he always matters more than the she.

I remember turning on the news one day as I got ready for work the way I do every morning and listening to the latest updates on both stories when all of a sudden the crushing weight of it was too much. Something in me snapped and I burst into tears and just . . . sobbed. 

I didn’t need the news to tell me how bad it could be for women. I already knew. I and every woman I know had been telling people and telling people and telling people what our reality actually looked like and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been screaming in a vacuum. That all this time, no one had been listening. “Is this how bad it has to be before anyone cares?” was the chorus screaming out in my head.

Of course in the midst of all this was when I had decided to finally return to The Handmaid’s Tale. I made it two episodes, crying intensely after each the way I had with the previous five, before I bailed once again.

Normally, crying feels like a release for me, but that wasn’t the case here. I didn’t feel a release. There was no sense of satisfaction. Instead, the pain felt more real, more tangible. It felt like helplessness or hopelessness. I wasn’t letting go, I was just drowning in it.

Imagining a world where the rights of women can be stripped away, where no cares how often they’re raped, where no one wants to believe their agency is worth fighting for, was not a fun “thought experiment.” 

When 85 women come forward to say they were harassed, abused, or raped and that the entire industry knew about it and no one cared, I don’t actually need to imagine that world at all. When the only reason we’re even talking about these women is because half of them are famous and thus have clout that the marginalized women in the world do not, it’s not difficult to extrapolate how widespread the problem actually is. It’s not hard to imagine how many predators of varying degrees fly under the radar because their victims don’t have the means to come forward.

The morning I found myself breaking down over the news, I decided to put myself on a media blackout, at least for a little while. I stopped listening to NPR. I stopped reading the New York Times. I stopped trying to keep up with the latest tragedies.

But the pressure to keep watching The Handmaid’s Tale stayed high in my mind. For some reason, I could back away from the news, but I couldn’t give myself the same permission to say, “This show does not make me feel good. This show isn’t teaching me anything I don’t already know intimately. I don’t want to keep watching it.”

All the women around me seemed to be connecting to it so intensely, I wanted to be in on the pain with them. I wanted to share in this collective moment. But sharing in it wasn’t the balm for reality that I wanted it to be. It took me a year to admit that it was only pressing on the wound, irritating the cuts, and that if I wanted some peace, then this wasn’t the show for me. 

Because when I wasn’t watching it, I didn’t feel bleak in the same ways. I was throwing myself into fixing the parts of the world that I thought were broken and I beamed with pride watching other women do the same. Diving into the show actually made me forget all of that. It felt like wallowing in the darkest parts of my mind.

That said, I’m thrilled that The Handmaid’s Tale is successful. I love that it’s exposing more people to a book I love. I love that it’s making its audience have difficult conversations and entertain other points of view. I love that it exists.

But I’m sitting this one out. I’m saying no. I’m choosing to trade participation in the pop culture zeitgeist—however vital that participation can feel—for a little peace instead.