Dystopian Representation of a Global Crisis: Helpful or Hurtful?
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been victims of female genital mutilation. This year alone, more than 3 million girls will be at risk of being subjected to one of these harmful procedures. In addition to being a human rights violation that unnecessarily harms the health of young women, FGM typically involves unsanitary practices which increases the risk of HIV infection, cysts, severe bleeding, complications in childbirth, and other infections.
FGM is a difficult injustice to abolish given its social, cultural, and traditional origins in many cultures, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Migrants from these areas (and other regions) also practice FGM within diasporic populations. In other words, this is a global crisis. So, why the hell aren’t we talking about it? Is this yet another case of mainstream feminism ignoring massive issues that primarily affect women of color and/or women from non-Western cultures?
Perhaps. According to screenwriter and producer Bruce Miller, people are shamefully unfazed by the crimes that impact women of color around world until they are shocked into consciousness by a show like The Handmaid’s Tale. Based on the gripping novel by Margaret Atwood, Miller’s portrayal of the dystopian country of Gilead is just similar enough to our modern reality to enthrall, shock, and frighten viewers. In both the novel and the new award-winning show, Gilead exists in what used to be the United States; following the overthrow of the US government, a fundamentalist theocratic and militaristic regime leaves most former Americans, particularly women, horrified and enslaved by the ruling class. The commodification of women for their childbearing capabilities is, again, just believable enough to be absolutely petrifying.
Despite the countless scenes in which those in power brutalize women and invoke outrage, there is one scene that surpasses the rest in terms of the shocked and horrified response it received. In the third episode of the season, one of the handmaids named Oflgen, played by Alexis Bledel, is the victim of a forced clitoridectomy. As a punishment for her homosexuality, Ofglen is subjected to unconsensual female genital mutilation. In a disgusting disregard for her human rights and dignity, she is informed that the procedure has occurred after the fact.
“You can still have children, of course,” her superior tells her, “but things will be so much easier now. You cannot want what you cannot have.”
This bone-chilling scene, with the exception of its futuristic setting, is quite similar to the 3 million brutalities of female genital mutilation that will occur this year alone. Young women are often subjected to these horrible procedures to curb their sexual desires and physically force their modesty and premarital virginity. Alexis Bledel’s character experiences a horror that is not fictional - it happens every single day.
Yet, as Bruce Miller points out, it doesn’t typically happen to people that look like Rory Gilmore. At first glance, it may seem appropriative to use the plight of colored women to add shock value to a dystopian TV show, but Miller was meticulous to ensure that this would not be the case. Instead, Miller wanted to portray this injustice in a light that would indeed shock people, but not for the purpose of the show’s drama.
The procedure itself is not shown; there is no graphic scene in which Alexis Bledel is seen screaming in terror. Instead, it is her reaction after the procedure that is shown - the raw, powerful, yet quiet realization that she has been violated in a way that will forever haunt her.
In response to the intense response that this scene elicited, Miller issued the following statement:
“We’re trying to bring in problems of women in societies around the world.
I think that bringing things that you read about in other parts of the world home, to America, is kind of one of the reasons people are connecting so much to the story
in the age of Trump. We’re now in an age where things that seem like they could
never happen in America are happening here. Problems that seem to be problems
in other cultures, in other countries, with people of different colors, are all of a
sudden our problems.”
In truth, female genital mutilation has always been “our problem.” It is a blatant human rights violation. As a nation comprised of people from all different cultures, this has in fact been happening in America for quite some time. If seeing the emotional impact of this kind of procedure on the face of Rory Gilmore helps bring this issue to the forefront of our debates and conversations, then we should thank Bruce Miller for his brave depiction of this international crisis. However, if this scene is used to trivialize the plight of colored women for the sake of a shocking depiction of a white girl’s mistreatment, then we should seriously rethink how we interpret popular representation of the abuse of women. One can only hope that this kind of exposure in popular culture inspires a shift in mainstream feminism. This is a global crisis, and time’s up.