Alias Grace Is Even More Relevant to Trump’s America Than The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is used as a catch-all feminist allegory. But it’s the specificity of Alias Grace, Netflix’s latest Margaret Atwood adaptation, that makes it so pertinent.

Sady DoyleNovember 10, 2017

Domestic worker Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) is escorted by police in Netflix's new true-crime series Alias Grace. (Photo by Jan Thijs/Netflix).

Mar­garet Atwood is blessed and/​or cursed with the cred­it for 2017’s go-to fem­i­nist anal­o­gy. Any time our leg­is­la­ture moves to defund Planned Par­ent­hood, any time we hear a bizarre bill about fetal per­son­hood” or a hor­rif­ic court case about women being forced to give their rapists cus­tody, any time an old white man makes it clear that women are best kept silent and preg­nant, some­one says that it’s just like The Handmaid’s Tale.

Grace Marks is vulnerable because she is a woman, yes. But, more to the point, she is vulnerable because she is a poor woman, and because she is an immigrant woman. (At one point, she takes exception to a document where she’s described as Irish “by her own admission;” one admits crimes, and “being Irish, so far as I know, is not a crime.”)

Atwood’s 1986 dystopia pro­vides an instant­ly leg­i­ble meme for today’s pro­test­ers. More than one sign at last January’s Women’s March read Make Mar­garet Atwood Fic­tion Again.” Oth­er Hand­maid-derived protest slo­gans have been around for what feels like decades: Nolite te bas­tardes car­borun­do­rum (Latin for don’t let the bas­tards get you down,” which I used to find carved into bath­room stalls in col­lege) and The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruc­tion man­u­al.” In a queasy mix of protest and mar­ket­ing, Hulu sent women dressed as real-life hand­maids to wan­der around the South by South­west fes­ti­val in Austin, Texas — and, in short order, fem­i­nists whipped up their own hand­maid cos­tumes to taunt anti-choice state leg­is­la­tures in Texas and elsewhere.

All this is well-deserved. The Handmaid’s Tale is a great book, one that reclaimed the moral high ground for repro­duc­tive jus­tice. In the mid-‘80s, repro­duc­tive rights activists were on the defen­sive; they’d for­sak­en the sex­u­al rad­i­cal­ism of the 70s, and were fram­ing their points in the ano­dyne lan­guage of choice” so as to evade the ever-heav­ier stig­ma of abor­tion. The Handmaid’s Tale was a cry from the gut, and made it impos­si­ble to for­get that we were talk­ing about women’s lives.

It is also — and I hate to have to point this out — not the only book Mar­garet Atwood has ever writ­ten. Treat­ing it as such under­mines the com­plex­i­ty of her thought, and makes her seem less rel­e­vant and prophet­ic than she is. Case in point: The new Net­flix series based on her 1997 nov­el, Alias Grace, adapt­ed for the screen by Sarah Pol­ley and direct­ed by the leg­endary Mary Har­ron (I Shot Andy Warhol, Amer­i­can Psy­cho). Not only is it a suc­cess on all lev­els, it’s an even bet­ter fit than Hand­maid for the sex­u­al pol­i­tics of the Trump era.

The plot of Alias Grace is drawn from the 1843 mur­der tri­al of Grace Marks, a 17-year-old Irish-Cana­di­an domes­tic work­er. She was con­vict­ed of col­lud­ing with anoth­er ser­vant, James McDer­mott, to blud­geon and stran­gle house­keep­er Nan­cy Mont­gomery before shoot­ing their mutu­al employ­er, Thomas Kin­n­ear. McDer­mott insist­ed the mur­ders had been Marks’ idea; Marks claimed McDer­mott had forced her to par­tic­i­pate; the pub­lic was cap­ti­vat­ed by the sala­cious nature of the case (Mont­gomery had been sleep­ing with Kin­n­ear, and liv­ing basi­cal­ly as his wife) and by some doubt over whether the female pris­on­er had been a will­ing or reluc­tant par­tic­i­pant in the mur­der.” It helped that Grace Marks was, by all accounts, extreme­ly pret­ty. The case was sort of a dry run for the 20th and 21st century’s econ­o­my of mur­der-as-media-spec­ta­cle; on the day of her tri­al, so many peo­ple crowd­ed into the court­room that author­i­ties were wor­ried the floor would collapse.

Alias Grace pre­serves the ambi­gu­i­ty at the heart of Marks’ case; we enter the sto­ry uncer­tain of her guilt, and we leave with the same uncer­tain­ty, though our rea­sons have changed. Nor do we see much of that famous tri­al. As with I Shot Andy Warhol—the Har­ron project that feels like a direct fore­bear of this one — the crime is not the point of this true-crime nar­ra­tive. What Alias Grace does, more than any­thing, is to de-sen­sa­tion­al­ize Grace Marks by putting her in context.

Through her con­ver­sa­tions with a fic­tion­al psy­chi­a­trist, we learn about Grace’s trau­mat­ic immi­gra­tion from Ire­land; the tor­ture she expe­ri­enced, both in prison and in the men­tal asy­lum where she was at one point sent in lieu of incar­cer­a­tion; and, most per­ti­nent­ly, the intense sex­u­al pre­car­i­ty of life as a house­maid. Grace is sex­u­al­ly abused, first by her father, then by a series of male employ­ers — but then, every female domes­tic in this sto­ry, includ­ing Nan­cy Mont­gomery, was seen as both a ser­vant and a poten­tial sex­u­al out­let. In telling her sto­ry, Grace con­tin­u­al­ly returns to one of her fel­low house­maids, Mary Whit­ney, who slept with her master’s son and died as the result of a botched abor­tion. Grace was paid to keep qui­et, and Mary’s sto­ry becomes a sort of tal­is­man for the injus­tices that have direct­ed the course of her life: The vast pow­er imbal­ances between ser­vants and mas­ters, the secrets women are asked to keep for men, the ques­tion of who becomes a cel­e­brat­ed mur­der­ess” and whose crimes go unre­port­ed and unpunished.

There are strong echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale here. House­maids and hand­maids both con­sti­tute a sex­u­al­ly dis­pos­able female under­class, and the preda­to­ry master’s son calls to mind the queasy flir­ta­tion” between Offred and her des­ig­nat­ed rapist, Fred. At one point, Grace explains that she didn’t know what a par­tic­u­lar man looked like because her bon­net blocked her view, and I’d’ve had to turn my head,” which would have been unla­dy­like; the gaze-block­ing effect of female head­gear is the sub­ject of one of the most mem­o­rable pas­sages in Hand­maid. The dif­fer­ence is that this time, the set­ting is real, and the injus­tices depict­ed are his­tor­i­cal fact. Atwood famous­ly claimed that, in The Handmaid’s Tale, she “[did] not include any­thing that human beings had not already done in some oth­er place or time, or for which the tech­nol­o­gy did not already exist.” But those long-ago cru­el­ties, like Grace Marks her­self, ben­e­fit from being put in context.

The Handmaid’s Tale has retained its pow­er as a metaphor in part because it boils all social pow­er dynam­ics down to the sim­ple math of male = oppres­sor and female = oppressed, with only creepy patri­archy-enabling Ser­e­na Joy stand­ing as an avatar of women’s abil­i­ty to par­tic­i­pate in oppres­sive sys­tems. The nar­ra­tor, Offred, is well-edu­cat­ed, upper-mid­dle-class, and white; the shock comes from see­ing a woman with every advan­tage being reduced to chat­tel. But in 2017, this has the trou­bling effect of mak­ing Atwood’s sto­ry seem blind to inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, espe­cial­ly giv­en that lots of the atroc­i­ties Offred endures — insti­tu­tion­al­ized rape, hav­ing chil­dren sold or tak­en away, abuse by a jeal­ous mis­tress — are import­ed direct­ly from Amer­i­can slav­ery. Atwood is too smart to over­look racism; in her nov­el, white suprema­cy shows its head when the Chil­dren of Ham” (peo­ple of col­or) are mys­te­ri­ous­ly dis­posed of in purges. Still: Offred’s sto­ry has an alarm­ing amount of unac­knowl­edged over­lap with, say, Har­ri­et Jacobs’. As Evan Nar­cisse wrote for io9, the sto­ry invokes the speci­fici­ty of oppres­sions that peo­ple of col­or have faced in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, only it applies them almost exclu­sive­ly to white women.”

Alias Grace is still extreme­ly white, with none of the race-blind cast­ing of Hulu’s series. (And none of the visu­al audac­i­ty, either; with the excep­tion of a few jar­ring jump-cuts, Alias Grace could pass as an episode of Down­ton Abbey, which some­how makes the hor­ror stark­er by com­par­i­son.) But its ground­ing in real his­to­ry, and in a real woman’s life, forces us to con­sid­er the mul­ti­ple dimen­sions of her suf­fer­ing. Grace Marks is vul­ner­a­ble because she is a woman, yes. But, more to the point, she is vul­ner­a­ble because she is a poor woman, and because she is an immi­grant woman. (At one point, she takes excep­tion to a doc­u­ment where she’s described as Irish by her own admis­sion;” one admits crimes, and being Irish, so far as I know, is not a crime.”) Lat­er in the sto­ry, she’s vul­ner­a­ble because she is an incar­cer­at­ed woman, and (as one wrench­ing sequence set in the asy­lum proves) because she is a woman with a disability.

Vic­to­ri­an Cana­da and Trump-era Amer­i­ca are a lot clos­er than we think. The series focus on Marks’ sex­u­al exploita­tion nev­er wavers; the sto­ry is already being called a fic­tion­al reflec­tion of the #MeToo move­ment. But the sto­ry also speaks to our present-day xeno­pho­bia, class prej­u­dice, or cuts in health­care that cru­el­ly tar­get the dis­abled; it asks us to con­sid­er how those, too, con­spire to ren­der women dis­pos­able and eas­i­ly silenced. If we can empathize with Grace Marks, the series implic­it­ly insists, we should be able to empathize with all the oth­er women our soci­ety ren­ders invis­i­ble. We should be pre­pared to see our­selves, not in the hero­ine of the piece, but in Nan­cy Montgomery’s cru­el­ly self-absorbed climb up the class lad­der, or in the lady of the house, pay­ing off the house­maid to con­ceal cer­tain truths about her son.

In its final hour — beau­ti­ful­ly shot by Her­ron, and even more beau­ti­ful­ly act­ed by Sarah Gadon as Marks—Alias Grace tilts into full-fledged hor­ror. The twist, which I won’t spoil here, involves where women’s voic­es go when we refuse to hear them, and what hap­pens to women who bury their rage. It’s sheer luck, I sup­pose, that this hour aired in a moment when women’s rage and hurt is sur­fac­ing so explo­sive­ly, and when we’re see­ing sto­ry after sto­ry of pow­er­ful male preda­tors and the women they’ve kept qui­et. But even as Grace Marks’ pain feels uni­ver­sal, this sto­ry reminds us that much about it — and about the sto­ries of the women most hurt by our cur­rent dystopia, many of whom will live and die with­out a pub­lic plat­form — remains whol­ly par­tic­u­lar. In the minis­eries’ final, heart-stop­ping shot, Grace Marks’ gaze rests on us, a reminder that she has nev­er told us every­thing she knows. Know­ing every­thing about Grace Marks is not the point. The point is that we can see her — and that, by doing so, we have com­mit­ted our­selves to being seen.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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