Emily VanDerWerff, 37, formerly known as Todd, said that the feminist-themed Hulu show helped her understand what it means to be a woman. Seeing the solidarity of the female characters living in Gilead, a fictional theocratic Christian patriarchy, made her want to join the club, she said.
“[The camera shots] serve to connect the women in the show’s universe in ways that have perhaps flattened them into their gender in exactly the same fashion that Gilead does, but that have also caused them to see and acknowledge one another with a fierceness unrecognized by the men around them,” VanDerWerff said. “The effect is a kind of dawning consciousness of what it means to be a woman, of being seen as just that — ‘a woman’ — and nothing more.”
She continued: “I think this is why I so responded to The Handmaid’s Tale when it debuted, and even more after I came out to myself, to my therapist, to friends, and now to the public. I have received those same looks of acknowledgment from the women I have told about my deepest self, felt the way they expand the community to draw me in.”
VanDerWerff, who has being writing woke takes for Vox.com for the past five years, said she realized she was transgender last March, just before the start of the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Several months after the finale, in October 2018, she began transitioning.
That’s when she started having a recurring dream, she said. A feminine version of her is driving up the California coast with her real-life wife and imaginary daughter. They’re headed for Canada, the liberal mecca of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But suddenly, a man in inform crashes his car into theirs and drags the girl away. Then, he shoots her.
VanDerWerff interpreted the dream as a metaphor for her ongoing transition, with her death representing her “catastrophic thinking” about the potential consequences.
Trump, king of Gilead
The United States isn’t as bad as Gilead, VanDerWerff acknowledged. But like many liberals at the moment, she saw parallels. She insisted she has legitimate reasons to be afraid.
For one, she claimed, President Donald Trump is trying “to dehumanize marginalized groups, including transgender people.” She cited his administration’s reported consideration of a plan to define gender as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.”
According to VanDerWerff, the revolutionary theme of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 3, which kicked off this month, has found her less willing to tolerate her own sense of being oppressed. In a way, she decided, by living as a man she was actually being the kind of woman demanded by the fundamentalist Christian community she grew up in.
“I spent an entire childhood and adolescence knowing that something about me didn’t quite line up, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “So I created a series of routines and habits built to keep me functional, to keep me moving smoothly throughout the world without provoking response, to keep me in the good graces of my loved ones. I was a woman. But I didn’t realize I was hiding.”
Despite deeming “The Handmaid’s Tale” problematically “white feminist,” then, VanDerWerff credited it with in “some small way” pushing her to “confront my gender.”
She concluded her review of the show by reintroducing herself to readers, as a woman.
“So let me start over,” she said. “My name is Emily VanDerWerff. I fought hard for that name, as hard as I’ve ever fought for anything in my life. Now that I have it, I’m so scared of losing it, so I’m telling you in hopes you will bear it forward and carry it in your heart.”
Emily VanDerWerff, transgender feminist
As VanDerWerff alluded to elsewhere in her essay, intersectionality has become a core concept in woke culture. The idea is that the disempowered of all sorts ought to recognize their common interest in resisting injustice. So, a transgender woman, or for that matter, a Latino man, should support the Mayday resistance group of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
However, not all feminists have welcomed transgender women like VanDerWerff into the fold. A large subgroup of the movement, derisively called trans-exclusionary radical feminists, have made common cause with conservatives in opposing activism for recognition of transgender identity, and attendant rights.
“This is a men’s right movement. This is really a men’s rights movement,” Kara Dansky, a spokeswoman for the Women’s Liberation Front, warned in a Heritage Foundation panel discussion in January.
“If sex is construed to mean ‘gender identity,’ what that means is nearly all sex-segregated spaces — colleges, sports, dormitories — and women’s rights in general will utterly disappear. It is not possible to both enshrine gender identity in civil rights law and protect women and girls as a distinct legal category.”