The Handmaid's Tale is one of the most effectively staged near future dystopias on TV today. It comes from the choice to root the Margaret Atwood novel's "past" into our direct present, with things like iPhones and Yelp, Friends DVDs, and comedic moments like Janine responding to the ridiculous greeting "Blessed Be The Fruit" with "May The Force Be With You." But this week the show got more meta than it's ever done before, by having a character recall a turn of phrase based on none other than a famous Margaret Atwood quote. Moreover, it's one which probably passed the audience by. Warning: Spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 follow.
This week was a hard week to watch and not just because of the source material. (Face it, no episode set in Gilead is ever easy to watch.) Last week left Offred and Serena Joy on a note of hope, as the two women banned together to run the Waterford household, using Serena's talent for writing (she was a published author!) and Offred's talent for editing (she was a highly respected editor!) together to keep themselves safe from Commander Cushing, and to remove his ridiculous security theater from the streets of Gilead.
But this week, Serena went a step too far and got them caught out by her husband. She forged paperwork to have the Martha who was once a neonatal surgeon help the Putnams' baby after Waterford directly refused to do so.
Commander Waterford has paid lip service to Aunt Lydia about wanting Serena and Offred to be friends, but the discovery of their bond threatened him badly. He did what he had to do to smash their friendship by beating his wife in front of Offred. Humiliated in front of her staff, Serena lashed out to Offred's kind overture by sending the handmaid to her room, effectively slamming the door on their friendship.
As Offred walks out of Waterford's office, stunned and shaken by what she witnessed, her voiceover recalls:
Someone once said 'Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.'
Well, someone did once say that. That someone happens to have been famous author Margaret Atwood.
In truth, the quote is actually apocryphal, Atwood never said those words in this order directly. It's a bit like, well, "May the Force be with you," which was never said in any of the Original Trilogy films. The actual genesis of the quote is from a lecture Atwood gave in 1982 at the University of Waterloo called Writing the Male Character. The lecture was later published under the title Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982.
'Why do men feel threatened by women?' I asked a male friend of mine... 'men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.' 'They're afraid women will laugh at them,' he said... I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, 'Why do women feel threatened by men?' 'They're afraid of being killed.'
This quote was then later boiled down by author Gavin de Becker in 1997 in his own best selling self-help book for abuse survivors, The Gift Of Fear:
I don’t remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.
Offred doesn't remember where she heard it either. At this point, it's a phrase where no one remembers who said it first, but has become one of those "home truths" women intrinsically understand the moment they hear it spoken. But for fans of Atwood, it's a delightful easter egg in an otherwise intensely depressing episode.