I have a few beefs with Hulu’s adaptation of the notable novel that has set many a school girl on a path to feminism and rejection of fuckbois. There’s obviously my disappointment with Serena Joy’s transformation from spackled mess of a Tammy Faye icon to coifed Ivanka Trump twin (mainly because I want to see Yvonne Strahovski in an ‘80s church lady bouffant), but my largest beef with the show is with the lack of a certain element near and dear to every chef’s heart: Butter.
Because butter plays a crucial, if small, role in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
It’s been more than 15—close to 20—years since I last cracked that book and railed against the inevitable crush of patriarchy’s boot, but that one thing has stuck out in my mind in the ensuing decades. A small greasy morsel that required no Wiki refresher or sojourn to the office book club. Offred née June and her red-garbed friends had a particular affection for globs of fat rendered from the udders of cows.
They weren’t so enamored with butter that they did what I dream to one day do, which is slide across a large slick of it with toasted bread for skates, but the chattel of Gideon definitely loved butter. And it wasn’t just because butter is delicious and only vegans and the lactose intolerant should abstain. It’s because historically butter is a luxury, and in Atwood’s dystopic American future as designed by Jerry Falwell, it’s one of the few luxuries to which women have access, even if they have to hide it.
A point of Atwood’s novel, that is currently just set dressing in the show, is that women have not just been denied the large rights, like autonomy of self and body, but the small ones, too. Women are not allowed to wear make-up, or luxurious underthings. They can’t read, and if the Nintendo Switch somehow existed in their nightmarish life they wouldn’t get to play Legend of Zelda. They exist to work, produce children, or in the case of Serena Joy and her caste of useless ladies, stand behind a husband staring blankly and reminding the world that this is a man’s world from top to bottom.
A world so crushing lends itself to few opportunities of rebellion, and the handmaids have only a handful of rebellious recourses that don’t end in death, death camps, or mutilation. Chief among them is the use of butter as a moisturizing beauty aid.
It has to be secreted away from the table, stuck in a shoe for safe-keeping. It can’t be used for its new purpose at any time of day, because butter, filled with milk lipids, produces an odor as it warms—first grassy and sweet, then rancid. Offred worries someone will notice the smell. Or they’ll notice the grease leaking through her shoe.
But she risks a malodorous reveal because she does not want to just be a “container” used for her uterus, as this passage perfectly makes clear:
I rub the butter over my face, work it into the skin of my hands. There’s no longer any hand lotion or face cream, not for us. Such things are considered vanities. We are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important. The outside can become hard and wrinkled, for all they care, like the shell of a nut. This was a decree of the Wives, this absence of hand lotion. They don’t want us to look attractive. For them, things are bad enough as it is.
Butter is only mentioned a handful of times in The Handmaid’s Tale, most of them directly related to the scene of Offred smearing butter over her face and rubbing it into her pores.
But, and this is certainly true for high school me, the butter is one of those big symbolic props—like Lord of the Flies’ conch shell.
As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire. We have ceremonies of our own, private ones.
Using butter to keep her skin supple is Offred’s way of forcibly reminding her body to hope and maintaining just one small, crucial, pat of autonomy. And it’s absence has left me puzzling through these early episodes of Hulu’s adaptation. Director Reed Morano and writer Bruce Miller have done an excellent job updating a deeply ‘80s novel into 2017, but, so far, they’ve relied on voiceovers and flashbacks to humanize Offred and remind us of her rebellion.
Small microrebellions, such as stealing butter, have been largely absent from the narrative. Sure, to some degree it makes sense; when you’re adapting a novel you have to seek out the big bold moments, but these small ones are what ultimately endear us to the characters! Right now the terror of the world is painted in the broadest of strokes. Bodies dangle from ropes and women are ritualistically raped and mutilated weekly. Which is awful, but exhausting.
Offred’s relationship with butter was a small moment, but felt like a respite, not just for Offred, but for the reader. The lack of such a respite on the show certainly builds the dread, but it can make it exhausting to watch as well. With the show being renewed for a second season we’re going to be living in this awful world a while longer. A delicious diversion would be nice.