The Handmaid’s Tale: Is June Still Our Hero?

I can’t blame June for becoming dark and disturbed, but what has Season 4 done to our heroine?

June and Moira sit on a couch together, happy
(Photo by: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally a dystopian novel of 1985 by award winning Canadian author Margret Atwood. Whilst a lot of novels maintain and build upon their popularity over time, Atwood’s novel also grew in poignancy and is still startlingly significant in a way that has concerning implications. 

Her story was adapted for screen as a Hulu original series, first airing in 2016. There have now been four seasons of the show, with the latest trickling on to UK screens over the last few months.  

Brilliantly executed and true to its origin novel, The Handmaid’s Tale quickly gained traction. Atwood based her novel on a bleak American future—a world where America has descended into dictatorial chaos focused on the control of reproduction and, consequently, women’s bodies. This obviously touched a nerve with American audiences, and the show has now been aired all across the globe, from India to Australia. 

As a book fan I rarely say this, but The Handmaid’s Tale has been exceptionally well-crafted for screen. The costumes stand out and the colour scheme has been perfected to create the right mood for each scene. Becoming immersed in the world of Gilead is automatic, and the acting is superb. I have only positive things to say about the quality and the content of the writing and editing. 

One of the most striking things the series kept from the novel is the detail in the costumes. Each role in Gilead comes with its own uniform, from the teal, delicate fashion of the Commander’s wives, to the greyish brown Martha uniforms. By far the most poignant is the Handmaid uniform. Described in Atwood’s novel as, “everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us”, the Handmaids are seen in vibrant red capes, dresses, and heavy boots. Not only does this red represent their menstruation and capacity to bear children, it also makes them stand out against everybody else who wears deep and earthy colours. They are targets. Around their faces are wings which serve as blinkers and are bright white.  

We also keep some notable quotes from the book, including perhaps the most important, “better never means better for everyone” (Chapter 32), which is included in Episode 5 (“Faithful”) of the first season. June (Elisabeth Moss) is questioning Fred (Joseph Fiennes) about the choices he has made, and this is his response. It’s striking as it is the only thing he ever says that has authenticity and truth to it. 

The only area the series might fall short for some is in the pace of the drama. While not short of action and consequence, the series is more focused on the emotions and the complex lives of the characters than it is on the action. It keeps you perfectly on the edge of your seat, not letting you forget that you are watching the worst time of June’s life.  

An environmental activist, Atwood uses climate collapse and the consequences of human pollution as the backdrop before which to tell her story. In The Handmaid’s Tale, America is facing a collapse of civilisation following the decline of the natural environment. The overuse of medicines and fumes have caused declining fertility, and the rise of sexually transmitted infections has led to vast amounts of the reproductive population becoming infertile or having miscarriages and birth complications, leaving the American people facing a population crisis. This is attributed to “the various nuclear-plant accidents, shutdowns, and incidents of sabotage […], as well as leakages from chemical and biological-warfare stockpiles and toxic waste disposal sites, […]—in some instances these materials were simply dumped into the sewage system—and to the uncontrolled use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and other sprays”. Ultimately, “the air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up”. America didn’t have the solutions, and that’s where Gilead came in. 

One group of powerful men, known as The Commanders, decide to overthrow the American government. They murder all congressmen and set up their own regime—Gilead. These men take charge themselves, enforcing their new rules, based on a book, A Women’s Place, written by Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), who is Commander Fred’s wife. Ironically, according to her own words and the new Gilead law, Serena Joy is now forbidden from both reading and writing. She loses a finger later in the series for defying this law. 

In Gilead, Commanders and their infertile wives each claim a ‘handmaid’ (a fertile female who could not escape America before the regime began), whom they systematically rape once a week in what’s called “the ceremony”, in the hope that she will bear them a child. 

Any women leftover who are not fertile are sent to ‘the colonies’ to work and cultivate crops, work as prostitutes in Jezebels pleasing Commanders in their leisure time, or are given roles as ‘Marthas’ (house slaves in the Commander’s homes). Men who were not part of the initial uprising become guards, or ‘eyes’—and those not loyal to Gilead are hanged. Any children of the proletariat who are now in slavery are taken and given to commanders and their wives as adoptive children. Any who actively oppose Gilead end up hung on ‘The Wall’, for all to see. 

And thus begins the dystopian nightmare. 

The story is told in first person by June Osbourne, a handmaid under Gilead’s regime. Her new name is Offred, as her designated commander is Commander Fred Waterford (ergo ‘of Fred’). Fred was critical to Gilead’s creation, so is highly regarded by his fellow Commanders. 

The main reason June’s is such an impactful story is because it doesn’t really feel like fiction. Of course, her particular story is, but it is woven out of atrocities that are present all over the world, even now. And it’s very telling that the novel was set in the future, not the past. Atwood knows humanity is not past the brutality of a state like Gilead. We are living in a world where sexual slavery is far from eradicated, and a world where earlier this year the World Health Organisation suggested all women of “child-bearing age” should abstain from alcohol to prevent damage to foetuses in the early stages of pregnancy. Atwood’s story is as timely now as it was when it was first written. 

Each element of violence and control has roots in practices that have already existed across our world, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a direct comment on the universal treatment of women. 

Janine’s fight for an abortion in Season 4 echoes the current, severe abortion restrictions in Texas; the Marthas living under slavery are reminiscent of practices from all across the globe, ones that continue in countries such as India or Pakistan—where it’s estimated that more than one percent of the population are currently enslaved; and the obsession with controlling reproduction is a startling reminder of China’s past, although the focus is in the opposite direction. In fact, when The Handmaid’s Tale was written, China was only six years into their 36 year one-child policy enforcement. For this reason, viewing June’s story as purely fiction is not possible for me—I can’t witness her pain without being reminded of the similar pain existing in our real world, and that’s what makes her story so powerful. 

We are now also entering an age where there is a huge spotlight on climate change and its effects. I think it is important to remember that environmental decay was a crucial catalyst in the rise of Gilead. 

As our main character, June is our rebellious handmaid. She resents everything that her life has become, and desperately misses her husband, Luke (O-T Fagbenle), and their daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake). Through June we witness the true horror of the regime, and we quickly grow to sympathise with, respect, and love her character. She is bold, always ready to fight back, and never lets her circumstances grind her down. She remains determined to fight back against the system that stole her child and her freedom, her grit and defiance unwavering. 

The first season of the show remained close to the novel in its key plot points. In the same way that Atwood described it we experience the construction of Gilead and the way of life within it. As time goes on, June is central to many uprising plots, acts of defiance, and displays of bravery. These include but are by no mean limited to: refusing to stone a fellow handmaid for breaches of Gilead law, sharing information with other handmaids, and passing on their messages in the form of physical letters. The other handmaids in her district grow to respect and back her, hoping she will make connections to Mayday, a resistance group, and be pivotal in the collapse of Gilead. 

When June does not bear Fred’s child, Serena pushes her to have sex with Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterford’s driver. June and Nick both resent this, but June knows if she does not become pregnant then she will be punished, as she says in the book, quoting Genesis 30:1 “give me children or else I die”. In Gilead, “there is no such thing as a sterile man […] there are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law” (page 61). June and Serena both know that it doesn’t really matter if the child is Fred’s or it is Nick’s. As time goes on, June and Nick form an alliance and then a friendship. 

Through Seasons 2 and 3, June falls in love with Nick, has a second child by him, gives up a chance to escape, and is moved to a new posting after her rebellious nature causes trouble for the Waterfords. She then orchestrates a plot that successfully extracts 86 children to Canada. She herself stays behind, hoping to eventually be re-united with her daughter, who is still with a family inside Gilead. 

All of these things give her quite a reputation, and endear her endlessly to her viewers. In the fourth and latest season, June is on the run after flying children out of Gilead, alongside several other handmaids. Up until this point, she has been our protagonist. We have seen and felt all of her pain, and lived in Gilead vicariously through her. Much of the series focuses on the emotional fallout of the regime, and most of this is through June’s experience. 

Near the middle of the season, June sees Hannah one more time. She has only seen her on a couple of occasions since America’s collapse, and Hannah not only no longer recognises her, she cowers from her in fear when June tries to speak to her. 

After this encounter and a long, dangerous journey to Chicago, and with the help of Moira (Samira Wiley), who is on a Canadian humanitarian mission, June finally escapes Gilead by boat. 

The triumph and hope in these scenes is perhaps the most moving thing I’ve ever seen on television. The rawness and the simplicity of her first interaction with her estranged husband and her response to Moira, her closest friend, are exceptionally well-acted to display the emotions she goes through, in all their complexity. These scenes were long-awaited, and incredibly joyful. 

But what June did next erased the joy I was feeling at seeing the show’s most beloved character gain her freedom. Two particularly harrowing events changed my view on June, my estimation of her crashing down as she became the perpetrator of crimes just like the ones she had dedicated the last few years of her life to fighting against. 

The first of these two events was truly shocking, and I’m referring to the scene in “Home,” the seventh episode of the season, where June rapes her husband, Luke. Soon after she begins living in Canada, June has a particularly restless night. She gets out of bed, drives to the prison where a pregnant Serena Joy Waterford is being held, and screams in her face that God will kill her unborn baby. She then goes home to Luke, whom she has sex with despite his protests and lack of consent. There is a moment where all we can see is her face and her pleasure, and the scene is very much presented as her reclaiming something that has been taken from her. 

Understandably, this shocked viewers and the writer/producer of the episode Yahlin Chang gave an interview explaining that, “it is more honest to the character that issues of power and dominance along with just the thrill of escapism have creeped into her relationship with sex.” While I can see that someone in June’s position might struggle to be comfortable with sex, or be able to have a healthy sexual relationship, I don’t think it was in June’s character to commit rape herself, and the inclusion of this scene shattered her credibility as an activist against sexual violence. As Moira says during this episode, “we all left that place f*cked up about sex”, but none of the other girls seem to be committing sexual offences of their own. 

It does make sense that June would experience confusion surrounding consent after being held in sex slavery for multiple years, but I don’t believe this was expressed in a realistic way. The scene was especially disturbing in itself because June seemed to be feeling powerful and in control for the first time since leaving Gilead, and was achieving this in such a sickening way. 

It is also revealed slowly through this season that, even from Luke, before Gilead, June had felt pressure that her value and her purpose was to bear children. This becomes painfully clear as we watch flashbacks to June and Luke before their marriage. June expresses concerns about how Luke will feel if she is not able to bear his children, and Moira hints that a lack of children might be why Luke had left his first wife. I found this revelation particularly devastating. The idea that women were being treated this way before the rise of Gilead was so horrific that, for a moment, I almost stayed on June’s side. However, ultimately, the way she treated Luke in this scene, regardless of the way he and other men had been treating her her entire life, was not acceptable. 

The inclusion of this scene also seems to reflect a wider issue with male rape on screen. It reminded me immediately of the rape scene in Bridgerton (Episode 6), where a female protagonist rapes her husband because she wants children. In both cases we are seeing the violent act used as a plot device in the narrative of a female protagonist. In fact, the only show I’ve seen recently that did handle this topic well was the BBC adaption of The North Water, where issues of shame, fear, and pain are present in response to the violence. 

While certainly not advocating for the censorship of male rape on screen, I think it is rarely done well, and often minimises the detrimental effects on the victims. This is especially stark in The Handmaid’s Tale, a show that’s main messages revolve around the terrorism of rape and its consequences, and is devoted to painstakingly demonstrating its catastrophic effects. Luke is never shown to be suffering or upset after the fact, and the lack of subsequent scenes depicting his pain is disingenuous. It is not the responsibility of any show to display such scenes educationally, but from this show specifically it was handled disappointingly. 

This event hugely impacted the audience perception of June’s character. For me, this was the first incident where I felt she went too far. How are we supposed to support June when she has stooped to what she is fighting? Can we really champion her as a voice of morality after this? 

Shortly after this scene, June is seen standing up in court and re-telling the abuse she suffered whilst in Gilead…namely the rapes and physical assaults. It was very hard for me to watch her do this knowing that she had recently raped her husband. 

Perhaps the best ending for June would have been to remain in Gilead and build a life for herself with Nick, who was also doing things to aid the resistance. Nick is able to understand everything that she has experienced, because he too has witnessed Gilead. He understands her trauma in a way that Luke, wonderful as he is, never could. June has been in fight-mode for years, it’s what helped her survive, but perhaps that’s all she knows how to do now. 

This leads us to the second event that lost June her admirability. In the final episode of the season, June is seen going to an area of forest—a no-mans-land between Canada and Gilead. It is here that she meets Nick. She walks up to him and kisses him, confidently, on the lips. This is the second time June has committed adultery since living in Canada. 

After how hard Luke tried to get her out, and how patient and gentle he was with her after the couple being re-united, it was a shock to see June betray him in this way. While it seems excusable that June developed deep feelings for Nick when they were forced together, had a child together, and had to rely on one another to survive or feel any scrap of normal affection, for her to continue a physical relationship with him after being re-united with Luke feels like another stab he doesn’t deserve. He remained loyal and dedicated to June throughout her time in Gilead. 

Beside Nick is Fred Waterford, who was arrested on his way to Geneva after thinking he was getting off lightly, as a trade; he was to be returned to Gilead and face trial for treason, and in return, 22 women were released into Canada. As he is arrested, he protests, “I’m a man, I have rights!”. All his life he has been able to use his maleness as a shield, and, for the first time, he is somewhere where this is not enough; he is vulnerable. 

Fred was given by the Canadian authorities to Commander Laurence at the border—who promptly handed him over to Nick, no questions asked. Nick releases Fred, who is looking very confused, over to June. 

June and some of the other handmaids chase him like hounds after a fox, and beat Commander Waterford to death when they catch him. It is a frenzy of violence and sadism. The women then hang his dead body up on the wall. This is especially interesting, because not only is it the fate they were most afraid of, but it also shows they are more focused on revenge than on anything else—including their own safety. June then returns home and cradles her baby, with Fred’s blood still dripping from her face. 

This did not come across to me as the show of strength that it is presumably intended to be. Triumphant as it felt to watch Fred finally get what he deserves, the trade-off was seeing the corruption of June and her fellow ex-handmaids. Despite a moment of true elation at seeing the fear on Commander Waterford’s face, these actions soured June’s character beyond redemption, and showed what irreparable damage Gilead can do to its victims. The barbarianism coming from characters we had grown to adore for their fight against violence was revolting and repulsive. 

It didn’t feel like justice, it felt like a corruption of all that June stands for. Although there is no disputing that Fred Waterford got exactly what was coming to him, seeing June become physically aggressive in such a pre-meditated way made my stomach turn. One Twitter user, @lucydarling6, commented, “that kind of uncontrollable hate, revenge & violence degrades the people inflicting it”, and I couldn’t have phrased it better myself. 

While what she has suffered gives her every reason to reject the niceties and the normality that she is now confronted with, June’s brutality and her grit—the very things that have kept her alive for so long—are now out of control. Whilst in Gilead, she used these traits as strengths. She outsmarted, outran, and outspoke those around her. Now she is abusive and aggressive with them. 

June has been our voice of reason, our beacon of resilience, and our push-back against the brutality of Gilead; she is also deeply flawed and damaged by her experiences. Under the cold, harsh light of her new life in Canada, her short-comings are painfully exposed. In her treatment of Luke, her lack of patience with her peers, and her insistence to channel the parts of Gilead that are stuck under her skin, June is showing us that she can no longer be our symbol of peace. 

Not every woman who faced what June faced became so keen on revenge. We watched as Janine (Madeline Brewer) remained soft and gentle, Moira remains strong but peaceful, and Emily keeps her poise and humanity, despite coming face to face with one of her abusers.  

June’s actions represent the dark potential of any efforts to heal the wounds of the Gilead regime. If even the strongest of those subjected to it have emerged with revenge and spite in their hearts, then what hope can there be for a functional society to be rebuilt? 

Gilead finally darkened the heart of our brightest beacon of hope, and while it would be unfair and unrealistic to expect someone who has been through what June has to come out unscathed, the choice to present her as changed right down to her core values is deeply disturbing. 

But does this change in June’s character leave us without a heroine? Absolutely not, and our real heroine has been beside June from the beginning. 

Moira Strand, a close friend of June’s when America was still America, ended up training to be a handmaid alongside June when America fell. From the very beginning she has suffered alongside June—although their lives in Gilead took significantly different directions. In the gymnasium scenes of Season 1, we were aware immediately of the bond between her and June. 

The old gymnasium was now called ‘The Red Centre’, and was where handmaids went to be ‘trained’ by the Aunts (women who could not bear children but supported the Gilead regime and were not married to important men). We watched the girls suffer, be denied friendships with each other, and suffer the effects of being ripped away from their families. When they were deemed ready, they were assigned to a Commander’s household. 

Moira escaped Gilead in Episode 9 of the first season, after stealing a car. Earlier in the season she had made an unsuccessful attempt to escape, and had chosen to work in Jezebels instead of being sent to the Colonies. June, too, had the opportunity to attempt escape here, but chose to stay behind and seek out Hannah. Moira showed great courage in these scenes, and the resilience she had to continue her escape without June proved her strength and her mettle. 

Once in Canada, not only did Moira continue to work at getting June out, she also cared for Nichole, June’s daughter who escaped with Emily (Alexis Bledel) in the back of a truck in the first episode of Season 3. She even re-entered Gilead as part of a humanitarian mission, determined to continue helping from outside. Her poise and perseverance despite all that she had suffered surely makes her a worthy moral compass character. 

In fact, the only questionable decision Moira ever made was to bring June out of Gilead. Whilst completely understandable given the circumstances, Moira’s decision to rescue June threatened the future of the humanitarian organization she was on a mission with—essentially, she chose to make June’s escape more important than the potential to help hundreds of others in the future. However, her motivations for this action were entirely unselfish. She made her decision based upon loyalty and love. This is a direct contrast to the aforementioned immoral actions of June, which are peppered with spite and bloodlust.  

This decision came from a place of love and guilt, yet, in the bigger picture, put many lives at risk. But when compared to June’s misdemeanors—which largely come from a false sense of needing power—it is clear that Moira is the stronger and more reflective of the two women, despite June’s reputation. 

Moira is a very honest character right the way through. She sticks firmly by her morals, and never shies away from honesty. In Season 4 we see her question her choice to stand by June and continue helping her from Canada, but despite her very human frustrations and belief that she might be “cleaning up June’s mess” forever, she never gives up. 

June was in Gilead for longer, but Moira suffered just as much during the time that they shared. Moira suffered rape, violence, dehumanisation, fear—everything that June felt. Moira was also persecuted to a further extent for her sexuality. Her earlier escape was a blessing, but her suffering cannot be diminished. After seeking asylum in Canada, Moira not only never gave up her attempts to help June, but also started a focus group for other refugee handmaids who had escaped and started a new life. June joined this group after her escape. 

During one of their meetings, when other refugee handmaids suggested violence and revenge on those who hurt them, it was Moira who was the voice of reason. She spoke out to the other girls and called them out for their violent and vengeful ideas, encouraging them to focus on their own healing instead. She does not respect the terrorist ideologies of any party, and does not accept any violence that is not in self-defense. No matter how deeply she shares the pain of the other women, and indeed has fought for them, she is a force for positivity—causing more hurt would feel too wrong to her. 

Where Moira chose to rise above, June sunk deeply into the dak shadow of Gilead. People are messy, complex, and make mistakes, but the layers of June that were peeled back in the Season 4 finale revealed someone so deeply damaged that they can no longer be considered “good”. 

As such, it is Moira’s sense of control that sets her apart from June. Her anger no doubt could very easily translate into the same seeking of violence and aggression that June’s has, but instead she has chosen to keep sight of her core values and the freedom and peace she has been fighting for all along. Her focus is always on what justice really means to her inner peace, not what it can justify through revenge. Her moral compass seems unshakeable, and to me, she is the true heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale. 

Written by Anna Green

Politics graduate based in the UK. I'm passionate about writing so I can usually be found buried in ink and paper. Proud writer for 25YL!


Leave a Reply
  1. June’s anger is sacred and valid after what she went through and is dealing with having her child trapped in Gilead so don’t gaslight her. She was strong and made the hard decisions when nobody else could or would because they were all too afraid. She is the hero we do not deserve and we don’t need to understand her because we cannot possibly understand what she dealt with and is dealing with.

  2. It’s a very well written and interesting article which makes a good point! However you seem to have forgotten the fact that June’s child, Hannah, was taken from her and given to another family without any regard for the bond between mother and daughter. This alone would be enough to turn any parent severely resentful and damaged to the point of seeking revenge and retribution!

  3. Well as someone who has been through trauma and abuse myself. I saw Fred’s death scene as something a lot of victims wish they could do but aren’t able to because we have no access to a no man’s land and no one to serve the bustard on a plate to us… to me shes not meant to be your hero and if you where looking at her as a hero you got the wrong end of the stick. She is a survivor. And survivors come out damaged as hell with a lot of pain and anger. But they are still breathing. Fred’s death was an expression of anger and pain coming out. It was 100% authentic and if I could do what June did no consquences, I would.
    In terms of the rape of her husband, well yes they could have shown more of the affect on him, however he’s more of a side character in the show right now. But we got to see the contrast in her relationship before, where she would talk and open up to him about her worries that he might leave her if she can’t conceive. But when she gets to Canada she shuts him out and actively tries to destroy the relationship. This is the mental state June has been left in “destroy” she doesn’t know how to make a relationship work anymore her head has been messed with for years by now.

  4. You’re looking for a wholesome, tidy happy ending that doesn’t exist for women like June. Yes, the other women experienced the same atrocities, but not all women are the same. June was the catalyst for rebellion and hope that a future without Gilead could be possible. She kept fighting despite all attempts to diminish her humanity. Well, she can’t be expected to come through that unscathed and just become a lady who lunches in Canada. The ugly truth will out. She’s no less of a person for that. Also, I never felt that she has ever prospered to be anyone’s hero. Having said that, I can appreciate your response – and loved the article, generally – think you need to just get over it!

  5. I wish I could do what June did to Fred. I’ve fantasized about beating the crap off my abuser, wouldn’t mind him dying. Expecting June to be a wholesome hero is like expecting her to be Jesus Chris or Mandela (except these two did not get raped). If someone can get through that horrible “experience” without ever once dreaming about resulting to violence, then bravo for that person. But that does not and should not put to shame how the rest of these victims are feeling. Violence, though not admirable, is a natural reaction. And June, throughout all the season, had been shown to follow her feelings and instinct instead of really thinking things through. She didn’t make all these children escape because she was feeling altruism, was thoughtfull or careful. She did that because she wanted to hurt giliead and was reckless. She was never a hero. She’s very manipulative (remember she let commander Fred wife die?). She makes the hard decision and it just facks her up some more. She would’ve never treated Luke that way if she was in her right mind. I don’t agree that she cheated on Luke for kissing Nick. Luke practically give her his consent knowing very well what could (will) happen between these two He wanted June to do whatever she could (use Nick’s feelings for her) to get their daughter back. So she wasn’t cheating on Luke while she was in Gilead but she suddenly is because she’s back in Canada? Besides, it was more like a kiss goodbye.

  6. This article implies that to be deserving of empathy and compassion victims must keep a polite a demure demeanor in the face of horrific abuse. You want victims to behave (your idea of) perfectly or they aren’t victim-y enough for you.
    Victim blaming and internalized sexism.

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