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The Handmaid’s Tale: the real reason we respond so strongly to Aunt Lydia

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Kayleigh Dray
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The Handmaid’s Tale’s terrifying Aunt Lydia is one of the best examples of modern female villainy, proving that good and evil are far from simple concepts.

Everyone loves a villain. Every bit as fascinating as they are repulsive, they bring excitement, passion and determination to our screens – often stealing the show from the hero in the process. But think of some of the best baddies of all time: Voldemort, Darth Vader, Tony Soprano, Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates. All as different as can be, but with one thing in common – they’re all men.

The most terrifying modern-day villain, however, is a woman: Aunt Lydia. The Handmaid’s Tale character is compelling to watch. She’s capable of single-minded brutality, but also of near-maternal tenderness. She commands our attention because she isn’t a single-note character: does Lydia have a heart under her uniform, or does her blood run cold and dark?

Elisabeth Moss, in the central role of June, is often praised for being able to convey complex emotions using just her face. Ann Dowd, playing Lydia, has the same ability to convey much with little. Showrunner Bruce Miller said Dowd’s performance is essential to translating Lydia’s depth and vulnerability: “She made you feel sorry for and understand such a complicated woman.” Dowd, for her part, credits Miller for providing her with a way in to the character, by suggesting Lydia might have been a teacher pre-Gilead.

Dowd was educated by nuns and drew on their emphasis on self-discipline for the role. “When someone has such a rigid way of thinking and believing, you wonder, how did you get to that place?” said Dowd, who picked up an Emmy in 2017 for her role. “Can’t you imagine her in an all-girls’ school, or a public school, watching the promiscuity, the language, the disrespect of authority, the disrespect for the Bible?” she added.

Lydia is one of a class of women known as ‘Aunts’. In charge of training and disciplining the handmaids, they are the only women in the book and television show to have any demonstrable power. Lydia is the Aunt we know most about. Stern-faced. Brown-uniformed. Taser-equipped. A true believer in the regime of Gilead, uncaring of the violence used to achieve the goals of producing and rearing children. But towards the end of the first television series, Lydia seems to become something of an ally to the “fertile” women in her care. 

She is appalled when she is instructed to remove “damaged” handmaids ahead of a celebratory banquet, and comforts Ofwarren when she grows upset, gently addressing her as Janine – the handmaid’s pre-Gilead name. After Janine attempts suicide, Lydia is at her bedside. When the handmaids refuse to comply with the order to kill one of their own, we think, from the look on Lydia’s face, that she supports their decision. We wonder if her talk of punishing them for their disobedience is nothing: words, a show, to throw Gilead’s commanders off the scent. Lydia had stopped feeling like a weapon of the regime and started to seem like a human being.

But, as we know, human beings are also capable of great evil. Aunt Lydia makes good on her promise. At the start of series two, every handmaid is pulled from her home, bundled into a black van, driven to a baseball field, forced into a noose and subjected to a false hanging. They are told to kneel in the rain for hours and hours. Lydia takes it upon herself to personally hold Alma’s hand against a lit gas burner. To cut out the tongue of the second Ofglen. To make June sit and listen as her friends are subjected to extreme torture. Just as we’d started to trust her.

And she does it all with a smile on her face. Duty is, as she says, a hard taskmistress.

In our earliest stories, female villains are wicked witches, jealous queens and nefarious stepmothers. Their beauty, or lack of it, marked them for evil. Their goals were simple: defeat the young girl, stop the usurper. Their roles in the stories were fleeting and so was their lasting impression on us. 

All we remember of the Wicked Witch of the West is her green skin and intolerance for water, while Snow White’s Evil Queen can be reduced to a simple phrase: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall…” And Cinderella’s stepmother, who locked Cinders in the attic as she sawed off her daughter’s toes to make them fit for a royal marriage, was a bastardisation of everything good and maternal. We were unnerved by these women, but we were able to sleep after hearing their stories. They were far from our world. As flimsy and expendable as paper dolls: easily ripped apart and just as easily forgotten.

Over the years, though, our female villains have evolved, becoming more intriguing in their complexities. We’re used to Game Of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister and Get Out’s Rose Armitage. Somewhere along the way, we recognised that the most frightening characters of all are not the ones far removed from us, but the ones who know us. They prey on our particular vulnerabilities and threaten the things we love.

But, most horrifically, we understand them. They aren’t ‘others’ – witches with pointed hats and high-pitched cackles. They are not Evil with a capital ‘E’, because nobody is wholly good or bad. Very few people turn to violence and horror for the thrill of it, but because they think it’s the right thing to do.

Nurse Ratched, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, famously used “talking therapy” and carefully worded threats to make three grown men wish they’d never been born, and to push one of her young charges to suicide. But she – possibly – believed her tactics would help them ‘get better’. Misery’s Annie Wilkes might have done unspeakable things to her favourite author, but she did so because she wanted to help him become a better writer. Or so she said. The saccharine Dolores Umbridge, of the Harry Potter series, was the only person other than Voldemort to physically scar Harry, and she did so because she wanted to teach him a moral lesson. “You know deep down… you deserve to be punished, don’t you Mr Potter?” she asked.

None of these characters, though, is a patch on Aunt Lydia. In Margaret Atwood’s original novel, we only ever learn about the senior Aunt through narrator Offred’s own recollections. In the show, her role has been expanded – and beautifully so. Far from a caricature of evil, ideological zeal, Lydia is terrifying in her tenderness: she really does believe she is doing God’s work. Indeed, during a scene in the opening episode of series one, we see tears pooling in her eyes as she explains the crimes of a man the handmaids will soon be asked to rip apart with their bare hands.

“You know I do my very best to protect you,” she tells them, her voice breaking. As series two progresses, we witness Lydia physically and emotionally abuse the women in her care, chaining pregnant handmaids to their beds for months – apparently to protect their unborn babies. But she has also taken it upon herself to watch over June and ensure all of her pre-natal needs are met. She is delighted when a baby is born into Gilead – indeed, when she learned of June’s pregnancy, she paused a torture session to celebrate. Essentially, she truly believes it’s up to her to make sure the handmaids have a meaningful life.

Clinical psychologist Naomi Murphy, who works for the dangerous and severe personality disorder service at HMP Whitemoor, explains that all of this makes Lydia a psychopath. “She seems immune to the vulnerability of those she has power over, and is desperate to please those who have power over her,” she tells us, adding that Aunt Lydia’s ability to switch her humanity on and off makes her truly “terrifying”. 

“She disconnects from any capacity to empathise – presumably because she can’t cope with it – when faced with troubling information, which means there’s little chance of getting her to see your own humanity. And, as she is so keen to be seen as a source of power, she is ashamed when those she’s in charge of disobey her. Like other people who are psychopathic, her rage is enacted in a cold, deliberate way. While most of us can relate to a hot rage, which is far more impulsive and far less frightening, her calculated rage is far less easy to predict or understand.”

Lydia’s unpredictability sets her on par with all brilliant villains, but it is her humanity that makes her feel… well, almost a little too real. She has become a monster because of her proximity to power, but before then, she could have been an ordinary person who got swept up in Gilead’s rhetoric. Or who heard about America’s fertility crisis, and became desperate to do something about it. Or who simply shut her eyes to the world and went along with things.

As psychologist Dr Deborah Serani explains: “Any human being… is far more frightening than a one-dimensional psychopathic character because we are all human and complex. And when we discover that someone just like us can do evil, terrifying things, it causes us to wonder how close we can be to doing such things.”

Perhaps she’s right: maybe we fear Lydia and other modern-day female villains because they sit a little too close for comfort. In them, we see reflections of ourselves we are not necessarily proud of – and, while it’s easy to scoff at their belief that they are working for the ‘greater good’, it’s worth noting that none of us really knows how we’d react in the same circumstances.

There are many examples of ordinary people caught in the sweep of history, taking actions that damage us all. There were the Victorian colonialists, believing they were ‘civilising’ vast swathes of Africa and Asia. The people who turned on neighbours because of a difference in religion during the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1947. The torture and killing of ‘intellectuals’ during the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China; in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Many white southern Americans felt segregation by race was just. Many Germans ignored the Holocaust. 

As the philosopher Hannah Arendt said: “The most horrifying thing about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal.” Aunt Lydia is fantastic television, but she’s also rooted in the worst of human nature, and a warning to stay vigilant.

The Handmaid’s Tale continues on Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4

Images: Channel 4 / Hulu / Instagram

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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