Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2, Episode 2.
Part of what makes The Handmaid’s Tale such a chilling story is that the show frequently compares how its world used to be to what it has become. Flashbacks to life before the downfall of the United States emphasize how rapidly life was turned upside down for many of these characters, and how completely the new government erased the usual functions of their daily routines. That’s why when, in Episode 2 of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, June finds a Friends DVD, it’s the perfect pop culture throwback to further terrify the show’s audience.
After June escapes from the home of Serena and Fred, she finds herself cooped up in a strange facility while she waits for more instruction from whatever mysterious group is helping her. She finds plenty of ways to keep herself occupied during this time — running, piecing together newspaper clippings, and attempting to learn more about the inner mechanics of the oppressive society that’s enslaved women who are able to bear children. Besides all that, she’s also seen indulging in a more lighthearted activity.
Armed with a portable DVD player, June manages to find a flimsy sense of peace, just for a little while, as she escapes into an iconic scene from the ’90s sitcom. In this particular Friends moment, Monica and Rachel attempt to explain the female orgasm, and how to achieve it, to Chandler. Only a few seconds of this scene was shown on The Handmaid’s Tale, but if you’re unfamiliar, check out the entire thing below, starting about halfway through the clip:
The current reality that The Handmaid’s Tale presents is compelling on its own, but the show is arguably at its best when it’s reminding its viewers, in these subtle ways, that its narrative takes place in the world that they know. Sure, it’s easy to get swept up in some post-apocalyptic fantasy land, but that’s not what this is. The story is a work of fiction, but one that’s rooted in reality, not mythology or completely imagined histories.
This glimpse of Friends drives home the point that The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t happen in some foreign universe or far-off land — it exists in a continuation of our own current lives; a world in which Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox exist, and in which people used to watch harmlessly raunchy television for pleasure. Before the creation of Gilead, people still swooned over Phoebe and Mike’s wedding, or argued about whether Ross and Rachel were, in fact, on a break. It’s an outrageous, unimaginable future, but at the same time somehow also a familiar, not-so-distant one.
It’s also worth noting that the scene the show chose to feature from Friends is one completely centered on female pleasure — something never considered important in Gilead, where women are held down and simply used as vessels for reproduction. It seems pretty safe to say that in June’s reality, there aren’t any quirky New York City-set comedies featuring women having casual sex, let alone explaining to a man how to give a woman the best sexual experience possible. The hilarity of this famous scene is a direct contrast from the experiences June encounters as a handmaid — sex for a handmaid isn’t meant to be fun, and they’re reminded constantly that lust is a sin. For her, sex is meant to be procedural, and very much seeking to fulfill a clinical purpose, not provide pleasure, especially for the women involved.
The act of miming an orgasm on national television for the sake of a joke would likely shock the residents of Gilead to their cores, and it’s apparent that nearly all pop culture artifacts of the world before the war have been banned. So, even the brief view of this Friends gag seems foreign and jarring after such different, ultra-conservative, and regressive behavior has become commonplace on the show. It definitely serves its symbolic purpose, though. The scene urges viewers to not get too comfortable in the fiction of The Handmaid’s Tale. June used to marathon TV, listen to the radio, and fumble through dating apps, just like all of us, and never dreamed for a second that it’d all be taken away.
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