Though she gives small moments of kindness, Serena Waterford is another antagonist in June’s world. She also fights against the real villain in this story: the patriarchy.
Before Gilead, Serena had a lot of power. She wrote a popular book. She helped design the economic model for what would become Gilead. Serena even had a more equal relationship with her husband, Fred, where she could advise him, comfort him, and expect the same in return.
Now, she has much less power. The bits she does have, she steals back from Fred in tiny pieces. As Serena takes back power from her husband, she dismantles the facade that men rule everything.
These moments show Serena Waterford’s bravery. They build her character from a cold-hearted villain into something deep and complicated. Most of all, they give us hope that every woman in Gilead can take back a little of the power stolen from them, too.
These moments in The Handmaid’s Tale are small, but as June says: in the Waterford house “little things mean everything.”
When she advises him about the news
One morning when Serena comes to breakfast, Fred is dealing with a crisis. She asks him if it’s about the UN, then comments on politics and economics. Her words are a casual reminder to Fred that she’s educated. She knows his job and knows how the government works. She helped create it, after all.
The crisis, however, is about handmaids. A handmaid has escaped Gilead and given an interview to a newspaper in Canada. Serena knows just what to do with that situation, too. She immediately advises Fred that “we need to discredit her.” She takes power back by reminding him she’s politically minded, smart, and manipulative.
In using the word “we,” she also includes herself in Fred’s world. She reminds him that many of Gildead’s founding principles were her ideas. She had power in the government once, and she can have it again, even if just for a moment at breakfast.
When she gives a speech at dinner
When the Mexican ambassador visits Gilead, the Waterfords arrange a dinner celebration. When everyone is seated, Serena takes charge. First, she privately commands Fred to have patience when something had deviated from his expectations. Serena’s expectations seem unchanged, indicating she knew more than Fred did about the event.
A few moments later, Serena stands up to make a speech. She presents the children of Gilead to the country’s visitors, showing off the products of her ideas and hard work. Fred is surprised and upset by this move. He even seems a little bit embarrassed.
Serena takes back power by taking the initiative to share this accomplishment with Mexico. This speech is something Serena has chosen to do herself. She didn’t ask his permission, consult Fred, or even warn him it was going to happen.
When their first handmaid dies
When the Waterford’s handmaid dies of an apparent suicide, the family watches as doctors carry the body away. Once the doctor’s have left, Serena whispers harshly into her husband’s ear, “What did you think would happen?”
In this moment, she doesn’t even give him the power of responsibility. She doesn’t cause him to feel guilt or blame; she causes him to feel stupid. She has the power because she had the foresight to see what would happen. He did not.
When she ambushes him in his office
In one scene, Serena waits for Fred in his office. She has laid out scrabble, a power play to show him that she knows what he has been doing with Offred. She confirms her knowledge with her words, telling Fred she images Offred is good at the game. She makes him feel like he can’t have any secrets.
She also reminds him that she helped write the laws that now govern women. With this, she takes back power by reminding him of her intelligence, education, and accomplishments. She also reminds him the time when she had a lot of power — power to do his job, write his laws.
At the end of the scene, she commands him to control himself. She calls him weak. She not only takes power back from him, but she takes power away from him. He has to listen to, if not obey, the commands of this woman.
When she stands in front of him
When June is taken away at the end by Eyes, Serena stands out front on the steps. Fred lingers behind in the doorway. She takes the place of a protector, fighter. He takes a place of meekness.
Of all the times Serena fights back, this is the one that gives me the most hope. She doesn’t need him to protect her and she’s standing outside to let the world know it. She doesn’t have a lot of power to stop the Eyes. Her position can’t right many wrongs at this point. But she can stand in front to show the world her power.
The Handmaid’s Tale shows a lot of women stepping up to reclaim power in a broken society. Serena Waterford is one among many. Her actions, though small in many cases, show just how Gilead might be dismantled. That gives me hope, not just for Gilead, but for women everywhere.