Madeline Brewer On What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Can Teach Us About Political Gaslighting
"The more you see it, the more you're able to recognize it, and the more you're able to stop it from happening to you."
Four years ago, when Madeline Brewer auditioned for the role of Janine on The Handmaid’s Tale, she had no idea that the show would become a cultural symbol for America’s increasingly dangerous political climate. The series has often been discussed in regards to the country’s most conservative policies and events, including last week’s siege of the Capitol, where white supremacists executed a terrorist attack after being encouraged by Trump to “fight much harder.” The president, however, denied all responsibility for instigating the situation, and speaking to HelloGiggles one day afterwards, Brewer notes that this level of political gaslighting is something we can no longer look away from.
“It’s a form of gaslighting to arrest 14 people, at whatever the hell that was yesterday, but arrest 14,000 people at the Black Lives Matter protest at the Capitol last year,” says Brewer. (At the time of publication, over 100 people were arrested and charged in relation to the Jan. 6 attack, in comparison to 427 arrests made at the 2020 BLM protest on Capitol Hill, for instance.)
This is how The Handmaid’s Tale happened, Brewer continues. It was a coup. They overthrew the government, and it was a slow process. It was over years and years of incremental change, [where] people think, ‘it’s not so bad.
Gaslighting is defined as psychological manipulation that makes a person question their own sanity, akin to what our culture is experiencing right now—as Brewer notes, it “happens at every level, and it’s everywhere.” It’s been a common theme in the 28-year-old’s work over the years: in the 2018 film Cam, she played a webcam sex worker who is blackmailed after her identity is stolen; in 2019’s Hustlers, her role is of an stripper-turned-FBI-informant who pulls apart her coworkers’ illegal scam; and most famously in The Handmaid’s Tale, Janine is taken prisoner in a fascist state where she is told her worth is solely based on her fertility.
“The more you see [gaslighting], the more you’re able to recognize it, and the more you’re able to stop it from happening to you,” Brewer says now.
The theme shows up again in her latest project, the Hulu original movie The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, out today. Despite being a whimsical romantic comedy, the film still explores serious topics such as grief, loss and abuse, with Brewer’s character, Wendy, having to overcome psychological abuse from an ex in order to realize her musical dreams. In an attempt to escape her relationship, she teams up on a cross-country trip with Marcus (Keean Johnson), a teen caught in an identity crisis after finding out he will permanently lose his hearing.
“Having experienced abuse myself, I understand the place Wendy is in when we meet her,” says Brewer.
It’s portraying this level of nuance on screen that the actor says she finds deeply fulfilling. “Less is more in film and TV—you can portray so much with just a look or a blink if you really know what you’re saying,” she explains. “What you really want to do as an actor [is] put something on screen that people see and say, ‘that’s my story, and I feel understood and like I can see myself. I feel like it’s validating.”
While many of her roles have explored darker territory, Brewer says they’ve also left her with reasons to keep moving forward. “I’m truly an optimist,” she says. “I see the light and silver lining in everything I can. My character Janine has taught me a lot about that.”
And in a time characterized by death, fear, and violence, Brewer is fully aware that pop culture can offer a much-needed reprieve for so many people. “I think what art does for everyone is that it gives you a glimmer of hope,” she says. “I hope that The Ultimate Playlist of Noise can do that.”