The Handmaid’s 3%

I’ve been watching both The Handmaid’s Tale (thank god I came back to the US just in time to catch the new season) and 3% simultaneously. When I watched the first season of 3%, I was still relatively new to Brazil and, while I enjoyed it, took it in more as a general dystopian series that happened to be in another language.

The Handmaid’s Tale I read a few years ago and while it felt scary and feasible, once again, it generally just scratched that itch of my love of the dystopian genre. However, with the more recent release of the show, it takes on a much more sinister, realistic twist. As you watch it, the general feeling is, “This could happen.”

By the end of my most recent stint in Brazil, I felt like I’d achieved some sort of rite of passage. I’m not sure if it was traveling to and from Rio, not having a specified return date to the US, or surviving my months of rage against Correios (that’s my next band name, by the way), but I felt like I’d crossed a threshold. Though some of the most common words out of my mouth — particularly when cooking for people or trying to understand the idiosyncrasies of intercultural small talk— are “Remember I’m not Brazilian,” I’ve gained an intimacy with the culture unparalleled to anywhere else I’ve lived abroad. Particularly in terms of both the good and, especially, the bad.

As I began watching this second season, it hit me just how Brazilian 3% is. I know,  I know — of course it’s Brazilian, it’s a Brazilian show. But as the camera panned the Inland, I had that same moment of, “Oh, this could happen.” The Inland looks like Rio in a perpetually degraded state of Carnaval. There are the characteristics of comunidades, the makeshift everything, the emphasis on sociability despite the struggle of everyday life.

As a first-world foreigner in the country, there’s an element of survivalism in Brazil that I’m unfamiliar with. The overly polite, American “Oh no, you first. No, really, after you.” doesn’t really have a place when you don’t know if the person in front of you will get the last of whatever it is that you need. Sure, I’ve laughed with others at the crazy videos of Guanabara’s anniversary, a supermarket that has huge sales once a year, but there’s a desperation that’s different from, say, people looking to get the latest gadget on Black Friday in the United States. We’re talking rice and beans on sale versus a new iPhone.

It’s sometimes hard to express this to people in America. I hate the perception that Brazil is either this wild country with parties and sex and samba or it’s a place of dire poverty and constant violence. To some extent both are true and neither are true. How can you describe a country and culture as large as Brazil’s in one sentence? Yet, in my experience, without spending an extensive amount of time immersed in the culture, you miss these details. There’s no way to know except through lived experience.

Reviewers have compared 3% to The Hunger Games, but there’s an important aspect they miss. When comparing 3% to both The Hunger Games or, in my case, The Handmaid’s Tale, we can see the stories are flipped on their heads. In The Hunger Games, children are selected to compete amongst each other by the state, but no want wants to go. Instead, it’s a governmental tactic to distract the masses and keep resistance at bay. In The Handmaid’s Tale, anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to escape is forced into compliance as either a fertile woman who’s only role in life is to continue the population or as a servant.

In 3%, everyone already lives in the world they don’t want and, instead, they’re competing for a way out. In a way, it’s about being forced into further submission through a delirious daydream that only comes true for the few, but it’s real focus is on the hope that daydream provides. People want to escape, and no one faults them that.

That’s the distorted reality of Brazil. When I speak about going back to the US, people often act like I’m going to some mystical land with low taxes and Amazon Prime. In a way, it is. I remember being in a cab with Gustavo to the airport once and him explaining that I was going abroad, lá fora, in a way that’s not dissimilar from talking about going to maralto. “Ah,” he said. “Going lá fora is a very good thing.”

In the US — in our cultures and first world lives — the greatest threat to us now is the loss of our freedom: this dystopian possibility of a conservative faction taking over the government and rolling back centuries of progression that have allowed more and more people to get closer to equal footing with one another based on their backgrounds, histories, preferences, identities, and so on. Brazil has its own twist. And for the first time, I was able to clearly see the Brazilian perspective — no, still not as a Brazilian, but as someone who’s grateful for exposure to different voices in the media.

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