The "Hollaback Girl" Reference In 'The Handmaid's Tale' Shows How Swiftly Gilead Took Over The Once "Normal" Society
Those who have read Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale are already familiar with stories about the protagonist's mother. In the most recent episode of the Hulu series, that part of June's backstory is finally revealed and serves as a juxtaposition for her next move. In a flashback on The Handmaid's Tale June and her mom sing "Hollaback Girl" and it's an allusion that works on a few different levels.
Played by Cherry Jones, June's mother Holly is shown in flashbacks as a feminist activist who took young June to "Take Back The Night" demonstrations and judged her for taking a more conventional life path (marriage). The strain in their mother-daughter relationship is not uncommon. There's always something, isn't there?
But, in the episode's final flashback, June and Holly share a small moment in the car together singing the Gwen Stefani tune along with the radio. It is somewhat surprising that a middle-aged intellectual, however liberal, would care about pop music, and June seems appropriately baffled by her mom. But ultimately this is a happy memory, and those are important to hold on to especially in times of trauma and tragedy. Even when your mom judges you, or disappoints you and fails you in some way, you still love one another. You still have good times.
The flashback also comes as June makes the decision to save herself and leave her daughter Hannah behind in Gilead. Her decision isn't easy, or painless, but she decides there's no one way to be a good mother.
"No mother is ever completely a child's idea of what a mother should be," says June shortly after the flashback. "I suppose it works the other way around as well. But, despite everything, we didn't do badly by one another. We did as well as most." In this moment, June forgives her mother, and prays that one day Hannah will forgive her too.
Why else is this particular song significant? "Hollaback Girl" isn't just a catchy spelling bee ditty. For one thing, June and Holly are singing about how this "ish is bananas," to quote the radio edit, before Gilead becomes a new level of absurd and horrifying. The song is a revenge fantasy, something that June later thrives on as a handmaid. There's also a sort of sad nostalgia to a "girl power" anthem like this one that's so far removed from the world Gilead has created. Even happy moments on The Handmaid's Tale have dark undertones.
Plus, Luke (and likely June) used to call their daughter "Hannah banana," so there could be a personal connection there as well.
Additionally, according to The National Review, a popular guess among etymologists is that a hollaback girl is a girl who responds to catcalling. This may explain why Holly was such a fan, though it doesn't necessarily fit the context of the song. There is also an organization against street harassment called Hollaback that formed in 2005 and works to educate in the fight for social justice, train bystander intervention, and create better and safer public spaces.
More pop culture references have been sprinkled in to the show in Season 2, from My So-Called Life to Friends and even Yelp reviews. They help to remind the audience that this is not the distant future or even the distant past.
"Women are so adaptable," June says her mother Holly used to tell her at the beginning of the episode. "It's truly amazing what we can get used to." The characters in this dystopia used to listen to the same music you did and now they're here. It keeps things in perspective as the journey continues.