If I said the name Ann Dowd to you, some may not know who I am referring to. But, to be honest, you’d have to have been living under a rock to not have seen this wonder woman in one of her many roles. Her movie roles stem back to Green Card, Lorenzo’s Oil & Philadelphia. Her theatre work is just as exemplorary as she has had several roles over the last forty years. Her TV work, stems back to the mid eighties, culminating today in one of the roles she continues to play. Ann Dowd is Aunt Lydia in The Handmaids Tale. Let’s start with Aunt Lydia.
Who is Lydia?
Lydia is the archetypal villain, secondary only to Fred Waterford. She is terrifying yet she is also an extremely interesting character. She is a source of torture to her Handmaids, but the scale tips frequently to show other sides of her. There is a strong sense of irony in the way Lydia manages her life. She is female, but happy to stand with and work with those who champion systemic opression of women. Lydia sees her work at the Red Centre as ‘teaching and training her girls’. If you look closely at her work, it is dictating rules, torturing, and training them for rape.
Before Gilead, Lydia was a lawyer and an elementary school teacher. She was a religious woman, known for quoting bible verses to those close to her, including a gentleman with whom she had a close relationship. That gentleman was the school principle. Lydia frequently had concerns over Ryan, one of her pupils. His mother Noelle was not perfect. Littering the air around her son with profanity, she would feed him junk food and frequently be late to collect him. Lydia became “Aunt Lydia” to him. The situation, while happy for a while, culminated in Ryan being removed to foster care due to Lydia reporting Noelle to child services. Lydia’s relationship also came to a staggering halt with her gentleman friend admonishing her for her actions.
After the takeover in America, Gilead became her home. While the brunette hair and blue eyes may suggest a soft personality, Aunt Lydia is a brutal woman, severe and strict in her nature. She is an older woman, and although short, her frame is bigger. Her green and brown clothing defines her role. She is an Aunt, leader of ‘her girls’, the handmaids. While Aunt Lydia talks of ‘her girls’ and demonstrates trying to protect them, she also will not think twice about punishing them severely should she deem it necessary.
“‘Ordinary’ is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.”
Aunt Lydia re-educating the Handmaids.
Aunt Lydia ‘teaches’ fertile woman, having the audacity to congratulate them on their fertility. The first batch of Lydia’s trainee Handmaids included Emily, June, Alma, Janine and Moira. When Janine pushed back against the ideals that were placed upon her, she learnt very quickly that this kind of insubordination would not be tolerated. Use of a cattle prod and removal of her right eye as punishment, encouraged compliance. Not only in Janine, but in the other Handmaids too.
The handmaids were also introduced to another method of teaching. A method called ‘Testifying’. Janine found herself sat in a circle of Handmaids, a “shame circle”, and forced to ‘testify’ about being gang raped in her younger years. Aunt Lydia told Janine it was her fault for leading them on. She forced Janine to say the same, and coerced the other Handmaids to blame her too. One of the handmaids, June Osborne could not believe what she was seeing and didn’t blame Janine. No one is to blame for being raped. A slap from Aunt Margaret brought June to her senses and she joined the chanting of “her fault, her fault”
Throughout the 5 seasons of The Handmaids Tale, we have seen Aunt Lydia arrange and partake in many punishments.
Particicution, shame circle, testifying, cattle prods, burning of limbs, removal of eye, whipping the soles of Handmaids feet, arranging hangings, stonings and much more.
That’s without even contemplating the monthly rapes of the handmaids, by the Commanders, at their fertile times. The punishments are harsh, dictatorial and never ending.
Underneath Aunt Lydia’s cattle prod and punishments lies a woman who has given us an awe inspiring performance.
Where Lydia is harsh, Ann Dowd is soft in tone. Where Lydia rules on fear, Ann Dowd is a friendly personality. Ann is an acting coach. She is a foster care advocate. She is a mother. She is a wife. She is a friend. An interview by Benjamin Lee in The Guardian (26 November 2021) sums up Ann well. He explained “I’d met Dowd briefly a few weeks ago; today she acts as if we’ve known each other for years. She brushes her dog Chance’s hair off my jeans, calls me “honey” or “babe”, offers help for my mother’s upcoming visit (“You have everything? Like pots, pans?”), moons over my name (“the most beautiful … it says peace to me”) and strokes my hand as we speak (“I keep going for your thumb, I’m sorry. It’s the mother in me”).” This is the complete opposite of Lydia.
There is a maternal warmth that shines through in everything that Ann Dowd touches. Yes, even in The Handmaids Tale where she takes a shine to Janine. There is something special in all her roles that gives you the sense of an underlying ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. There is also something methodical in Ann’s manner. She comes across as a person who can compartmentalise well.
From the same interview, “Acting is not suffering, and I swear by that,” she said. “At the end of the day we go home and we don’t carry with us the consequences of the story. That’s the only reason you can do it. When I’ve been on set with young actors who are very method, it worries me terribly. And I want to say to them, Sweetheart, come on now, you don’t need to have a nervous breakdown just because your character does, it’s about the imagination, Honey, that’s your gift.” During Mass, she remembers “howling with laughter” between takes.”
Ann Dowd`s theatre, TV and film work is exemplorary. Her work in the movie ‘Mass’ has garnered her a plethora of award nominations and plenty of wins. Her work in Handmaids has seen nine nominations and three wins for best supporting actress in a drama series. She won her first award at 61, which she believes enabled her to understand not to get attached to winning. Ann’s abilities with her acting are not only reflected in the nominations but her ability to change what you see.
While I remembered Ann from some of her older movies, her role in Handmaids instantly changed my view. She has differed through her roles, drifting away from the potential to be typecast. My favourite role of hers is Lydia. The diversities of Lydia in her mannerisms, her understanding of Gilead and how, that in season five, it is changing for her. The way that Lydia feels she cares for her girls while subjected them to the oppression and agony of torture in its many forms.
But when you drill down. Lydia is an enemy, Ann is a friend. While Lydia is a force to be reckoned with, Ann is a force that will take care of you.
Thank you Margaret Atwood for the words of The Handmaids Tale.
Ann Dowd, your portrayal of this character is sublime. Thank you for giving these performances.