From the beginning, Elisabeth Moss has been drawn to acting roles portraying strong women. Her breakout role was as the President’s independent daughter on “The West Wing” and later played the glass ceiling-shattering Peggy Olson on “Mad Men.” Her latest role is a rebellious handmaiden in the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The show and Atwood’s book are integral to feminist canon, showing what can go wrong when women’s rights are stripped away. However, Atwood herself has been wary of calling it a feminist work and prefers to call it “just human stories.”
The show was showered with awards at the recent Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Supporting Actress and Outstanding Lead Actress. This last award went to Moss for her portrayal of Offred, the main character. This has not simply been any role for Moss. While all of her roles reflect some sort of commitment to gender equality, this last one has made her much more outspoken. When asked in an interview how she came to be a feminist, she responded, “I was born. I was born and then I was a feminist.”
So, have we found a feminist icon who won’t end up swimming in controversy? Of course not—people are more complicated than that. Though she generally keeps her personal life quiet, Moss is a devout Scientologist. She was born and raised belonging to the Church of Scientology, a religion founded in 1954 by the science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology is at the center of some controversy or another more often than not, and is seen by many people (and a few whole countries) as more of a cult than a religion. One oft-cited controversy, printed in the “Tampa Bay Times,” based near the Scientologist mecca of Clearwater, claimed that the Church was forcing female members of its clergy to receive abortions if they became pregnant back in 2010. Other scandals include a number of accusations of physical and mental abuse, many of them taking place in a prison camp known as the “Hole.”
Part of the problem is that Scientology is a very secretive religion and requires a lot of time and money to reach the inner workings. Apparently, at the root of the religion is the founder L. Ron Hubbard’s belief that frozen alien souls were sent to Earth to occupy human containers. He also wrote in one of his books on Scientology, “A New Slant on Life,” that “society in which women are taught anything but the management of a family, the care of men and the creation of the future generation is a society which is on its way out.”
When an Instagrammer asked Moss about parallels between Scientology and Gilead, the authoritarian theocracy in “A Handmaid’s Tale,” Moss broke her usual policy about not discussing Scientology.
“That’s actually not true at all about Scientology,” she responded. “Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me. The most important things to me probably. And so Gilead and [that] hit me on a very personal level.”
Her commitment to religious freedom seems misplaced when it is defending an organization that does not have a history of supporting Moss’s other cause: women’s rights. However, supporting Moss and commending her for her work is not supporting Scientology. Because of Scientology’s rather disturbing track record, it appears that Moss is a feminist despite her beliefs, not because of them. On the other hand, we can be critical because if someone is committed to one cause, how can they also be committed to another that contradicts the first?
That said, there are several other considerations. The insular nature of Scientology makes it difficult to leave, as leaving means cutting off ties with all those still involved. For Moss, that would mean saying goodbye to her family. Generally, however, if we are going to care about one belief of an actor, we should care about all of them. Her messages are important, and her ardent support for women of all kinds in the face of oppression is commendable. That said, it is at least worth considering whether or not our unreserved support implies wholehearted agreement or endorsement of every aspect of her life.