Of all the striking images in the season 2 premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s one that will stay with me, whether I like it or not. If you’ve seen the episode, you know what I’m referring to. After being transported to a safehouse by Mayday, June (Elisabeth Moss) is instructed to leave any trace of her handmaid identity behind. So begins a ritual laden with symbolism. She burns her red dress. She cuts her hair, and burns that, too.
But there’s one element of her past that’s less easily disposed of. When June became a handmaid, her ear was affixed with a tracker — with that, June became another person’s property. To remove the tracker, she has to physically cut into her ear. Blood pours down the left side of her face and neck, as red as the handmaid uniform she’d just thrown into the fire. Despite the obvious pain, June barely flinches. This moment captures just how far June (Elisabeth Moss) is willing to go for her freedom.
While this riveting scene fits the context of The Handmaid’s Tale perfectly, ear injuries are a surprisingly common motif in pop culture. Perhaps it's because in a TV show or movie, so much has to be communicated visually. Destroying an ear has the benefit of being immediately visually impactful and visceral reaction-inducing — but usually not fatal. So to bite or cut off someone's ear is to establish dominance, and further characterisation.
Ear injuries also hold a prominent place in historical lore. Vincent Van Gogh cut his own ear off; Mike Tyson bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear during a boxing match; when kidnapped, 16-year-old J.P. Getty III had his ear sent in the mail for ransom money. In harsher times, cutting off ears once was a common form of punishment. The practice, called cropping, has origins back to Hammurabi's code, and was used frequently in Colonial America. Cropping appears in the New Testament of the Bible when Simon Peter cuts off the slave Malchus' ear, and Jesus heals him.
Clearly, humans have an aural fixation. Here are other gross pop culture moments dedicated to decimating ears that June, likely, could relate to, should she ever sit in front of a TV again.