These tales are all too real

May 11, 2017

Hulu's new series based on the Margaret Atwood book The Handmaid's Tale is a timely exploration of sexism and oppression, old and new, writes Leela Yellesetty.

"I UNDERSTAND that they feel like that is their body...I feel like it is a separate--what I call them is, is you're a 'host.'"

So said Oklahoma Republican Rep. Justin Humphrey earlier this year, explaining why he sponsored a bill that would require women to obtain written permission from their sexual partner in order to get an abortion.

Is it any wonder that the new Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood's classic novel The Handmaid's Tale--in which the titular handmaids are literally reduced to hosts--seems so eerily relevant at this political moment?

While we don't live in a theocratic dictatorship like the imagined near-future society of Gilead depicted in the book and show, the echoes in today's society are too striking to overlook--from the endless restrictions on abortion rights; to Vice President Mike Pence's refusal to dine with a woman who is not his wife; to the recent convening of yet another all-male panel in the Senate to determine, among other things, whether surviving sexual assault should be considered a "pre-existing condition"; among any number of other examples.

Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale
Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale

A few recent articles detailed some of the contemporary laws that have direct analogies in the Handmaid's Tale--extending beyond restricting women's rights to the treatment of refugees, extrajudicial killings and the use of Islamophobia to justify suspension of constitutional rights.

The massive Women's Marches which greeted Trump's inauguration in January featured signs reading "Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again,"--and, in Texas, activists dressed as handmaids to protest abortion restrictions.

EVEN BEFORE the series premiered last month--it was in the works well before Trump took office--the novel had shot to the top of Amazon's best-seller list, and waitlists for the title have swelled at libraries across the country.

Given all this hype, I'm glad to report that so far, the new series does not disappoint. The production is masterful, the visual effect striking, the acting superb--and it's completely and utterly terrifying.

I don't normally give trigger warnings, but this is not easy viewing, and although it's set in a fictional world, the horrors depicted are all too believable. Compared to the book, where much is left up to the imagination, the television medium adds a visceral realness that can be difficult to watch.

Review: Television

The Handmaid's Tale, adapted from the book by Margaret Atwood, starring Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel, on Hulu.

That isn't to say it's overly gruesome or filled with gratuitous violence played for titillation. To the contrary, the violence is chillingly calculated and inflicted emotionally just as much as physically, which makes it all the worse, especially as seen from the perspective of its victims.

Yet it's worth suffering through, because this is not simply a story of despair and unremitting cruelty, but of human resilience and resistance in the face of it, which we begin to see really taking shape in the most recent episodes.

Other reviewers can better unpack the aesthetics of the show. In the rest of this review--with minimal spoilers--I want to give a bit of political context to the themes explored in the original novel and why they remain resonant to this day.

WHEN MARGARET Atwood wrote the Handmaid's Tale in 1985, she set rules for herself, explaining in the New York Times:

I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the "nightmare" of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.

Some of Atwood's reference points included the puritanical society of colonial New England, the location where the book is set; the Stalinist regime of East Germany across the wall from where she wrote her book in Berlin; the Romanian government's ban on birth control and abortion in response to falling birth rates in 1966; and the Islamic Republic of Iran that upended a previously secular society following the 1979 Revolution.

The most immediate context, however, was America in the 1980s, a time when the Christian Right was on the rise amid an overall conservative backlash against the radicalism of previous decades.

In many ways, it was a warning that progress wasn't inevitable and that gains made could be rolled back--sometimes quite rapidly--especially in the face of complacency of those who had the most to lose. "Nothing changes instantaneously," observes the main character Offred. "In a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it."

One of the most interesting themes Atwood explores is the role of women in enforcing the subjugation of other women. The character of Serena Joy is a not-so-subtle reference to prominent anti-feminist personalities of the time like Mary Pride and Phyllis Schlafly. Like these women, Serena enjoyed a professional career arguing that women ought to remain in the home--only to fall victim to the success of her own cause.

Indeed, the Christian Right and anti-feminist forces have often justified their stands on the basis that they're actually good for women. Feminism had burdened women with too many choices, and subjected them to rape and violence, they argue.

"There is more than one kind of freedom," says Aunt Lydia, one of the fanatical "Aunts" in charge of training the handmaids. "Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from."

Of course, this didn't preclude freedom from enforced rape by the Commanders--to whom the handmaids were bequeathed in order to bear their children. And in the society of the 1980s, this also didn't mean freedom from "pro-life" forces bombing abortion clinics and harassing women and doctors.

THE DRACONIAN society depicted in the novel, like the policies restricting reproductive rights today, are not, in fact, good for women. Nonetheless, it's worth trying to understand why such ideas can hold appeal, including among women.

As Moira Weigel notes in the New Yorker, the rise of the Christian Right has to be understood in the context of the Reagan revolution and the neoliberal project to drive down working-class living standards in the pursuit of profit:

Liberals have often viewed the alliance of the Religious Right and Republican big business that empowered Reagan as a matter of misunderstanding, or a cynical manipulation of poor and middle-class whites by wealthy elites. Yet the Reagan years made clear that traditional gender roles are not just some arbitrary cultural preference. They are a means of insuring that the necessary work that capitalist power does not want the state to pay for continues to get done. Reagan Republicans called for a restoration of "family values" while also seeking to dismantle public programs--from health care and child care to good public schools and universities--that support childbearing and child-rearing; in the absence of such policies, families, and women in particular, are left to pick up the slack.

Feminist scholars like Stephanie Coontz have observed similar dynamics today as helping to explain the appeal of Trump for some women despite his sexism:

Women with less economic or personal autonomy are often drawn to a culture of family values that emphasizes men's responsibility to look after women....I think it's a big factor in the debates over contraception and sexuality and abortion. The flip side of women having all these freedoms from male control, they believe, is that it actually threatens women's entitlement to male protection.

In other words, while the capitalist class isn't necessarily in favor of instituting theocratic rule--and indeed, their profits depend on the now widespread presence of women in the labor force--they find the ideology of "family values" beneficial as a means of keeping down the costs of reproducing labor, and using sexism and scapegoating more generally as a means of divide and rule.

The fact that they have leaned so heavily on these tactics may ultimately be to their own detriment, as witnessed by the election of Trump and more ominously the growth of the far right in the U.S. and internationally (though it's worth saying that I don't think a Gilead-style takeover on the immediate horizon, and that in formulating strategy, we need to understand the differences between these forces).

Throughout history and again today, sexist reaction usually goes hand in hand with racism--indeed the hysteria around falling birth rates is usually explicitly surrounding falling white birth rates. In the novel, this was also the case, with reference to the fact that the "children of Ham" were being rounded up into concentration camps in cities like Detroit and Chicago.

The television series, however, departs on this count, instead envisioning a curiously "post-racial" dystopia. While this certainly makes for a more diverse cast--including the ever-brilliant Samira Wiley--as a speculative near-future in a society so deeply racist as ours, it feels less plausible.

This isn't the only way in which the series departs from the novel--which I highly recommend reading (or rereading) along with watching the show, as both have different strengths.

Given that it was just renewed for a second season, at some point, The Handmaid's Tale will move beyond the book entirely. It will be interesting to see what new developments take place in Gilead. But just as importantly, it can help us reflect on the harsh realities of our own society--and inspire us to plot our own resistance.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Further Reading

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