Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale

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Margaret Atwood is hands down one of my favorite authors.  The first book of hers that I read was The Robber Bride, and after that, I pretty much devoured everything she wrote.  When I discovered The Handmaid’s Tale in college, it was a revelation.  I was 21 and filled with naive and righteous indignation.  Needless to say, I thought I saw many many parallels between Atwood’s Gilead and late 20th century America.  Fast forward a few years and I’m busy working on my thesis for my MA in literature.  I’m writing all about feminist dystopia and once again, Atwood is front and center.  I once drove an hour and a half to go to a book signing at the Tattered Cover in downtown Denver, just so I could have Atwood sign my copy of The Bind Assassin.  Every time, for the longest time, when one of her books would come out, I was first in line to buy it in hardback. (I still haven’t read the 2nd and 3rd books in the Oryx and Crake trilogy, but I’ll get on it.)  I only mention all this because I’m not some Johnny-come-lately/fair weather Margaret Atwood fan.  Cat’s Eye is one of the most brilliant explorations of the cruelty of female friendships ever written.  Ever.  So I love Margaret Atwood, my daughter’s middle name is Margaret (seriously!), and she is my gold standard for good writing.  But I swear on all that is holy in Gilead that the hyperbolic narrative surrounding the release of the Hulu series, coupled with some liberties the script writers are taking with the novel is seriously going to kill this book for me.

For the past month or two my Facebook feed has been filled with articles from Salon, to Slate, to Vox, to Vanity Fair all extolling the virtues of this upcoming series, calling it “timely,” and “eerily prescient,” and “chilling in light of current events.”  And, yes, we all hate Trump and we all agree that he’s a pig man with tiny hands who feels like he has the right to “grab women by the pussy” whenever he wants.  And yes I weep for American that we elected this monstrosity as our president (although, truth be told, I wasn’t all that jazzed about the alternative). However, the liberal commentariat are seriously becoming unhinged.  For instance, because the US elected Trump it’s a “referendum on whether or not women are people,” and a sign that the Republic of Gilead is just around the corner.  Kellyanne Conway is a modern day Serena Joy and a warning to conservative women about colluding with the patriarchy. Really? All this hyperbole only demonstrates that American feminists are at worst driven by blind partisanship and at best impossibly blind to their own privilege.

But my biggest irritation with the series right now are the little extra’s that the script writer’s are filling in.  There’s a scene where Offred and Moira are jogging on the street in shorts and sports bras and when they stop to get coffee, the man who refuses to serve them looks at them disdainfully and calls them sluts.  And there’s a horrifying scene where Ofglen is accused of being a gender traitor and during the trial she’s convicted on the basis of Biblical law (some verse in Romans).  Then her lover is sentenced to death and brutally hung in front of her.  And most disturbing of all is the final scene of the third episode when we see that part of Ofglen’s punishment for gender treachery (they’re not going to kill her since she has viable ovaries) is having a clitoridectomy.  All these atrocities, of course, are supposed to show us the audience what happens when Christian fundamentalists take over and we are ruled by some theocratic state based–I can only assume–on a form of Christian Dominionism headed by… Trump? Again, really?

Of course the big elephant in the room is that it’s not fundamentalist Christians who are out there mutilating women and girls’ genitals. It’s not the predominately Christian countries where women and girls are getting regularly assaulted for showing too much skin and not having their heads covered.  It’s not the United States where vast swaths of religious people want sentences decided based on outdated laws in their holy books.  And it certainly isn’t Christians who are out there putting gay people in concentration camps and throwing them off of buildings. In no way does any of this absolve Christians from needing to clean house and examine their own rhetoric. I just find it hugely disingenuous that so much of the media is using The Handmaid’s Tale as a warning for what happens when Christian fundamentalists take over a country all the while ignoring and defending real and actual oppressive religious regimes.  It’s just obnoxiously and willfully blind. Frankly, I’d be a little less irritated by modern feminists if I saw less hang wringing over Trump and more outrage over the above mentioned atrocities.

But all this aside, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just about religious fundamentalism.  It’s more complicated than that.  In Atwood’s book armies of guerilla Baptists are out there fighting against this new state.  Once again it’s Quakers who start an Underground “Femaleroad” to smuggle women over the boarder and into Canada.  It’s not Christianity “full stop” that is the problem.  Other things are at stake here.  There’s a powerful scene in the book where Aunt Lydia is telling the soon-to-be handmaids at the Red Center that “What you had was ‘freedom to.’  What we’re giving you is ‘freedom from.'” And therein lies the problem.  We as a society have been more than willing to abdicate certain liberties in the name of  “freedom from.”  We don’t want freedom to say what we want; we want freedom from speech that offends us.  We don’t want freedom to make our own choices or to do business with whom we please; we want freedom from the effects of certain choices and we want businesses whose politics we disagree with driven into the ground.

And here’s my rambly point:  The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just about Donald Trump.  It’s bigger than that. It’s about how suddenly fascism can take root even under the guise of the greater good, something that liberals and conservatives desperately need to learn.  It’s about how quickly liberty and freedom can go away and how quickly we all come to accept it as normal.  It’s about how so often women are the first to have their liberties curbed under oppressive and totalitarian regimes and how easy it is to turn a blind eye to those oppressions.  My fear is that this awesome and incredible novel, one that pretty much turned me on to dystopia in the first place is going to be hijacked by a myopic political agenda that refuses to acknowledge any strains of fascism, sexism, and totalitarianism in its own house.

So here’s to hoping that this series doesn’t just get turned into a talking point for one side of the political spectrum.  Indeed, art can and should be a political and revolutionary exercise.  However, the gap between honest social critique and propaganda is slim and I would hate for Atwood’s novel to be relegated to the latter.

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