My wife and I just started watching Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I know, I know, I am late to this party, but, to be honest, even though I knew the show was a perfect subject for my blog, I could not make myself watch it. I knew it was good (my wife had read the novel and loved it), the reviews have been amazing (see NYTimes, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vulture), and the show itself won 8 Emmys this year, including Best Drama.
For those who have not read the book or watched the show, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian near future in which the United States government collapses as the result of environmental problems and a dramatic decline in fertility rates. A radical conservative Christian group assassinates the president and most of Congress, and creates the Theocratic Republic of Gilead. This new autocratic government suspends the Constitution and swiftly enforces a new society based on Old Testament ideals in the believe that this will solve the problems America is facing. New social classes are created, women and gay rights are taken away (women are not even allowed to read!), abortion is prohibited, and most disturbingly, fertile women are forced to become “handmaids,” a new enslaved class of women who are offered to the male members of a new social class, the commanders, to ensure procreation. Hulu’s TV adaptation is led by Elisabeth Moss in the role of Offred, a handmaid offered (therefore her name!) to a Commander who had an important role in the foundation of the Republic of Gilead.
The First (Accidental) Show of the Trump Era
Part of the critical success of The Handmaid’s Tale had to do with its unexpected relevance in our new post-truth/Trump era. The dystopian world presented in Atwood’s novel has suddenly become an uncomfortable possibility (maybe not in content, but certainly in tone). Trump’s treatment of women (as revealed in the infamous Hollywood Access tape), his authoritarian tendencies (including bullying or encouraging violence towards those who criticize him), his disregard for the free press or the truth in general, his flirtations with White Supremacy and radical evangelical groups, or his love of conspiracy theories, all of a sudden gave a new context in which to watch the show.
But it was precisely that new social and political context that made it difficult for me to watch the show. What I have been looking for on TV lately is a place for escapism, from a day of work, reading the papers, listening to NPR, and feeling constantly demoralized with the present state of affairs. The last thing I wanted to do at night was to dwell or experience a world in which my worst fears (and those of many Americans) became a terrifying reality. I know this may sound alarmist to some readers, particularly those who voted for Trump or are conservative in nature (a lot of my neighbors are). And they may be right, maybe the rhetoric of President Trump is only that, rhetoric, and it has nothing to do with what he actually does (I am not still clear about that either). When he claimed that President Obama was not American, or John McCain was “not a war hero. I like people who weren’t captured,” or the now infamous “I just grab [women] by the p#$#$,” or his attacks on many women (from Hillary Clinton to Megan Kelly), or claiming that all Mexicans are rapists (among other insults), etc, he is just Trump being Trump, and he is using language as the ultimate provocation and negotiation tool. Therefore, there is really nothing to fear. To think that Trumps’s political decisions will lead us to a dystopian future like the one presented in The Handmaid’s Tale is alarmist, liberals being snow flakes, or whatever they call us these days.
The Handmaid’ Tale as a Thought Experiment: Is This Mike Pence’s vision for America?
After months of dragging my feet, my wife finally convinced me to watch it. We started last week and, to a certain extent, my worst fears have been confirmed: it is a hard show to watch, and each episode sends a chill down my spine when I consider how fragile democracies are, and how many of the political decisions that our president is taking today can lead to very scary consequences in the not so distant future: his way of dealing with North Korea, the Russia connections, his undermining of democratic institutions, etc. Watching it, though, also confirmed what many critics had been saying all along, mainly that this was a very important show in the context of the new Trump’s America. It reflected the dark side of Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
To me, though, what made the show even more disturbing was to see it not through the lens of Donald Trump, but through the prism of our vice-president Mike Pence. To me, Trump is a man without an ideology (I don’t think of “winning” as an ideology), but Mike Pence has a strong evangelical worldview that, in many ways, reflects the Christian/Biblical world criticized in Margaret Atwood’s novel. The Handmaid’s Tale presents a dystopian American that blames all its current problems on the abandonment of its supposed Christian roots. America’s embrace of liberal views such as gender and race equality, gay rights, abortion, etc. has set America in the path of its own destruction, and only by embracing (and imposing) a strong evangelical view America will survive.
Again, some people may think that I am exaggerating, that this dystopian America is not what Trump, Pence, and their followers want. But as a thought experiment, if you take Pence’s ideas, which have been quite consistent throughout his time as a member of Congress and then as the Governor of Indiana, what kind of America do we see? What does an America in which women do not have the same rights as men (there is a very interesting New Yorker piece on his views on this issue), where abortion is illegal, where gay people have no rights (in 2006 he said that “societal collapse was always brought about following an advent of the deterioration of marriage and family.”), and race issues in America are not really a problem? The Handmaid’s Tale explores an America in which all of those ideals become a reality.
So my wife and I have continued to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, bearing witness to what can happen to a country in which zealots get their way, in which religion is used as a tool for domination and the oppression of women, of other religious groups, of minorities, and gay people. I watch The Handmaid’s Tale not only as a dystopian allegory for Mike Pence’s America, but also as a wake up call to act against the dismantling of our democratic system, and of the erosion of the human rights of women and minorities. And if you think I am exaggerating, well, here is Margaret Atwood herself talking about the resonance of her book as a reflection of the current political landscape in America:
So let’s watch The Handmaid’s Tale and make sure that this dystopian reality does not become a reality.