Don’t let the bastards grind you down. That’s the message that our protagonist finds freshly scratched into the floor of her closet; an offering of strength and stoicism from her predecessor, and a message that many women around the world might find some comfort in right now. Because, all you have to do to recreate The Handmaid’s Tale – a book that has been given new relevance in a period of anti-feminist backlash – is move to the right part of the world.
With that in mind, there’s no better time for Hulu to run their new TV show, based on Margaret Atwood’s eminent 1985 novel. Having premiered it’s first episode yesterday, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian future in which the U.S. as we know it has been replaced with a Christian fundamentalist regime that forces women to act as “Handmaids” to men.
The latest trailer (above) sees Elizabeth Moss’ character describing how regular society has collapsed. “I was asleep before,” she says. “That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress we didn’t wake up, when they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution we didn’t wake up then either.”
Written over three decades ago in Berlin, as the city was encompassed by the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire was still staunchly in place, the book is a cautionary tale of totalitarianism. In the “Republic of Gilead” women are property, repressed into domestic servitude and made to bear the children of the ruling class.
Although Gilead might seem far removed from cosy “liberal” democracies like America’s, similar fears have begun to escalate in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. Civil liberties are felt to be threatened, along with many of the rights for women that have been fought for over centuries. Hate for both democratic institutions and all manner of ethnic, religious, cultural (you name it) groups seems to be on the rise, expressed by all kind of mad zealots: Today’s parallels with Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale are – shamefully – plentiful.
The revolutions that transform Gilead are sparked by a terrorist attack. Atwood’s story brings to a mind a post-9/11 world in which there’s an overwhelming fear, triggering people to voluntarily trade their personal freedoms for a sense of security. It brings to mind Trump’s demented “travel ban” episode back in February; a measure which contradicted the ideals inscribed on the Statue of Liberty and set an unconstitutional religious test in violation with the first amendment’s freedom of religion, suspending entry by all nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days. All this was attributed to “protecting the nation from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals.”
But, although The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale of totalitarianism, it’s written primarily about a loss of women’s rights – and some of the most stark parallels between the novel and current American politics present in this sphere.
In Atwood’s novel, our protagonist Offred remembers all that she’s lost to the new regime. In doing so, she references some of those little injustices that a lot of women are still expected to ignore in real life – like a wife’s employment possibility being an afterthought only to a husband’s employment right; like avoiding being out alone at night; like being careful not to look ungrateful or spoilt in highlighting either of the former.
The show comes at a time when a series of moves by American politicians have evoked a certain degree of concern: We’re talking about more than just Trump forcing his female employees to “dress like women.”
In Atwood’s novel, Handmaids are forced to bear the children of “Commanders of the Faithful” and all abortion is banned. Similarly, back in February, it was reported that Trump was planning to enshrine his religious beliefs in executive policy and restrict access to abortions for American women. Trump backed down on the motion only after the intervention of “J-Vanka” (that’s his daughter, Ivanka, fashion designer come White House advisor, and her fish-out-of-water husband, Jared Kushner – a man with no government experience and no political background who is, nevertheless, a senior advisor to the Fanta-flushed mogul).
Around the same time, a bill was introduced in Oklahoma’s legislature that would force women wanting an abortion to obtain the written permission of the man who would be the father. GOP representative Justin Humphrey introduced a bill that would require a pregnant woman to provide the identity of the father in writing to her abortion provider before undergoing the procedure. “No abortion shall be performed in this state without the written informed consent of the father of the foetus,” it read.
Soon after, Vice President Mike Pence attended the anti-abortion March For Life, for which Trump also tweeted his “full support”. Mr Pence told marchers: “This administration will work with Congress to end taxpayer funding of abortion and abortion providers… Life is winning again in America.” Sure enough, at the end of March, Pence cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to let states deny federal grants to Planned Parenthood, the biggest provider of abortions in America. On April 13, Trump signed the bill into law. Incidentally, he’s also signed an executive order cutting off U.S. funding to global women’s health organizations worldwide if they advocated or advised for access to abortion in any way.
In Arkansas, a pregnant woman’s husband will now have the power to stop her from having an abortion, even in cases of rape. Similarly, Texas congressman Tony Tinderholt has introduced a bill seeking to make it a criminal offence to have an abortion in his state at any stage, regardless of whether a woman had conceived a baby through being raped. Jail time would make women “more responsible,” he said. Victim blaming is alive and well in The Land of the Free; it’s even reflected in these attempts to change the legislation.
Early in The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred remembers how the women were encouraged to blame a gang-rape victim during a group exercise. The Handmaids chant that it was the victim’s own fault, that she encouraged her attackers, along with other references in the book that it’s up to the women to establish the boundaries when it comes to physical contact with men.
It’s not just victim blaming and reproductive freedoms that are under threat with Trump, either. While Ivanka Trump has Instagrammed about equal pay for women, her dad – just in time for Equal Pay Day on April 4 – signed an executive order overriding an Obama administration requirement that U.S. employers be more transparent about salaries. With the original law having now been reversed, its protections are officially toast, meaning employers no longer need to provide a “wage statement” explaining their pay decisions to employees.
Pay discrepancies between genders, victim blaming, and restricted reproductive freedoms for women are just a few striking signs of the crisis in conservatism, which is threatening free societies across what we call “the west.” It extends to even social implications, too.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the people who exert direct control over Offred are mostly the women who train her to become a Handmaid and not, in fact, the novel’s male characters. The women feel so downtrodden that the only way for them to take some back some autonomy is by overpowering the other downtrodden women. Atwood herself says that, “all power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none.” In real life America, getting women to foster hatred for other women is too easy. Slut-shaming, for example, is a subtle and powerful social tool – a way for women to gain power by participating in a system that vilifies them – and the perfect way to keep a group oppressed and divided.
Women are too frequently throwing themselves into pretending that we’re already there with gender equality, making do with an idea of egalitarianism which will only come to shrink under the Trump administration. Women are right to feel threatened and are right to be scared… But it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Here’s the Good News
As laws are changed and diplomacy evaporates around the world, it’s difficult to keep up with the pace at which the Trump administration’s policies are rolled out. Yet, for anyone who cares about women’s rights, now is the time to be vigilant. Thankfully, since Trump’s election win, the wake-up call has provoked an energetic response among those who – previously – would not have identified as “activists.”
This year’s Women’s March was the largest one-day political demonstration in America’s history. Back in 1913, around 8,000 women flocked to Washington to “march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.” In 1970, around 20,000 women took to the streets to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that right to vote. And this year, on January 21, more than 3 million (and possibly exceeding even 5 million) people participated in women’s marches around the world – and that’s not an increase simply in line with population growth.
Apathy may be fatal to a free society but sudden, dramatic shifts in political leadership can also stir up a good amount of resistance, which certainly gives us hope. To really resist, however, we have to understand how those things we’re resisting have come to be accepted by society in the first place…
Separate Ideology from “The Norm”
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s husband dismisses her fears about what ends up becoming a genocidal regime because the only people affected are women. “It’s only a job,” he tells her when she’s fired, just before everything crumbles.
That’s partly because the leaders of Gilead present their new political system as part of the “natural order” of things: Men are naturally driven by sex (they can’t help it!) so, naturally, women must be held responsible for choosing to debauch them. Men are also naturally inclined to want range of sexual partners, therefore – in The Handmaid’s Tale – men get multiple women to see to their every need. Women in the book, conversely, naturally exist simply to raise the kids and run the household – and so that’s exactly what the state enforces. Once these belief systems have been enshrined in law, they sound natural to the people of Gilead.
Somewhat similarly, pro-life members of the Republican party – those who believe that human life should be valued from fertilization until natural death – might see it as natural for the life of a foetus to prevail; natural for women to be sexually provocative; natural for men to therefore treat women as sexual objects; natural for men to shout louder and do better in the workplace and thus justify a higher wage. But, we must ask ourselves: Is any of this really natural? In the 21st century, is it really natural for a bunch of stern white men to decide the fate of millions of vulnerable women? Or is it actually more natural for American women to be able to consult their own conscience, their own supportive partner, their own minister – and then make their own decision about pregnancy?
While, of course, people should have the freedom to express their viewpoints and, of course, the morality of abortion is deeply complicated for many Americans, the bills relating to reproductive freedoms and equal pay are somewhat reminiscent of those bills of the leaders in The Handmaid’s Tale; they represent politicians finding ways to justify their ideologies that range from the obviously self-serving to the spectacularly absurd. Let’s take this as a humanity warning.
And although Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is “only a television show,” it’s going to be a lot like real life. Sure, for many Americans the morality of abortion – and other women’s issues – is deeply complicated. But of those arguing for enforced childbirth and devolving gender equality it should be asked: Who, exactly, is profiting from this decision? Because it’s always somebody.
To find out more information on U.S. and global women’s rights, head here.
For more socially-conscious TV recommendations, read about how Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why is tackling teen bullying.
- Lead image: Hulu