The Proper Gander column from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
Lengthy, weighty, glossy dramas have become a speciality of US television producers in recent years. The more interesting examples have had some political slant: The Americans follows the increasingly complicated lives of Soviet agents undercover in 80s Washington DC, while House Of Cards depicts the power games and machinations in Congress. The premise behind The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4) is less familiar, but its themes have wider relevance to society today. The series is an adaptation of the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, who is one of the show’s producers and makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo appearance. Leisurely dramatised over ten episodes (with a second series already commissioned), the series has more time to explore its setting than previous stage and screen versions and, arguably, the novel itself.
The story is set in near-future America, renamed the Republic of Gilead when a fundamentalist Christian movement took power following a terrorist attack on the government. Gilead is ruled as a theocracy-cum-military dictatorship, with tropes familiar from other dystopias: stormtroopers, unpersons, secret police (the ‘Eyes’), a strict caste system, surveillance and an underground resistance network. Gilead’s economy isn’t explored in detail; tokens are needed to purchase particular commodities, which could imply some form of state capitalism. Pollution has caused many people to be infertile, so women able to have babies have become a valuable commodity. These ‘Handmaids’ have been appropriated to bear children on behalf of the ruling elite, and are forced to be live-in sex slaves. The drama follows the repressed, trapped life of one such Handmaid, named Offred (literally ‘of Fred’, the Commander who owns her). Other women work as housekeepers or instructors for the Handmaids, and all are forbidden to read, write, own property or go outside unaccompanied. The system is enforced not only by cattle prods and rifles, but also by indoctrination using the language of the Old Testament. When writing the book, Atwood was careful to keep Gilead plausible: ‘One of my rules was that 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’(New York Times, 10 March).
It would be tempting to draw parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America, although work had begun on televising The Handmaid’s Tale months before he became president. The producers have wanted the series to draw attention to longer-term threats to women’s rights; since 2011, a resurgence of conservative lawmakers in America have passed hundreds of restrictions on abortion and access to birth control. America’s shift to the right with Trump’s ascendancy has made the story more politically charged. Lead actor and co-producer Elisabeth Moss is concerned that people could sleepwalk into an even harsher society: ‘People have to stay awake. And after you wake up, you should get out of bed and start doing things. There is no time later. My worst fear is that people become complacent, and apathetic, again’(Guardian Guide, 10 June). So, The Handmaid’s Tale can be interpreted as a warning against complacency. Offred often recalls her comparatively free life before Gilead was established, raising the question of how society could shift so quickly. Atwood suggests that people would be more likely to drift into accepting oppression if it was couched in pre-existing structures. When writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she imagined such a foundation could be ‘the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th Century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself’(Guardian Review, 21 January 2012).
Atwood had studied Puritanism at Harvard University, which itself would become one of the novel’s settings. She wrote the book during the mid-80s’resurgence of the right wing in America, which encompassed conservative religious preachers as well as government. ‘One third of all federal budget cuts under Reagan’s presidency came from programmes that served mainly women’(Just A Backlash: Margaret Atwood, Feminism and The Handmaid’s Tale, Shirley Neuman). Atwood also drew inspiration for Gilead from her stays in Iran (then going through its Islamist ‘Cultural Revolution’ and at war with Iraq) and countries behind the Iron Curtain. In Ceausescu’s Romania, for example, contraception and abortion were severely restricted and pregnant women were policed closely, with the aim of increasing the birth rate.
The impact of authority on women is the central theme of The Handmaid’s Tale. Moss said ‘for me, feminism is equal rights for men and women . . . I play a breeder, a host, a woman for whom all of her rights, and all of her family and friends, have been taken away. She has nothing. So, yes, it is a feminist story’(Guardian Guide, 10 June). Atwood has said that the book is ‘a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime’(New York Times, 17 February 1986). In the story, those who are oppressed also reinforce the oppression of other people around them, such as when a group of Handmaids publicly blame a rape victim for being assaulted. Atwood said that since she first wrote this scene, it has taken on new relevance in our ‘age of social media, which enables group swarmings’(New York Times, 10 March). The most effective dystopias reveal different facets as their real-life context changes. All speculative fiction is really about the past – and present – rather than the future. The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us of the dangers of accepting authority, and its new adaptation is as timely now as it was when it was first written.