Hulu just released their new adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I haven't seen it yet -- it's not available in the UK -- but, like for a lot of people, the book has been prominent in my thoughts for the past several months. The novel from 1985 reimagines America as a totalitarian theocracy, and many people have commented on the eerie prescience of Atwood's vision compared to recent politics in the US. Women in Texas last month even used the striking red imagery of Atwood's handmaids to protest a new bill that gives doctors the right to lie to their patients if they think telling them the truth may lead them to have an abortion.
Margaret Atwood said in a recent article in the New York Times that the book wasn't meant to be a prediction of the future -- "the main premise seemed — even to me — fairly outrageous" -- but now views it as an "anti-prediction." "If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either."
Like for the protesters in Texas, books like The Handmaid's Tale -- and TV shows that make their imagery more widely recognisable -- provide us with a way of talking about these otherwise very complicated issues in clear and compelling ways. We can say things are "very 1984" and know we're talking about intense surveillance, thoughtcrimes, manipulating language and truth. Big Brother is Watching You. Similarly, we can say things are "very Handmaid's Tale" when talking about the oppression of women and the loss of women's rights. It's an extreme image, but that extremity is important. It's a worst-case scenario, and a striking way of communicating that a current situation is dangerous.
Generally speaking, of course, the "slippery slope" argument can be dangerous. But dystopias, like The Handmaid's Tale, are written as reflections of our society, taking certain troubling elements and pushing them to their most extreme conclusion. They're not necessarily saying "we will end up like this," but highlighting certain elements of our world and providing a new way to think about them. By putting them into the extreme, and allowing us to see a logical connection from now to then, they can provide a more striking critique of the now than any straightforward argument ever could.
When I read the book in 2006, it was one of the most disturbing books I'd ever read. I was just becoming aware of feminism as A Thing, and I'd recently got home from a summer at Harvard, where the book is set, so I could imagine all of the locations vividly. And perhaps it's a reflection of the truth of The Handmaid's Tale that it's not invoked more often when talking about current politics. The Trump administration is mainly compared to 1984, but that book's authoritarian setup is pretty much the complete opposite of what the current government seems to want. It's a book where a man is front and center, and all female characters are lifeless accessories to his story, but in Trump's America, the straight white man doesn't need to worry about politics interfering with their personal freedoms.
The Handmaid's Tale feels like a more terrifying possibility. It rings so true that just a trailer of it attracted a lot of vitriol from people who didn't know this was a novel from 1985, and thought it was a thinly veiled critique of Trump himself. And, in a way, it is. But only because he's acting in a manner that fits the book, not because the book is any sort of response to him. After all, thirty years ago, Atwood herself thought it might all be too farfetched.