Don’t overinterpret The Handmaid’s Tale, warned a recent piece in The Atlantic. Comparisons between the dystopian United States crafted by Margaret Atwood in her 1985 novel and Trump’s America have abounded since the latest screen adaptation appeared on US screens this year. But Atlantic journalist Shadi Hami warns that it probably won’t “happen here” – in part because it hasn’t happened anywhere. Yet.
But Atwood herself wrote in the New York Times that the book wasn’t so much a prediction as a gathering together of terrible things that have indeed happened in various societies over many centuries: “group executions, sumptuary laws, book burnings, the Lebensborn program of the SS and the child-stealing of the Argentine generals, the history of slavery, the history of American polygamy”.
And it’s hard to ignore the book’s many themes, which are oddly resonant with our post-Trump world view. Broadly feminist in scope and in argument, it offers the reader insights into how society may develop if particular ideologies and social structures are pursued to the extreme.
We might note how this fictional authoritarian regime presents nightmarish visions of governmental interference and the erasure of individuality as well as a pervasive sense of surveillance, control and manipulation of private life, anxiety about technology, terrorism and the environment. Atwood has confirmed that what seemed like a fiction at the time of writing is now a bitter reality.
Indeed, in a short interview with Time magazine, Atwood and Elisabeth Moss (who plays the lead character, Offred, in Hulu’s new adaptation of the novel) discuss the implications of Donald Trump’s presidency and how convincingly fiction can become fact. What is the easiest way ordinary women can resist such control over their bodies and their minds? Atwood says simply, to vote would be a start.
But how does this parallel work? First of all, we might note the complacency of Offred and society in general – in Atwood’s vision, initial restrictions of human rights are slowly eroded. Women are prevented from taking roles in the workplace, then their assets and bank accounts are seized. But few speak out.
Atwood is fiercely critical of any form of essentialist discourse – basically, any that reduces people to a predetermined function such as childbearing. In the novel, Offred explains that: “We are containers, it’s only the insides of our bodies that are important.” Offred’s role in this new society is to carry a child for The Commander, a senior officer in the new regime – a regime that is underpinned by religious fundamentalism centring on women’s reproductive rights.
In a harrowing description of a public execution in the novel, Offred observes that the “criminals” are abortionists:
Each has a placard hung around his neck to show why he has been executed: a drawing of a human foetus. They were doctors, then, in the time before, when such things were legal … These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities, and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive.
Trump’s order on abortion — which banned federal money from going to international groups that perform or provide information on abortions – draws uneasy parallels with such scenes from the novel. This is compounded by the novel’s anxieties about the environment and specifically, nuclear waste: a woman who is unable to conceive – often due to exposure to toxic waste – is designated an “Unwoman”, and her lack of reproductive productivity can mean deportation to the colonies.
Atwood’s horrifically imagined future hinges on increased surveillance and censorship. Women are forbidden to read and write – and everywhere The Eyes (“The Eyes of God” – or secret police force) are positioned to inform on traitors to the regime. The media presents partial truths and identifies easy targets for blame. The populace, struck with fear, are paralysed with inaction:
It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control. I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, just like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Atwood’s chilling portrayal is critical of all forms of extremism. The novel notes that Offred’s mother supported book burning in the time before: “The woman handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest.”
This is clearly a satire on the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s – but it is also a timely warning about the ways in which governments are now proposing to control the information we send and receive on the internet. Ostensibly motivated by morality, it nonetheless establishes a disturbing precedent of state control.
In the run-up to the UK’s general election, women need to be mindful that perhaps more than ever their voices are important and need to be heard.