A once unbelievable story becomes believable
Back in the early 1990s, shortly after I graduated from college, at the suggestion of one of my feminist friends I read Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. The book is a work of art, but it was clearly fiction. After all, our democratic institutions in the United States were far too strong to allow a theocratic takeover of our government. Right?
Fast forward thirty years. My wife and I have been streaming the Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. I remember reading the book way back when, but remembered few details. Out of curiosity, I decided to revisit the book to see how closely the new series followed it.
Amazingly, the series is surprisingly faithful to the book. I had forgotten many details of the book, such as the different colored uniforms for the women based upon their status. But it’s all there. Somehow, watching the series today is far more disturbing than reading the book was or even seeing the movie starring Natasha Richardson and Robert Duvall that was produced back in the early 1990s.
On the one hand, the series has worked hard to modernize the environment. Technology that seemed fantastical is now reality. What’s more is the prominent presence of people of color. At the time, critics argued that the book represented a form of white feminism, one that completely ignored black people, calling them “children of Ham” who were banned from Gilead. In the series, Offred’s best friend Moira and her husband are both African-American, a serious departure from the book, but something that seems more in keeping with today’s culture.
Furthermore, where the book and original movie seemed to locate the story in some distant future, the series has a real sense of immediacy to it.
This could all happen today, to all of us, the show says. Unfortunately, that impression is based upon reality.
Back when I first read the book, I could not have imagined an African-American President or legalized gay marriage. At the same time, I could not have imagined a proudly racist, misogynistic President supported by evangelical radicals whose agenda is to take away women’s rights. The inability of our institutions to resist his actions is downright frightening.
And they’re winning, for now at least. The elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite very credible allegations of rape is disturbing to say the least. But his expected role as the vote to overturn Roe v. Wade is the height of irony. We can only hope that the Democrats retake Congress and the Presidency in 2020 enabling them to make changes to the Court.
While it is true that there are many anti-abortion activists who are people of principle fighting what they believe to be murder of the most vulnerable among us, there is more than a little of that movement aiming to take away all the advances women have benefited from over the past fifty years. Don’t kid yourself. Once abortion is gone, next will be birth control, which was only legalized for married couples by the Supreme Court in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut. Other protections for women will not be far behind.
That is where the series is particularly successful. It makes clear that it is not presenting a metaphor for the disdain in which some men hold women. It is presenting a potential near-future, one that current events suggest is not as far away as we once hoped.
A recent poll made it clear that Trump’s recent racist tweets actually increased his support among Republicans. We may comfort ourselves with the fact that Republicans constitute increasingly a minority group. But recent Supreme Court decisions, as well as actions showing that the Republicans have no respect for our democratic traditions, have allowed Republicans to skew the process so far in their favor that majority no longer rules. The blind loyalty Republican politicians show for Trump demonstrates that people will not necessarily stand up against destructive actions.
In the series Offred pointed out that the takeover of society did not happen all at once, it happened bit by bit, just as a frog doesn’t jump out of a pot that slowly boils it to death. With recent developments in mind, is it really so far outside the realm of possibility that a next step could be theocratic dictatorship?
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