ARTICLE / LONG READ
PUBLISHED in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel THE HANDMAID’S TALE was written with the social and political climate of the time at the core of its allegorical themes. The 2017 television drama adaptation of the same name (Hulu/Channel 4) offers a raw and at times prophetic look into the future of a society more extreme than the one we are living in today.
Dystopian fiction is a sub-genre often based around what Devi C Nandhini and Sumathy K Swamy describe in their 2015 essay “Dystopic Vision of Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale” as “an anarchic and undesirable society, referring to a bleak future in which things take a turn for the worse and which displays images of worlds more unpleasant than our own”. THE HANDMAID'S TALE is one among a number of critically acclaimed dystopian televisual offerings that have been released in recent years including: THE LEFTOVERS (HBO 2014- 2017), set in small-town Mapleton following “The Sudden Departure” in which 140 million people vanish without a trace; THE 100 (The CW 2014-2019), in which nuclear Armageddon has occurred on earth leaving everyone dead bar those on board 12 international space stations at the time; and 3% (Netflix 2016-2019), a Brazilian thriller in which only 3% of competitors make it through a deadly contest for a place on an island paradise, away from the squalor and slums of the mainland.
Having replaced the United States government, the fictional Republic of Gilead in which THE HANDMAID'S TALE is set provides the narrative with its primary antagonist, a Christian theocratic and totalitarian microcosm in which all its inhabitants live under a state of control, not only by others but also by their own thoughts and beliefs. Gilead’s secret police - the “Eyes” - suggest a powerful force from above that is rarely seen but very much felt. Flashbacks reveal a world in which the war on women’s rights is waged, first by freezing their bank accounts and then by removing them from the workplace.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE OFFERS A RAW AND AT TIMES PROPHETIC LOOK INTO THE FUTURE.
Radiation has left many women infertile and the few women that are able to bear children are expected to do so for those in power via ceremonial rape. These women are labelled "Handmaids", a term that comes from Christianity, in which Mary the mother of Jesus was often referred to as the “handmaid of the Lord” (The Bible, Luke 1:38) an honourable title suggesting that she is a good servant to God. Gilead’s Handmaids are among the victims of societal collapse having once experienced freedom but now subjected to a life of restriction and slavery.
Atwood is often referred to as a science-fiction author. However, journalist Rebecca Hawkes notes in a 2017 article for the Telegraph “indeed, the crucial point about Atwood is that what she writes isn’t so much science fiction as, to borrow her own preferred term, speculative fiction: she's preoccupied with creating mirror images of our own world that are distorted, but still hauntingly familiar”. We can easily recall examples of dark and disturbing events happening in the world today. Stoning as a form of punishment witnessed in the Season One finale still exists in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. In 2008, in the Somalian town of Kismayo, 13-year-old rape victim Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was accused of adultery, subsequently buried up to the neck and stoned to death by fifty men in the middle of a football stadium as a crowd watched on.
Reflecting on Atwood’s work in an article for The New Yorker titled “The Prophet of Dystopia”, Rebecca Mead points out that “in writing THE HANDMAID'S TALE, Atwood was scrupulous about including nothing that did not have a historical antecedent or a modern point of comparison” and adds that “her fiction has imagined societies riddled with misogyny, oppression, and environmental havoc. These visions now feel all too real”. The devastating environment in which THE HANDMAID'S TALE’s protagonist and narrator Offred (Elizabeth Moss) finds herself is apparent from the very beginning, first by having her young daughter taken from her and then being taken to “The Red Center” to learn how to be a “good” Handmaid. The reality of the new world is further exposed by Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) when he tells Offred - the name given to her to determine his ownership of her - that “better never means better for everyone. It always means worse for some”.
WHEN SOCIETY STARTS TO BELIEVE THAT IT HAS SEEN IT ALL, SOMETHING UNEXPECTED HAPPENS.
Gilead is the result of a violent and religious coup d’état. The Sons of Jacob, a conspiratorial group based on a theocratic and patriarchal social structure, have overthrown the United States government and this monomaniacal approach to religion is a prevalent theme throughout. Christian fundamentalism exists and has existed throughout history in many parts of American society and THE HANDMAID’S TALE adaptation clearly appears to be a response to this. Women living in Gilead must wear clothing of different colours depending on their status within society: Handmaids wear red, Wives blue, domestic servant Marthas wear green and Aunts, who train the Handmaids, wear brown. “Organizing people according to what they’re wearing — who should wear what and when, who has to cover up what — is a very, very, very, very old human vocation”, Atwood commented to The New York Times’ Jennifer Vineyard in 2017. Today, female members of the polygamist sect of the Fundamental Latter-Day Saints are expected to wear different pastel coloured dresses to identify which man they are married to. Carolyn Jessop, a former member of the sect told the New York Post in a 2008 article “Latter-Day Restraints” that “every day, FLDS women don between four and five under-layers – long prophet-mandated underwear, bra, leggings and slips”.
Examining the causes of societal collapse from a functionalist perspective can help to understand THE HANDMAID’S TALE. Communication theorist Denis McQuail explored functionalism from a mass media perspective in his seminal text MASS COMMUNICATION THEORY, published two years prior to Atwood’s novel. He claimed that the approach, with its origins in the works of sociologist Emile Durkheim, views society as being made up of “linked working parts or subsystems, each making an essential contribution to continuity and order”. The fall of the United States government in THE HANDMAID'S TALE can be read as a consequence of the linked parts and subsystems within society failing.
Functionalism further suggests that in order for society to remain functional and organised it requires the “continued maintenance of a more or less accurate, consistent, supportive and complete picture of the working of society and of the social environment”. If those in power are not “responding to the demands of individuals and institutions in consistent ways”, McQuail speculated, societal collapse is likely. The Sons of Jacob felt that their traditional and fundamental religious needs were not being met and actions and identities that were abhorrent to them such as abortion, feminism and homosexuality had become socially acceptable. For them, the coup d’état was justified based on their perception of moral collapse and the dominance of technology.
THE HANDMAID'S TALE plays with time both with the use of flashbacks but also in being set in an unknown period and time frame. It is set in the future but is reminiscent of a medieval past and return to an age of fundamentalism and conservatism. In “The Novel in the Age of Trump”, Ali Smith’s Goldsmiths Prize Lecture published in the New Statesman in 2017, the writer considers whether Atwood’s works are futuristic: “if they're about the times after them, it’s because the ebbs and flows and circles of time bring us back to the same questions over and over, just in new ways”. THE HANDMAID’S TALE’s layered narrative puts life itself into question by asking the audience to question time, structure and language. Like life, the story is full of complex issues and change, when society starts to believe that it has seen it all, something unexpected happens - like Trump’s election - and throws into question everything society believed to be possible. “History repeats itself”, Smith concludes, “and will repeat on us as soon as we think we've swallowed it, digested it, believed for a minute that that's it over and gone”.
With its release at such a pivotal time for American politics, THE HANDMAID'S TALE became a source of contemporary political rhetoric. During the women’s marches that took place in January 2017 activists were seen holding banners proclaiming “Make Atwood Fiction Again” and pro-choice protesters donned the outfits worn by Handmaids. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton referred to the novel when urging women to “keep fighting” against the patriarchal attrition of women’s rights. In a panel discussion at Tribeca Film Festival in April the same year Ann Dowd, who plays repressive matriarch Aunt Lydia, concluded that the political message to be taken from THE HANDMAID'S TALE is that we must “stay awake”.
Considered in the Age of Trump, THE HANDMAID’S TALE is a resonant reminder of what can happen if division and fear prevail. Both novel and adaptation offer an insight into the imperfect world in which we live. Whether viewed as a satire on the return of conservatism or not, Smith concludes that THE HANDMAID'S TALE succeeds at being “true to its time” but at the same time “prophetic about our own time”. The plight of Atwood's Handmaids has become part of public consciousness at a time when its themes are palpably socially and politically relevant. It is a reminder for women, and men, to stand up for the rights of all humans and to remain vigilant in the fight to end discrimination and intolerance.