Stop Making 'The Handmaid’s Tale' about Your Liberal Anxiety

Right now there’s an argument taking place in America that’s exactly as reactionary and navel-gazing as the times we live in.


One side posits that Trump’s America — with its daily erosion of democratic norms and its systematic assault on reproductive rights — is in the formative stages of Gilead, the nightmarish theocratic patriarchy realized in Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the Hulu series of the same name. The other side, which dwells largely in the bastions of intellectualism that are the comments sections of conservative-media websites, counters that nothing of the sort could ever happen here and all those hysterical feminazi snowflakes should be thanking Big Daddy Trump and Father Pence for each and every one of their blessed freedoms.

The liberal comparisons between Gilead and modern-day America may be flimsy (for the moment at least), but they serve as a reminder that Trump and Co. have stolen the sense that “it can’t happen here” from millions of Americans. The dystopian future we fear may not be here now, but it often certainly feels as if we’re a couple of House votes away from getting shipped off to the Red Center.

But these (possibly justifiable) liberal fears tell us something perhaps more vital about the single-minded focus of American discourse in 2017. Just like everything else these days, the vast majority of conversation around the Hulu series begins and ends with how it relates to Donald Trump.

For a title that has received a more thorough exploration of its meaning and place in society than most, rarely are the lines drawn to other modern societies outside the U.S. where people, and women in particular, are suffering Gilead-level oppression (or worse) at this very moment. It seems that Americans now only have one lens to view things through, and it’s tinted orange.

While its story hits awfully close to home given our current climate, we didn’t need “The Handmaid’s Tale” to show us the nightmare that sets in when religion and patriarchy work together to control the lives of women. For millions of people around the world, the dystopia our two polarized camps are debating is an everyday reality.

Clad in robes, blinkered by headpieces, unable to travel without an escort, and barred from controlling money or property, the women of Gilead look quite a bit more like the women living under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system than your modern American woman does or likely ever will.

While women in Saudi Arabia gained the right to vote in 2015, the mix of state and socially sanctioned rules they live under mean they still require the permission of their male guardians to travel or use most social services. They’re even banned from driving cars (though not bikes any longer). When thinking of the kingdom’s dress code for women — which includes the form-covering abaya and head-covering hijab, often paired with a full-face veil — it’s difficult not to draw a parallel to the Handmaids’ robes and face-obscuring hats. This, from a functioning, recognized state that recently received a seat on the U.N. Women’s Rights Council.

Life for women under unrecognized terrorist “states” is even closer to Atwood’s horrifying imagined world. In ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq or Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, women and men must adhere to all the requisite dress-code and social restrictions enforced in Saudi Arabia, along with very the Gileadean practice of brutal public executions of adulterers, blasphemers, homosexuals and other “infidels.” Sexual slavery, perhaps the strongest theme in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is also a horror experienced by thousands of kidnapped Yazidi women and others from areas under the rule of ISIS.

And these are just the places we read about in the news. All over the world, including here in the U.S., women (and men) are trafficked and enslaved under highly organized systems designed to turn them into profit centers before disposing of them. Yes, not all of these people are suffering under a government, but if you wake up in captivity every day, you don’t really care if your captors hold official titles.  

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Atwood said of writing the book in 1984, “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. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.” Those real-life nightmares, the fear and suspicion of being under the control of the state, which she has explained were inspired at least in part by her experiences in Eastern Europe before the fall of communism, are what makes the story so deeply affecting.

By thinking about the parallels between the culture of power and oppression in the “Handmaid’s Tale” and societies such as Saudi Arabia today, we can see a fuller picture — that under the right circumstances, these tendencies are universal. They are not bound by religion or geography. They could take hold in Eastern Europe, or in the Middle East, or yes, even here in America.

Perhaps America is adopting some of the personality traits of our notoriously self-centered leader as we become less and less able to think outside of our own political situation. Yes, we are at an important point in our history, one that demands constant analysis and reflection. There is much to be lost, much to fight for. But addressing today’s crises also requires perspective, particularly for liberals and feminists. Ignoring the current circumstances of very real women as we sit on our couches, binge-watching Hulu, reading think-pieces and feeling sorry for ourselves isn’t the way forward.

In that same Times piece, Atwood goes on to say of the story, “Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.” Unfortunately, for millions of women living under oppressive regimes, it’s not the future they need to worry about. It’s the present.

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