Culture

'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Deeply Unsettling but Not for the Reason You Might Think

Echoes of Trump's America are there, but the series is most compelling in its depiction of everyday sexism.

Photo Credit: Screengrab

When Hulu released a trailer for their adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, some conservatives didn’t realize the series was based on a decades-old novel – they thought it was created in response to Trump’s presidential win.

The confusion makes some sense. Much of the show feels familiar in today’s political climate: children being wrenched from their parents’ arms at borders. A lesbian tortured in order, she’s told, to cure her unnatural appetitesWomen forced to carry pregnancies after they’ve been raped.

But what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is not that it’s timely, but that it’s timeless. And after watching seven episodes, what’s been keeping me up at night isn’t the explicit horrors as much as how the show surfaces women’s fear of what everyday sexism really means.

Before the handmaid era has been ushered in by a coup d’état, for example, Moss and her friend Moira (played by Samira Wiley) are called “fucking sluts” by a cashier at a coffee shop for no real reason. It’s as if the man, who seems to know about the impending government shift, is finally free to say whatever he wants to women – a misogynist troll empowered. (A sobering thought in any time, but even more so in the wake of the news that one New Hampshire politician got his start on Reddit forums calling for an end to women’s autonomy.)

There’s violence and sexual assault to spare, but it’s the milquetoast misogynists that feel more familiar: the boss who offers a meek apology when he’s forced to mass-fire female employees at a publishing company; the soldier who holds door open for the women as they file out of their workplace, knowing they’ll never return; the “commander” who allows his handmaid to read a now-forbidden fashion magazine so he can feel benevolent.

It’s a creeping sort of sexism that American women are all-too familiar with – the kind that pats you on the head instead of on the ass.

Like Atwood’s book, the series makes clear that personal anxiety about masculinity underpins this world’s politics – it’s forbidden to suggest that men could ever be infertile, for example, and women are banned from reading lest intellectual pursuits distract them from childbearing.

Even well-meaning men fall into patriarchal traps: when Moss’s character – before she’s forced to become a handmaid – is panicking because women’s bank accounts across the country have been emptied and passed on to their closest male relative, her husband responds by assuring her that he will “take care of” her.

It’s an empty promise that misses the point entirely. The world is crashing down around her, and her husband can only offer words of comfort that exalt his power.

And that’s what makes the series – and sexism – so scary. It’s not just that we live in a country where politicians call pregnant women ‘hosts’ and the vice-president refuses to dine alone with women. It isn’t just that we can’t trust the government to treat us as full human beings – it’s that oftentimes we don’t know if we can trust the men in our lives, either.

Because as much as The Handmaid’s Tale is about what happens when some men’s disdain for women boils over, it’s also about the danger of “good” men’s apathy and attachment to the privileges sexism affords them. Both are horrors women know well.

Jessica Valenti is a daily columnist for the Guardian US. She is the author of four books on feminism, politics and culture, and founder of Feministing.com

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