From Orwell’s 1984 to Cuaron’s Children of Men, Dystopian fiction has always been a genre providing cautionary tales by holding a mirror up to a current society, warning about the possible dangers of continuing down a particular road. Now Hulu’s newest series The Handmaid’s Tale attempts the genre, providing its own insight to the world we live in today.
Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, the show is set in a dystopian-near future where the totalitarian and fundamentalist regime of Gilead rules the former United States. Subsequently, women’s rights have been all but abolished. Women are not allowed to work, control money, or even read while categorized by their roles in society. At the center of the story is a Handmaid, Offred (literally “Of Fred”), one of a limited group of women who remain fertile and assigned to bear children for the ruling elite and their barren wives.
Although originally published in 1985, the story has struck a cord with modern audiences and feels incredibly relevant to the currently tense political and social climate. The show has engendered some backlash as a far-fetched criticism of the current government. However, the show parallels many of the concerns with the new administration. The women’s march in the third episode is reminiscent to the Women’s March in Washington D.C. earlier this year; and the scene where a character is blamed for her own rape due to promiscuity is a common defense in sexual assault cases. At a time when civil liberties and women’s’ rights are being challenged, the show’s universe seems eerily closer to reality then fiction.
In the show, Gilead is built after martial law is declared under the excuse of fighting terrorism. Eventually, Congress is slaughtered and the Constitution is suspended. In one day, a law is passed prohibiting women from controlling money and working. The change seems sudden and quick, yet the characters point out it comes from years of buildup, a collection of small things seemingly inconsequential and bigger issues with “reasonable explanations”.
In one flashback, a barista calls June (Offred’s name before the coup) and her friend, Moira, sluts for no apparent reason other than they’re women. June pulls her friend out of the coffee shop, telling her not argue with him: it’s not worth it. Already, there’s a danger in thinking about arguing against hateful speech and writing it off as just one person’s messed-up view of the world. Because these situations became normalized, it became OK to say something like that with no consequences. This is reminiscent to the recent spike in outward displays of hate against the LGBT community and people of color among others. If this mindset isn’t contested now and only viewed as the exception to the rule, The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates the exception can become the rule.
This argument extends to the bigger picture of government institutions. The story is told from Offred’s point of view, so there’s no way viewers can know if there was any backlash from the declaration of martial law early on in Gilead’s history. However, Offred and the characters surrounding her imply no one questioned the government; no one fought them until it was too late. As she says, “we didn’t wake up”.
When the law against women is declared in Gilead, June’s husband insists that something like this can’t last and tells June not to worry, he’ll take care of her. It’s meant to kindly re-assure her, but shows a serious level of detachment from the problem. It’s not implied he agrees with the law, but he doesn’t feel the need to do anything about it. It’s like walking by a homeless man asking for change: I’m not responsible for this. Other people will fix the problem. But problems don’t get solved this way.
It’s a reminder to be aware of the political sphere, and to hold the government and its institutions to their responsibilities. We must question what seems wrong and speak out. Just because something doesn’t seemingly affect our lives doesn’t mean it won’t or that it shouldn’t matter.
In a time of global unrest and division, The Handmaid’s Tale illustrates what happens if we allow the strange to become ordinary, if we become used to the absence of our rights by taking them for granted and not fighting to protect them.
Furthermore, it’s a strong parallel for how people deal with difficult situations. The catalyst for the take-over of Gilead is the plunging fertility rate caused by the environmental crisis. When faced with a difficult, seemingly unfixable situation, people turn on each other, become divided, and start looking out for themselves over the good of the whole. As Offred’s Commander says in the trailer “Better never means better for everyone”, and history has proven this time and time again.
At a time when we are faced with many tough, unanswerable catastrophes: from the refugee crisis to fundamentalist extremism to the very real threat of environmental degradation, hopefully The Handmaid’s Tale can serve as a reminder of what happens when we allow ourselves to turn on each other.
It’s easy to say this show takes it too far, that the parallels and comparisons are taken out of proportion. Living in a First-World, progressive country, it’s simple to look at the events of this story and their historical counterparts and say “that won’t happen here”. What The Handmaid’s Tale does so effectively is bring what “won’t happen” to the United States. And by doing so, making people more appreciative of what we do have and more aware of what we should do to safeguard it.
As Atwood says about her story, “Let’s say it’s an anti-prediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen.”