From the moment it premiered on American TV earlier this year, people have been drawing a parallel between the events depicted in Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and Donald Trump’s presidency. In Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, America has been taken over by an autocratic, Christian fundamentalist regime, called Gilead, which hides its violent, repressive violations behind soft rhetoric about ‘a return to traditional values’. For a number of commentators, it has an eerie resonance. As Sam Wollaston wrote in his review of the first episode for the Guardian on Monday, ‘[t]here has been a lot of talk about new resonance for The Handmaid’s Tale since the election of You Know Who; fear of freedoms, rights and long-established orders disappearing overnight.’
Women are Gilead’s chief victims: as a result of plummeting fertility rates, they are valued (or not) only for their child-bearing capabilities. Those lucky few who remain fertile – whom Gilead calls ‘Handmaids’, a Biblical reference – are kept in isolation, forced to wear veils around their faces so that they have no peripheral vision, are no longer allowed to read or write, and are victims of ritualistic state-sanctioned rape. Those who are infertile are either stuck in joyless, enforced marriages – or killed. It may sound a million miles away from the present day reality of American life, but even Trump’s presidential opponent has delicately suggested that, with his election, we might have got a step closer. In a speech she gave earlier this month at a fundraising event for the sexual health charity Planned Parenthood (which fights for women’s sexual rights), Hilary Clinton said,
We come tonight to celebrate the last 100 years, the progress that so many generations have fought so hard for – and what a time it is to be holding this centennial. Just ask those who’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I read and was captivated by years ago. No I am not suggesting this dystopian future is around the corner, but this show has prompted important conversations about women’s rights and autonomy. In The Handmaid’s Tale, women’s rights are actually slowly stripped away. As one character says, ‘We didn’t look up from our phones until it was too late.’ It is not too late for us. But we have to encourage the millions of women and men who support Planned Parenthood’s mission to keep fighting. And to paraphrase Margaret Atwood, ‘We can never let them run us down.’
But how relevant is this story – written over 30 years ago – to the present day? The TV adaptation, which premiered on Channel Four earlier this week, certainly wants to make it feel contemporary. Most of it takes place in an implied future (though its antique décor, old-fashioned costumes and lack of electronic devices make it feel more like a distant past), but there are a number of flashbacks that take place unambiguously in the present day. There are references to things Margaret Atwood could not have imagined when she wrote the book: Tinder and Uber are both discussed; the morning after pill is presented as a contributing factor to infertility. The characters listen to contemporary pop music (SBTRKT’s ‘Wildfire’ can be heard prominently in the first episode). There are even lines of dialogue that wouldn’t have made any sense in 1985: one female character, recalling her past, tells the novel’s protagonist, Offred, ‘My wife and I had a son’. But same sex marriage has in fact only been legal across all states since 2015.
This is not a period drama, then: the film-makers have made the decision to update the material. But, aside from the occasional reordering of events and the odd extra-gruesome moment (an eye is gouged out in one scene in the first episode; I don’t remember that from the novel), they haven’t altered any of the details of Gilead itself; the series’ present is our present, but its future is 1985’s future.
You could argue that this is a misstep. One of the things that make the novel so remarkable is how deeply embedded in its historical moment the details of Gilead are. Absurd and far-fetched as it may seem, there is nothing about Gilead that doesn’t come from real life. As Keith A. Spencer noted in Salon, also on Monday, the novel was written partly as a response to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, ‘in which a formerly secular, Westernized society was suddenly transformed into a patriarchal theocracy. Under the Ayatollah, women were legally obliged to wear the veil and were banned from many college majors…’ Likewise, Atwood got the idea for Gilead’s religious extremism from currents in American politics. The ‘New Right’ was on the rise – a political movement, preaching ‘a return to traditional values’, which sought to reverse the developments of gender equality: as God had decreed it, the New Right believed, the woman’s place was in the home. More than that – Atwood, as Spencer writes, ‘noted the presence of an American Catholic sect that called women “handmaids” and “threatened the handmaids according to the biblical verse I use in the book – sit down and shut up.”’ Or, as Wollaston reports, ‘[Atwood] wrote her dystopian novel in Berlin, in 1985. The wall was still up; on the other side was the eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, a powerful influence.’ Accordingly, a geographical feature of Gilead is a huge wall, from which the regime can hang the bodies of political prisoners it has executed, and beyond which the Handmaids are unable to pass. Other contemporary phenomena that very obviously influenced the novel include a societal anxiety about the decline of birth rates (which has since given way to an anxiety about over-population), and the battles of ‘second generation feminism’.
Do Gilead’s injustices and atrocities, so specific to 1985, really resonate in Trump’s America? After all, many of the criticisms of Trump’s domestic policy are centred around anxieties about race relations and nationalism, immigration policies, threats to LBGQT rights, healthcare, policing and financial inequality. Which isn’t, of course, to say that women’s rights aren’t an ever-present, pressing concern – particularly on the subjects of consent and reproduction. Nor is it to say that those other concerns were irrelevant in 1985 (race relations have never been irrelevant in America). But the matrix of political anxieties is a different one. So is this really the right way to tell a story about Trump’s America? If the film-makers saw fit to update the novel’s ‘normality’ – the time before Gilead – to encourage us to identify with it, shouldn’t they have updated the horror of Gilead, too? (The lack of electronic devices is a case in point: wouldn’t a surveillance state like Gilead in fact use such devices to spy on people?)
Well, maybe there’s another way of looking at it, apparent in the first episode’s striking opening minutes.
It’s the present day. A woman runs, panicked, through a forest with her daughter. She’s dressed in everyday clothes and wearing a backpack. The style of film-making is gritty: hand-held cameras right in close with the characters; fast editing; shifting perspectives. It’s disorienting. We’re running with her; we’re in the throes of the actions and can find no objective perspective. There’s a vivid sense of the materiality of the backpack, the clothes, but we don’t know what’s happening. It feels immediate, present: it’s here, now. The woman hides beneath a ridge with her daughter, we think she’s safe. Then a number of men with guns appear and take hold of her as she struggles and screams.
There’s an abrupt cut to a long, held shot whose stillness and clarity of composition are startling after all that frenzied, confusing movement. An old-fashioned room: the same woman, dressed in strange clothes, sits by a window in an eerie light. It looks like a painting. The camera closes in, slowly, and in a voice over Offred introduces herself. The recognisable, normal world in which we began has given away to this strange new world. But it’s this new world that appears solid, unchanging. The one we were in before was disorientating and unstable.
It’s the suddenness of the change that’s important. Because what The Handmaid’s Tale, ultimately, is how easily such sudden changes can happen. What we think of as normal, it wants to communicate, is precarious, fragile, precious. What one day may seem unthinkable can seem, the next, thinkable. The next, inevitable; the next, normal. One day you’re buying toothpaste and thinking about lunch; the next you’re starving in a concentration camp, with rotten teeth. One day you’re whatsapping your friends about 13 Reasons Why; the next you’re stuck in an enforced marriage to a militant extremist. The aesthetic shock of going from such a recognisable world to such an unrecognisable one – and the way the recognisable one seems to shatter like a pain of glass to reveal the latter behind it – makes us aware of how quickly what’s normal can change. As one of the Handmaids’ re-educators, Aunt Lydia, tells them: ‘Girls, I know this must seem very strange. But “ordinary” is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now. But after a time, it will. This will become ordinary.’
The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t about any specific historical moment. It’s about the present, the ongoing present. The idea of the present. Margaret Atwood’s present as she wrote the book, my present as I write this, your present as you read it. The flashbacks in the TV series, with their abundance of contemporary detail, intensify that feeling of being-in-the-present that the strangeness of Gilead shatters. This can happen at any time, Atwood wants you to know. Which isn’t to say that she wants you to live in fear; she just wants you to cherish the freedoms you have.
If The Handmaid’s Tale is about Donald Trump, then it’s because it’s about the possibility of seismic change – of waking up one day and finding yourself in a new world order, with no way back to the old one. Whether Donald Trump’s presidency represents such a seismic change – well, that’s something that remains to be seen.