Woven through The Testaments—the new novel by the eminent Canadian author Margaret Atwood and a sequel to her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale—are harrowing flashbacks in which women deemed undesirable by the new men in charge are herded into a football stadium, held in brutal and degrading captivity, and periodically gunned down in the arena. These powerful, sickening scenes evoke both radical Islamist regimes and South American juntas. But they take place in a dystopian version of the United States; the makeshift prison is Harvard’s football stadium. To legions of Atwood’s American fans, this nightmarish vision is terrifyingly real. Yet the fantasy of martyrdom that Atwood taps into is self-indulgent and ultimately self-defeating—raising the question of why so many fans are so eager to believe the worst.
Atwood’s novels, and the recent Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, have clearly struck a deep chord with a key segment—mostly well-educated, white, and female—of America’s reading and viewing public. The Testaments is in its fourth week as a New York Times best seller—currently in third place, down from first—while The Handmaid’s Tale has been on the paperback fiction best-seller list for two years. The TV show, whose third season ended last month, just scored two Emmys. And the Handmaid fandom has famously crossed over into politics: The red cloaks and white bonnets of the Handmaids, breeder slaves in the ultra-patriarchal theocracy of Gilead, have become a popular outfit at protests.
At the heart of the Handmaid phenomenon is the belief—endorsed by the stars and producers of the TV series, and by Atwood herself—that Gilead is not mere fiction, but is almost upon us in real life. These parallels were endlessly hyped when the Hulu series, conceived and filmed before the 2016 election, premiered in April 2017, several months after Donald Trump’s inauguration. At the time, it was hailed in major publications as “timely,” “prescient,” and “alarmingly close to home,” despite bearing no resemblance to the actual alarming things happening under the Trump presidency.
Notably, Atwood’s 1985 novel itself was partly inspired by the rise of the Christian right in the United States in the 1980s. And, for all its qualities—keen insights into the realities of totalitarianism, nuanced character dynamics, a sympathetic everywoman heroine struggling to survive under horrific oppression—it fails utterly if taken seriously as a potential scenario for America’s slide into religious dictatorship.
The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the premise that an American Taliban—a presumably Christian cult that espouses biblical fundamentalism without ever mentioning Jesus—could infiltrate the United States military enough to seize power after a coup. It also assumes that most Americans could quickly adjust to a “new normal” in which heretics and gays are publicly hanged while women are forbidden to work, own property, or read. (A small cadre of female enforcers, the “Aunts,” have a little more leeway.) Atwood’s explanation of her reasoning—revolutions always build on society’s existing foundations, and therefore social chaos in the U.S. could bring about a radical regime that draws on its deep roots of 17th-century New England Puritanism—shows mainly that she understands neither America nor Puritanism.
Yet, for beleaguered feminists and other progressives in Trump’s America, The Handmaid’s Tale became both a symbol of oppression and a call to arms for the female-led Resistance. In the second season, which moved past Atwood’s material, the show itself began playing to such parallels with ripped-from-the-headlines themes—from evil Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (here working to keep people in, not out) to attacks on the press (seen in grisly traces of a massacre at the abandoned Boston Globe building). Season 3, in which the heroine went full resistance fighter, was chided even by sympathetic reviewers for turning the story into a simplistic empowerment fantasy starring an “unstoppable Feminist Badass,” as a Time writer put it.
The Testaments, though a far more nuanced work than the Hulu series, still has a streak of empowerment fantasy that panders to the current mood. Here, it’s the fearsome Aunt Lydia—the odious matron of the first book and the show, implausibly revealed as a secret subversive—who takes on the role of the Feminist Badass successfully plotting to bring down Gilead, with assistance from two plucky teenage girls.
Most implausible of all, of course, is the idea that Trump-era America is slouching toward Gilead. Yes, some states have passed draconian abortion curbs, currently unenforced because of Roe v. Wade, and there’s a chance Roe itself could be undone by a conservative Supreme Court. Even so, several states have also moved to expand abortion rights, now protected in more than a dozen states—including Massachusetts, where The Handmaid’s Tale is set—if Roe falls.
In the worst-case scenario, many American women, especially those unable to afford out-of-state travel, will lose access to abortion (though the abortion pill would make those restrictions much easier to circumvent). As a pro-choice feminist, I deplore the recent push to restrict women’s reproductive freedom. But is it a step toward a society that bars nearly all women from non-domestic pursuits and practices forced surrogate motherhood via monthly rape? No. It’s worth noting that Poland has a near-total abortion ban, as did Ireland until last year—yet, far from Gileadean horrors, both countries have consistently ranked above the U.S. on the United Nations gender-inequality index. (Both have also had several female leaders.)
The inconvenient truth for Handmaid’s Tale fans is that there is no “war on women” in Trump’s America. Today’s Republican leaders brag about creating jobs for women, not sending them home. Trump himself, for all his crass sexism (which is often hard to disentangle from across-the-board bullying), is very much a denizen of the feminist age—a man whose associates (and shady cronies) have always included plenty of women and who has installed his daughter as a key political aide. Notably, Trump’s spiritual adviser, personal pastor, and main liaison to the evangelical community is a female televangelist and mega-church leader who is divorced and remarried to boot. Atwood’s Gilead would quickly string her up as a heretic and adulteress.
But middle-class white women aren’t the quarry in Trump’s America. The real victims of Trumpism—other than the norms of American democracy—are the same groups that are the principal targets of Trump’s hateful rhetoric: refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented (and sometimes legal) immigrants, most of them Latin American, Middle Eastern, or African. The extent to which The Handmaid’s Tale shifts that role to middle-class, mostly white women was especially blatant last year, when the parent-child separations at the U.S. border were in the news just as the second season of the Hulu series focused on flashback story lines in which two Handmaids were torn away from their children. The parallel was inevitably and melodramatically noted, with one writer asserting that the show had become “too damn real” to watch. But the dispossessed mothers on The Handmaid’s Tale—a Boston book editor and a Montana-born, Harvard-educated scientist—came from a far different demographic than the border-crossers.
Despite their progressive politics, both the books and the show have been assailed for “problematic” handling of race, from Gilead’s implausible color blindness in the series to the all-white, ethnically cleansed world of the novels. Such critiques can be obnoxiously censorious in their demand that all art and literature conform to intersectional dogma. But in this case, they do hit on a fundamental truth: The Handmaid’s Tale’s pretensions to current relevancy give it an unpleasant subtext of victimhood appropriation on behalf of privileged women.
One could argue that, amid the grimly surreal farce of present-day public life, using a far more hideous fictional universe as a form of escapism is hardly wrong. Perhaps. But thinking that the dystopian fiction is half real is a path to derangement. The Handmaid cult is a reminder that, as much as the Trumpian right traffics in wild conspiracy theories and demonizes any disagreement with the president, the anti-Trump left has its own paranoid style.
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