Reviews: May 3, 2017
THE HANDMAID’S TALE Series, Hulu
Margaret Atwood published THE HANDMAID’S TALE in 1985. I read it some time in the mid to late 1980s as part of a text-in-community program at George Mason University–where all the liberal arts classes read it as part of the core curriculum classes–each class exploring the novel from within its educational scope. (I was so lucky to teach in this program of “linked” courses that explored the same chosen novel later in my own educational journey.)
The first reading of this novel was totally mind-blowing–as much of Margaret Atwood’s prescient work can be. In the late 1980s too many Americans, me included, just did not know how bad things were for some people around the world. Oh, we knew about the horrors of Nazi Germany. I forget now how much we knew about the Taliban in Afghanistan. But few of us thought about how absolute power could be used to control most everyone in a nation in extreme and disturbing ways because “that would never happen in America.” That would only happen in places like Russia and China. Everything that happens in HANDMAID’S was happening in real life when Atwood was writing, somewhere in the world of human beings. But, again, back on the mid 1980s none of us would have ever thought that in the democratic United States of America the controls for managing a government showing total disregard for rules, the laws, precedents set for decades to protect our civil rights and environment, would be so weak against powerful forces seeking self interest.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE and Atwood’s newer trilogy are often classified as Sci-Fi literature. I would not. Yes, they picture a society in the future, but these novels are dystopias–or warning tales with quite a bit of actual grounding in the facts of what is going on in our culture. Yes, most (not all) Sci-Fi is always also about our own present society in some critical way, but Atwood’s dystopian novels are functioning as cautionary tales writ large. And we should–we must–pay attention to these dystopias because they show how fast things can change in ways that cannot be easily fixed–which is kind of exactly where we are right now in this country. Our religious right elected someone who is ignorant and corrupt. This choice of Trump by people who also advocate for their religion is about power, and in this case specifically white male power, and not religion. It’s about choosing hatred and lies to benefit, supposedly, oneself. I never would have thought that conservative GOP congressmen (you know, who used to believe in conserving things like values and ethics) would turn a blind eye to another nation attacking our election, to the smearing one of the candidates to favor the other, to the glaring and dangerous ignorance and hatefulness of their presidential choice, to the fact that he is using the presidency to make money, to…all of it that is deeply wrong. But this power today is trumping truth, ethics, and values.
HANDMAID describes in detail this kind of society. But it is not really a “feminist” novel because its victims number anyone who does not knuckle under to its power. In these societies, good people go bad and do bad things that they know are wrong just to keep their heads above water.
I’ve watched the first three HANDMAID episodes now. And it is much, much better than the movie that was made some years back. Elisabeth Moss in the title role is an excellent choice as she is such a good actress. Much of the internal writing of the novel gets carried on her face. And the gift of the slow development–not possible in a movie–lets the changes the society experiences have a lot of weight. The hopelessness sinks in as people realize that things are NOT going back to where they were, that in what they thought was a democracy, they are now totally powerless and totally at risk.
We are gifted today with the power of social media–something not as available in the mid 1980s. But it is still alarming to see that in our democracy, we do not have quick levers to stop something like Trump and his rich white male robber baron companions from turning back decades of mostly positive changes in civil rights, protecting the climate, controlling the power of industry, etc. Under the guise of stopping some government programs that go too far (like mandating vaccines when they are dangerous and the science does not support them), Trump’s government is making changes that benefit them and NOT the people Trump said he would help during his campaign. Trump is a destroyer, not an improver.
I can’t say I am “enjoying” the series. It’s too disturbing on a host of levels as it takes a good, long, hard look at the nature of power, what people will do to get it, how it gets wielded when it is acquired, who become scapegoats and suffer, etc. Who would have thought that NOW we would have someone proposing building deportation camps in this country and trying to build an army to round up “aliens” living here?? Who would have thought the press would be under such fire? Who would have thought we’d have the double-edged sword of social media in the form of fake news, of the invasion of secret communications published by another nation to rig an election, and of the celebration and defense of total ignorance?
In one place Moss/Offred says that they were all like pots in a slowly heating pot of water–until it was too late. They were asleep. So, yes, HANDMAID is a cautionary tale. For sure. It asks readers/watchers to wake up and see.
Atwood’s more recent trilogy has many of the same kind of prescient, warning hallmarks, but these novels show a society that is much further along a destructive path. I have read one of those, the first, but just couldn’t read more as they were too depressing, and it was clear that her Cassandra powers were, again, right on target. In these, we’ve wrecked the world with scientific meddling, like cloning, creating fake foods, allowing a much more confining class system, etc. At my age now, there is little I can do to change what is occurring beyond writing about it and making sure I don’t participate as much as I possibly can.
But I can keep abreast of today’s realities. I can think about them. I can…watch.
Here is a link to Hulu’s informational page on the HANDMAID production.
Here’s a nice review: