The Handmaid's Tale, Dystopia & Life Imitating Art

Article by Ceris Aston | 23 May 2017
  • The Handmaid's Tale

As The Handmaid's Tale reaches our screens and the book tops bestseller lists, we look at why dystopias such as this and 1984 are connecting so strongly in the age of Trump and the rape clause. And just how close a reflection of reality are they?

“The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers.” – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Ever since Trump – brash, bombastic and reeking of bigotry – burst into the White House, sales of dystopian classics 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have soared. It’s not hard to draw parallels, and many have – from Orwellian doublespeak of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, to the demonising of an ‘other’ to justify civil rights infringements, to state-mandated assaults on reproductive rights. In a time of political turbulence, with rising right-wing rhetoric and violence worldwide, the stage is set for Act 1 of a dystopia in three parts. 

Yet if we find ourselves in Act 1, it is no longer Scene 1. It is hard to pinpoint the moment this became our trajectory. "Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it," Atwood’s protagonist Offred comments. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a bleak future New England, USA, where a theocratic totalitarian regime has overthrown the government, staging a terrorist attack blamed on Islamic extremists to enable them to suspend the Constitution. “They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television.” 

Then women find, suddenly, that their credit cards don’t work anymore, their savings transferred to male relatives. They are no longer allowed to work. Offred (literally ‘Of Fred’, a name change under the new regime) recalls her husband Luke telling her "hush", promising to take care of her. They do not join the protest marches.

The Handmaid’s Tale is speculative fiction, 'an imagined account', wrote Atwood, 'of what happens when not uncommon pronouncements about women are taken to their logical conclusions'. It is a shock to realise the novel was published 32 years ago. A new TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale by Hulu is likely to expose no uncertain parallels with the world we live in.

While Trump’s withdrawal of funding to NGOs providing abortion caused worldwide uproar, we need not look across an ocean to find assaults on reproductive rights. In Ireland, abortion remains illegal. Women look to toilet doors for information on abortion pills. Three years ago a brain-dead woman was kept on life support to incubate a foetus against her family’s wishes. In The Handmaid’s Tale, fertile women are coerced into service as handmaids for infertile wives: “We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”

Similarly, P.D. James’ The Children of Men exposes patriarchal society’s control of women’s bodies – women deemed physically perfect are subject to invasive gynaecological checks while the text’s only mother is stripped of her autonomy. In Scotland, abortion remains under criminal statute. Women require two doctors’ approval to terminate a foetus; still, in the 21st century, deprived of the power to freely choose what happens to our bodies. “We are containers,” explains Atwood’s Offred, “it's only the insides of our bodies that are important.” Dystopia finds its seeds in what is happening around us.

The UK is not the US. We have no border wall threats tweeted haphazardly by an arrogant egoist, nor Muslim travel bans that fall down in court. Yet we mimic its rising xenophobia, exacerbated since the Brexit campaign began; we close our borders to refugees while profiting from arms sales; our mainstream media vilifies the most vulnerable, labels the poor ‘scroungers’, calls migrants ‘cockroaches’. The rise in anti-Islamic rhetoric is overwhelming, the inflamed threat used by media and politicians to obfuscate the injustices daily enacted on people within and outwith this small island. “If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies,” writes Orwell in 1984.

Orwell’s observation that "a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance” might be a blueprint for today’s austerity regime. We have the family cap, limiting vital Child Tax Credits to two children. A woman may only claim child tax credits for a subsequent child if that child was conceived as a result of rape. To be able to afford to feed their children, women must disclose rape – some, for the first time. Despite a public outcry, the Conservatives call it ‘compassionate’. Orwell wrote: “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation.”

If this sounds hyperbolic, these references to Orwell and James and Atwood, this linking of dystopia to the here and now, it is perhaps because we are not yet at the sharp end. "We lived, as usual, by ignoring," remembers Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. "Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it." Women are disproportionately affected by the UK’s crushing austerity policies and for women of colour and disabled women, already likely to be financially worse off, the cuts bite deeper. Meanwhile, women’s experiences of sexism – at home, in the workplace, on the streets – are dismissed, belittled. A glance at the Everyday Sexism Project’s Twitter mentions sees thousands of women sharing experiences of sexism. Amongst replies claiming that sexism does not exist, we find rape threats and violent judgements.

Such threats and judgements recall the awful Testifying scene in The Handmaid’s Tale, where one woman reveals “how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had an abortion. But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger. Her fault, her fault, her fault. We chant in unison. Who led them on? She did. She did. She did. Why did God allow such a terrible thing to happen? Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.” It’s modern-day rape culture to a T – not restricted to Twitter trolls but found across the media and even in the justice system. In England and Wales a woman’s sexual history may be used to prejudice a jury against her in a rape case. On 24 April the BBC tweeted to ask: "Do women have too many rights?"

If Atwood’s dystopia is, as she says, a warning about what might be, Naomi Alderman’s The Power depicts what is – with one enlightening difference. As a result of genetic mutation, teenage girls find themselves with the ability to give electrical shocks from their fingertips; a gift or curse that they can unlock in older women. The power, literally, is in women’s hands. It begins with a redressing of wrongs, a sort of vengeance – women able to defend themselves and one another from attacks; a 2014 report by the European Union Agency for Human Rights found around half of women in Britain have been physically or sexually assaulted. In Alderman’s novel, as the tables start to turn, appalled governments look to contain the crisis, seek a cure or try to use the women’s power. But women are no longer subservient: “She could kill them. That is the profound truth of it […] What matters is that she could, if she wanted."

Some women are cruel. Some are compassionate. Some are complicit – appalled, yes, but promising to take care of the men – evoking Luke in The Handmaid’s Tale. Women subjugate and demean men, rape them and murder them, control their actions and lives. Reporter Tunde grows up chronicling the rise of women, relates his fear of walking home alone though “Nothing worse has happened to him than to anyone. There’s no reason for him to be afraid, no more reason than any other man.” This future is bleak – yet, as Alderman states: “Nothing happens to men in the novel […] that is not happening to a woman in our world today. So is it dystopian? Well. Only if you’re a man.”

Dystopian fiction is hardly comfort reading. It rarely offers solutions to compensate for its depictions of what is at best unsettling, at worst unremittingly bleak. Yet it offers a lens through which to view our own society – through its distortions and projections of what is, perhaps we may shape what may be. If the stage is set, there remains time to change the backdrop. Perhaps we can write a better future.

The Handmaid's Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss, screens on Channel 4 from 28 May