Writing for an article in The Guardian in 2012, the Canadian author Margaret Atwood told readers that her seminal novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was not intended as a fantasy. She was not, in her words, writing of anything that had not already happened in some place or time, nor technology that had yet to be invented.
Her novel would go on to sell millions of copies worldwide, but in the years that saw the book soar from the feminist literature shelf to prime spot for bestsellers in bookstore windows, the political climate grew ever more darker and dystopian. In the aforementioned article, Atwood discussed the differing reactions to her novel:
“In the UK, the reaction [to the book] was along the lines of, ‘Jolly good yarn’. In the US, however – and despite a dismissive review in the New York Times by Mary McCarthy – it was more likely to be: ‘How long have we got?’”
In 2019, with the third season of the television adaption having recently come to end, the reaction of female viewers in both the UK and the US are likely along the lines of: “We’re almost here.”
And yet, for a while, it felt like we were moving forward.
They may have been baby steps in thousand-mile road, but there was at least a sense that progress was slowly being made to unpick the systemic gender inequality that pollutes society.
Despite the many gains of modern feminist movements across the globe and the historic milestones that have been achieved over the course of a century, recent events could lead one to think that sexism was never on a path to extinction – rather, it was lying dormant all along. All it would take to wake the beast from its short nap would be fear.
And now, here we are: a leader of the free world who has bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” and a UK Prime Minister who once told voters that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts,” and, while hosting the London Olympics as mayor, was quoted as saying he loved the “magnificent” experience of watching “semi-naked women playing beach volleyball … glistening like wet otters.”
It’s the kind of language that if you heard used in the workplace, you would report immediately or, in all likelihood, just get the hell out of there and find a new job. Of course, when it’s the elected leader of a power like the U.S or U.K spouting such sexist rhetoric, it’s a little trickier to run away.
“You know in The Handmaid’s Tale flashback scenes where everything still feels kind of normal but they start dropping small hints that shit is starting to go very wrong very soon?”
wrote author Rita Meade in a tweet,
The use of imagery from Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in the fight against oppression first began in Texas in 2017, when a protest against the state’s ongoing anti-abortion campaign saw women sporting the scarlet dress and white bonnet made famous by the TV adaptation of the book.
Starring Elisabeth Moss as the novel’s protagonist, June Osborne, the show largely follows the plot of the novel in which women are stripped of all rights in a post-apocalyptic American theocracy called Gilead. June is introduced to us initially as Offred, the name she is given in Gilead since she “belongs” to Commander Fred Waterford (of Fred).
In the interest of rebuilding the population that has been depleted by radiation and thwarted by the infertility that came with it, Offred is forced to take part in a monthly ceremony in which she is raped by her Commander.
Like all fertile women in Gilead, she must wear the red dress and white bonnet as a symbol of her fertility – a symbol that she is but a vessel for children. Rape is just one of the many horrors in which the protagonist ensues, for any attempts to escape Gilead are met with torture, disfigurement or mutilation. Needless to say, it’s a story that turns the stomachs of viewers at every episode – not only because of the graphic brutality, but for the unsettling truth that our society is sliding ever-closer towards this dystopian reality.
In the last few years, the cultural war on abortion in the US has succeeded in casting a safe medical procedure as one that is criminally evil, sketchy and shameful. In 2019 alone, nine American states passed laws that restrict abortion at the earliest stages of pregnancy. In Alabama, one of these new laws is a piece of legislation that bans all abortion from the time a “woman [is] known to be pregnant” – with no exceptions. The governor has also signed into law a draconian bill that could punish doctors who perform abortions with life in prison.
Senator Kamala Harris recently commented on the sinister comparison between real events and Atwood’s novel, using a fundraising email as a platform to alert recipients of the horrors that are happening in the US:
“This isn’t a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale,” she wrote,
When The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in 1985, the response was mixed: it was a well-thought-out concept, critics agreed, and poetically rich in its worldbuilding. Their main criticism of the novel was that it seemed implausible in modern society.
Three decades on and we are here, living in a time where the UK Prime Minister shuts down parliament to silence MPs who don’t share his vision and deselects any member of his party who disagrees. Across the pond, you have a Vice President who, as governor of Indiana, signed a law that required foetal remains of miscarriages and abortions, at any stage of pregnancy, to be cremated or buried. Gilead may be fictional, but oppression is a fact, and it’s happening all over the world.
“I’m not a prophet,” said Margaret Atwood upon being crowned “the prophet of dystopia” by the New York Times.
“Let’s get rid of that idea right now. Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now. What else could it be about? There is no future. There are many possibilities, but we do not know which one we are going to have.”
She is, however, “sorry to have been so right”.