The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret Atwood in the Reagan era, has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity due to the visually stunning Hulu series based on the book. Atwood’s book has reaped the rewards of the TV show’s success – making an uncontrolled ascent to the top of the Amazon rankings – as a whole new wave of women and feminists co-opt its ideas and heed the cautionary tales inherent in its narrative. The renewed interest lies not just in the gorgeous costuming, great cast and grim portrayal of a bleak future, but because the story has real resonance in our modern world.
Many parallels can be drawn between the women living in the dystopian world in The Handmaid’s Tale and American women living in the Trump era. Today’s anti-abortion laws and health care reforms echo themes of bodily autonomy. The victim-blaming in Gilead (the fictional version of the world where the book takes place) mirrors the way rape culture is perpetuated in modern society. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, shows the way women’s complicity upholds the patriarchy. For these reasons and many others, the show has become something of a symbol for today’s feminists. But do the implications go far enough or are they rooted in a narrow version of celebrity white feminism that Taylor Swift peddles to sell albums?
As a child and teenager, reading dystopian fiction felt a bit like reading fantasy fiction – it offered a glimpse into an impossible and impossibly frightening world – of strict government regimes and unbalanced social systems; dark places filled with unwarranted deaths and rampant injustice. I thought that the things in dystopian fiction were so unthinkable they could only ever happen in fiction. It seemed like the kind of thing that could never happen in the real world.
Dystopian literature is a genre of fictional writing used to explore social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.’ (x)
I wasn’t purposefully naive – just sheltered – in part due to the storytelling in American history books. In grade school, we had an entire month to celebrate the achievements of black inventors, but our books dedicated only a paragraph to the subject of black slavery. (And certainly not a word about forced sterilizations, lynchings, eugenics, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, the stereotypical servile images in American Advertising, Florida Slave-masters using African-American infants as alligator bait…) . In third grade, I knew George Washington Carver was wild about peanuts, but not that he was born a slave. And that Rosa Parks stood up for equality – but not that she was proceeded by Claudette Colvin – who the NAACP didn’t want to symbolize their boycott because she was a young, pregnant teen and viewed as “too feisty” and “emotional” for the cause.
In second grade, we had to dress up as Pilgrims or Indians. I was an Indian – dressed in a crayon-decorated fringed vest made out of a cut-up paper shopping bag and a feather headband. My beautiful blonde teacher sat us in a circle and told us how the Indians taught the Pilgrims to grow corn and broke bread together at the first Thanksgiving, but not about the rape, enslavement and extermination of nearly an entire population of indigenous people. (Well, second grade probably wasn’t the right crowd to be fair, but even by high school, these atrocities were still regularly swept under the rug.)
A Texas textbook, referring to kidnapped African slaves as “workers”.
We spent more time on our Holocaust unit in High School history than our own shady past – wondering how the Germans could have been so evil, could have not questioned the status quo – while standing up each morning and pledging allegiance to a flag in the corner of the room and repeating words we didn’t entirely understand. The irony is not lost on me today.
And these problems – erased by our history books – aren’t sequestered to the past. Racial injustice still thrives in America.
The late eighties and early nineties were a less enlightened time – before outcries of cultural appropriation – when the term political correctness (PC) was bandied about as an insult. (If you were PC, you couldn’t take a joke. The fault lied with you, not the unfunny racist, homophobic or sexist thing you were meant to laugh at.) When something was lame, we said, “that’s so gay” and there was not an entire Hilary Duff ad-campaign to tell us why that was wrong. Most of us called our friends r*tarded at one point or another. I don’t mean this as an excuse – but in the age before the Internet – our information was strictly controlled (and often completely wrong or biased). We got our information from American news sources, board-approved curriculum, our parents and teachers, playground gossip, Church (with a capital C). Growing up in a largely white community, you can see how quickly one could grow a distorted worldview.
Even to this day, Americans still largely live in a bubble. The media has paid interests and we have very little international coverage on our news channels – unless there’s an environmental disaster we need to show our hashtag-support for or a bombing in a Muslim country to add to our country’s increasing Islamophobia and xenophobia. Only 46% of Americans have a passport, compared to 71% of Europeans. After years of having “America is the greatest country in the world” drilled into our heads in school and fear-based news tactics, it’s no wonder people don’t want to travel outside the US.
Having grown up and experienced a world outside of books – where I sought out education and different cultural experiences – I now see dystopian fiction for what it is. Dystopian fiction exists to show the cracks in our societies – cracks that can very quickly becoming plunging craters if we’re not careful about how we navigate them. Dystopian fiction is not just to show crazy alternate realities – it’s to open our eyes to the realities of the world around us.
The Handmaid’s Tale shows a dystopian future – for white women – but not for the African American women whose labor built our country. Not for the Native American women we exterminated to make way for the New World. Not for the 40,000 or more Indian women who are surrogates for couples that can’t have their own children each year. (NPR) The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction, but it isn’t some made-up version of the world; it’s a world that has existed, that still exists in different forms all around us.
The Handmaid’s Tale is also a great jumping-off point to talk about intersectional feminism – or “understanding of how women’s overlapping identities — including race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation — impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination.” (USA Today) .
The horror we feel at seeing white women stripped of their rights in a dystopian world needs to be extended to outrage for the women who actually live it.
We need to approach feminism from a place of empathy, openness and inclusivity. We need to challenge our own views of what it means to be a woman (women don’t need to have a vagina or breasts, for example). We need to stop viewing other women’s lives as fiction and ours as reality. Because if we don’t begin to see and navigate the cracks, the divides will grow into a situation of “us versus them”, “fiction versus reality”.
How has the Handmaid’s Tale or another dystopian book changed your perspective of the world around you? What has your experience of education in your country been? What is your own experience of Intersectional Feminism?