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Perfect Timing: We Need Grim Art Like The Handmaid’s Tale Now More Than Ever


I know people who were looking forward to the new Hulu series who aren’t sure they’ll be able to stomach it now, not when they’ll turn on the news afterwards and see a man in the Oval Office who bragged about assaulting women and argued for punishing them for having abortions. But is it the point of political art, or of any art, to only reach the people it will not challenge? Is it really terrible timing that a new adaptation is happening in 2017, or is it a stroke of divine luck?

Much has been said over the past few months about “political art,” whatever that may mean. The discussion revolves around subjects such as how much we’re going to need art going forward, how we’re likely to see an explosion of it, and how we need to protect the people who make it. This discussion arose through a rather nasty coincidence that no one saw coming: Hulu’s new adaptation of one of the most politicized novels of all time, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, will be airing early in the first year of the Trump administration.

A work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and has never been out of print since. Revered as one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time and considered by many to be a cornerstone of feminist literature for its depiction of patriarchy, the book is about a near-future New England, where Christian extremists use a staged Muslim terrorist attack to overthrow the government and establish a totalitarian theocracy.

In “the Republic of Gilead,” women are disempowered to the extent that they are forbidden to read or write. Due to rising levels of sterility, fertile women are forced to be “Handmaids,” losing even their names to the duty of bearing children for elite government officials if said officials’ wives (legally speaking, only women are blamed for infertility) are unable to do so. Gilead officials “relocate” black people to “National Homelands” and offer to ship Jewish people to Israel if they refuse to convert, often just dumping them in the ocean halfway there to cut costs. The story follows one Handmaid, Offred (“Of-Fred,” named for the patriarch of the family she’s assigned to), and her quest to survive. 

Atwood was partially inspired by her research on the 17th century American Puritans who endeavored to establish their own monolithic theocracy. She wondered how a totalitarian theocracy could be set up in America, what would have to happen to establish it and keep it running. For Atwood, writing the book wasn’t about exploring the possible dark depths of the human soul by creating a fantasy world; it was about real events that have happened over and over throughout history. Everything in the novel, from public executions to the caste-specific clothing to forced pregnancies has historical precedence, mostly within Western Christian cultures. And while we have yet to achieve a post-gender post-racial or post-anything society, the book and the Hulu series took on a renewed significance this past November for some pretty obvious reasons.

The Handmaid’s Tale is uncompromising. It’s unsettling. It’s at once foreign and familiar. You may not be able to relate to Offred’s losing her family and her own name, but like her, you’ve probably met men who enjoy engaging with women on an intellectual level only insofar as they don’t feel threatened by them, like Offred’s “Commander.” You certainly (hopefully?) don’t support people being ejected from the country on the basis of their race or religious beliefs, but what is the urgency of your reaction to problems that don’t affect you directly?

As we hear in the trailer, “ordinary is just what you’re used to.” As anyone who has lived under a dictatorship, been in an abusive relationship, or experienced downward social mobility can tell you, when your lived reality goes sour, you don’t wake up one day and find that your world is suddenly sepia toned. You don’t start hearing a morose string soundtrack following you around. Things change, bit by bit, and people adjust, like the frog in the pot of water that slowly heats to boiling.

Despite the very real political connections, the thematic significance goes much further than party lines; this isn’t to say that everyone who has ever voted Republican wants non-Christians to be publicly executed, or that anyone who didn’t support Hillary Clinton secretly believes women shouldn’t be allowed to learn to read. It’s about everyone, all of us, no matter if our bubble is blue or red, and what we decide to accept as normal. The genius of The Handmaid’s Tale lies in its examination of the faulty belief that modern America is somehow immune to dangerous unrest. 

It’s not even really about feminism, at least not entirely. Atwood herself disagrees with the idea that her book is inherently political at all, let alone that it is an explicitly feminist work. But since I’m here writing this and she’s not (though I certainly understand and respect her point), I think it’s fair to say that if the personal is political, and it undoubtedly is, then “a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime” can certainly be political in a sense that doesn’t make it a “slogan” or a “billboard.”

If watching the new Hulu adaptation is too hard for you in this political climate, don’t. You don’t owe anything to Hulu or to Margaret Atwood, and speaking as a walking ball of anxiety myself, self-care is important no matter who’s making speeches on CNN.

But there are a lot of people who subscribe to Hulu. Some of them may have never heard of Margaret Atwood but they could be ripe for a fresh and shiny TV dystopian drama. Some of them might end up seeing themselves in characters who feel they suddenly woke up in a world they didn’t ask for or support.

Is it really bad timing that this is the kind of political art that’s coming around now?

Chelsea Ennen holds a master’s in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture from King’s College London. Her writing has appeared on The Female Gaze, The Tempest, and HelloGiggles and she is a book critic for Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. She is the Entertainment Editor at The Tempest, and the Fiction Editor at the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal. Follow her on Twitter (@ChelseaEnnen) for updates on her creative work and inane pop culture commentary.

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