Editor’s Note: Rebecca Wanzo is associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is currently completing a book, “The Content of Our Caricature,” about African-Americans and cartoon art. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Since its premiere in 2017, Hulu’s celebrated adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has inspired new protest aesthetics. Women have dressed up as the “handmaids” who are forced to bear children for Christian, fascist men in a dystopian future. Red cloaks and white bonnets have become signs of both totalitarian regimes and resistance. These shrouded figures were at Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, but are most often seen protesting attacks on abortion access laws. Many people, including Atwood, have stated that the dystopian melodrama conjures up real-life conflicts and is more documentary than fiction.
Some critics have decried “Handmaid’s Tale hysteria,” as we clearly do not live in Gilead. Women in the United States have not been deprived of employment, the right to read and self-governance, or subjected to state-mandated rape. But what we are subjected to is a world in which some people’s vision for a better future is about fewer rights instead of more. Struggles over competing visions for the future produced Gilead, and that same struggle governs contemporary conflicts over how to survive very troubled times.
Dystopias are hot. I seem to encounter a new dystopian teen show from somewhere in the world every time I turn on Netflix. From “The Hunger Games” to “The Walking Dead,” many dystopias offer the basic genre pleasures of heroes and suspense. But while beautifully made, I don’t think of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” as deeply pleasurable – a show about ritualized rape is often tortuous to watch.
The best dystopias also serve another function by addressing pressing political concerns, but not through realistic depictions of the world that are exactly like the one we live in now. George Orwell’s Big Brother continues to resonate because “1984” is a cautionary tale about how nations can treat people, and why citizens submit to these regimes. Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” its recent adaptation and her new sequel novel, “The Testaments,” serve a similar function. The extrapolations and parallels are compelling because the narratives are built from the real world. Allegory is not born of the impossible. It is born from recognition.
And the allegory of Gilead clearly builds on the world we inhabit. In “The Testaments,” the inhumane conditions that some women endure after the United States is overthrown bear no small relationship to the camps refugees and detained migrants inhabit in this country and elsewhere. The misogyny that unfolds on the page is evident beyond it as well. The fact that women receive a disproportionate amount of vitriol when they write online, inhabit predominately male spaces or speak out about sexual violence is well-documented, and politicians and scholars circulate the idea that women are not psychologically equipped for leadership and that their success is destroying white manhood. That there are men who feel they have a right to hurt and punish women who will not have sex with them is not hysteria. That’s real life.
It’s not a fiction that people want me and people like me (who occupy a variety of undesirable categories according to some of my fellow citizens) to go away. Both the books and the series have been criticized for giving short shrift to issues of race. The novels and show use systems of reproduction under chattel slavery and the Underground Railroad as an allegory to primarily focus on the treatment of middle-class white women. And yet I think Atwood’s brief mention in both novels of Gilead as a white supremacist state is more illustrative of the kind of white nationalism many people desire than the show, which ignores racism completely.
People of color are not the only current undesirables to a number of conservatives – so too are intellectuals and subversives of all kinds. A Tennessee state senator recently proposed that the state shut down funding to higher education (even though he later backtracked). Do you feel that such a thing, to crib Sinclair Lewis, “can’t happen here?” I am sure the purging of academics in Turkey seemed an improbable outcome for them, too.
Nor is it fictional that nations are punishing gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex people around the world, as the power structures of Gilead do. In the series, the first hints the lesbian character had of a shift in the major political changes that were occurring in the nation was when she faced discrimination at work. The Trump administration recently filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Courts supporting discrimination against LGBTQ employees.
Those who believe the story of the United States is an inexorable march toward a better future see the rolling back of rights as a foreign idea, an impossibility. Many of us were told that in school – with slavery, genocide and gender and sexual discrimination treated as temporary obstacles, since overcome, in the “American experiment.” The problem with that view is not only that discrimination lives on in the United States, but that people have very different ideas about what progress is.
Dystopias like Atwood’s shine a light into the gap between those understandings of progress. In precarious times—and I think many of us agree that we live in precarious times even if we can’t agree on what makes it precarious—people have competing ideas of what the problems are and how to solve them. In the series, Yvonne Strahovski’s character Serena Joy, was a dynamic, conservative woman who was instrumental in selling the Christian totalitarian state to the nation. Deeply desiring a child in a time of limited reproductive opportunities for women, she’s willing to sacrifice others and herself for what she believes will be a better future.
That one group’s utopia is another’s dystopia suggests an intractable challenge. And yet Atwood’s sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” ultimately offers hope. Both books alert the readers to the fact that people survive Gilead. The retrospective record gives a salve to readers who struggle through the everyday tortures experienced by the characters. But the how of the liberation is amorphous. In “The Testaments,” Atwood expresses belief in a solidarity between women. A woman who sold out other women for her own survival chooses new alliances. She suggests that knowledge can produce conversion, and that conversion can produce resistance. And with that, Atwood’s novel becomes more of a utopian fantasy than a dystopian nightmare.
One of the ongoing questions the series poses is how women can be party to other women’s gendered oppression. The answer to that question, as we have seen throughout history, is that they do not see other women as being as fully human as they see themselves. They are not mothers. They are not daughters. They are not people. Owners of slaves did not see black women as like themselves. Many people are not seeing refugees trying to find safety and security for themselves as like themselves now.
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But the utopian promise of “The Testaments” is that change and solidarity are possible. Given the current research about political intractability and our divided electorate, on some days that seems as fantastic and beyond reality to me as Gilead. I’m not sure I buy the path to liberation that Atwood plots here, but I’d like to believe. One of the biggest pleasures of the dystopian allegory is that we’d all like to believe that our national nightmares can end.