Last Week's News Was Straight From The Handmaid's Tale
The Debrief: As series one draws to a close and a second series of The Handmaid's Tale Is confirmed, we look at the story's enduring relevance
OMG OMG isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale just, like, the most relevant TV series you’ve ever seen?!? It’s, like, so totally dystopian and it’s almost like Margaret Atwood wrote it about Donald Trump. OMG The Handmaid’s Tale style protests against the proposed changes to the GOP health care bill are just totally meta, right? Wondering what happens when science fiction becomes reality, watch The Handmaid's Tale to find out!!
Look, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the above statements. The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, imagine long before Donald Trump won the US presidential election, was eerily timely. The disgusting detail of life in Gilead portrayed by the show, as conceived by Atwood back in 1985, did feel like prophetic portents of things that could, quite conceivably, happen. This immediacy was crucial to the show’s success, just as it is what has propelled the viscerally visual novel to high pop culture status.
As the second series of the show is confirmed, venturing forth beyond the ending of the novel into unchartered fictional waters just as Offred is driven away into the unknown in the back of a van, it’s hard to deny that the lines between art and real life do feel blurred.
Indeed, last week alone pervasive parallels between The Handmaid’s Tale and news headlines were difficult to ignore. You could even go as far as to say that last week’s news alone wouldn’t have been out of place in the show. The news that Donald Trump wants to ban transgender people from the American army quite rightly sent shockwaves around the world and inspired solidarity across communities. In 2017 if the leader of a democracy can discriminate against people based solely on their gender then something’s seriously amiss. Trump himself could be a character from the novel, he’s like a parody of an impetuous dictator and during the first 7 months of his presidency, he has, rather alarmingly, started to make the abnormal normal and render the absurd nearly reasonable.
Then there was the news that young men’s fertility appears to be declining. According to scientists, sperm counts among men in the west have more than halved in the past 40 years and are currently falling by an average of 1.4% a year. The study, published in the Journal of Human Reproduction, reported a 59% decline in total sperm count over a 40-year period.
Some journalists and commentators even went as far as to say that humanity could soon become extinct which might be erring on the side of hyperbole but certainly isn’t impossible. An infertility epidemic is at the heart of The Handmaid’s Tale; it is the reason for the coup staged by the fundamentalist founders of Gilead to overthrow contemporary democracy and reclaim fertile women as state property because without the ability to procreate and provide future generations they deemed civilisation to be teetering on a collapsing cliff edge. Experts have yet to agree on the cause of the declining sperm counts of Western men.
Beyond these two obvious parallels between reality and fiction, there were numerous other news stories which it is not a stretch to call dystopian. The refugee and migration crisis continues across Europe; we’re just not hearing about it as much as we should be. It was revealed that the BBC, Britain’s liberal lefty beating heart, indisputably values its male employees more than its women workers, indicating an indisputable sexist sickness coursing through the rest of our country. Oh, and how can we forget, Brexit: a subject on which we are now fed conflicting statements on a near daily basis by politicians as they practice the political equivalent of ‘do as I say not as I do parenting’ which allows them to constantly contradict themselves and tell us Brexit means Brexit when it’s as clear as day that they don’t even know what that means. And that, reader, is just the tip of the iceberg of only one week in news.
So, is Margaret Atwood some sort of prophet? Was The Handmaid’s Tale an unbelievably prescient piece of fiction? To suggest this is to completely ignore how history has unfolded over the last 60 or 70 years, particularly when it comes to women’s rights. Atwood wrote the novel in the mid-80s, a time, you could argue superficially when things felt were ostensibly the up and the work of feminists in the 1960s and 1970s was thought to have snuffed out mainstream sexism. However, on closer inspection, the 80s and 90s were also a time of what Susan Faludi termed Backlash against the feminist advances of the 1970s which saw conservative criticism of women stall further progress. In the US, this period was overseen by Ronald Regan. He was a president famous for his crusade-like War on Drugs, he also celebrated the anniversary of the landmark abortion ruling Roe v. Wade by inviting a group of pro-life leaders to the White House.
Here in Britain at the time, we were emerging from Thatcher’s premiership into another Conservative government. New Labour’s landslide was nearly a decade away and, in any case, their time in charge was followed by another Neo Liberal government. We still have a gaping gender pay gap, women require two doctors to sign off on their abortions and, in Northern Ireland, women can’t even access abortion legally.
The Handmaid’s Tale was not prescient nor is it some totally mad, coincidental, fortuitous freak accident that its story feels more relevant than ever. Atwood wrote a topical novel which still feels topical today because, Trump or no Trump, we simply haven’t progressed as much as we ought to have or, perhaps more importantly, as much as we like to think we have. A TV adaptation didn't make The Handmaid's Tale relevant again, the themes it deals with never went away. We’re still a long way from utopia.
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You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating