The Dystopia Project is Mashable‘s new biweekly book series looking at what dystopian fiction has to teach us in our new political climate. You can read past entries here.
There has never before been, and will hopefully never come again, a more appropriate time than early April 2017 to pick up the classic 1984 Margaret Atwood dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale — no matter your gender, no matter whether you’ve read it before.
Why? Let us count the ways.
Firstly, we’re still a few weeks away from the TV adaptation launching on Hulu. Elisabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men) plays the protagonist Offred, an enslaved woman in a nightmare future fundamentalist America called the Republic of Gilead.
Pick up the book now, and you’ll be extra knowledgable about what is likely to be one of the buzziest shows of the year. Remember how Game of Thrones book aficionados gained so many bragging points when that series became super popular? How they were able to look down their noses at the latecomers to their fandom?
Reader, that could be you.
Secondly, as of this week, The Handmaid’s Tale gained the equivalent of an extra chapter. That’s right: Atwood has gone all Star Wars Special Edition on us.
The original version ends with a professor discussing Offred’s story at a conference in the year 2195, long after Gilead has fallen. Now, in an audiobook version narrated by Homeland‘s Clare Danes, Atwood has added a revealing Q&A session with that professor.
A few details she could not have written in 1984 — including the professor’s unearthing of an ancient iPad — make it clear that Gilead could still lie in our American future.
Atwood has also added an afterword in which she answers a number of FAQs about the book. (Is it a prediction? She hopes not; more an “anti-prediction” that is less likely to come true because it was written.) She then puts her story of extremist men seizing the levers of American government in the context of the Trump administration.
The way she does so is subtle, but it will nevertheless give you chills. She urges readers to write, to bear witness to the changes that are taking place in America, just as Offred did.
And that’s the third and most important reason why you need to read The Handmaid’s Tale now — it’s full of eerie parallels to our present time, as well as warnings about how we should never get too comfortable in thinking that hard-won rights for women will never be lost.
Every aspect of Gilead, from the “aunts” who keep the other women in line to the red dresses worn by the sex-slave handmaids, was drawn from history. We can easily backslide into male-dominated religious fundamentalism, the book insists; we do it all the time. It even name-checks another modern country that did just that: Iran.
When did Gilead arise out of the United States? When a cabal of puritanical militants attacked Congress, then blamed the attack on Muslim extremists. The Constitution was suspended, because terrorism. A secret plan hatched by misogynistic marketing experts is put into effect.
A hundred and fifty million women were then disempowered at the stroke of a computer keyboard. How? The new government simply suspended their bank accounts. It worked, because nobody used cash anymore. The money trick was also used on male feminists; no doubt if it were written today these men would be branded SJWs.
Offred (we never learn her real name) had a husband and son who were seized when the family tried to run for freedom on the other side of the Canadian border — as hundreds of refugees are already doing in our timeline.
She was placed in a reeducation camp run by Aunts. Part of the process involved what Atwood now identifies as “slut shaming.” It is drilled into the women that every incident of sexual abuse in their lives was somehow their fault. They asked for it.
In this dystopian future, thanks to air and water pollution, couples are becoming increasingly infertile (Atwood points out this is already happening in China). Women like Offred, with the proven ability to reproduce, are in high demand. She is farmed out to a man of high status in the government, known only as the Commander, for the sole purpose of making babies.
“I understand that they feel like that is their body,” one man says. “What I call them is, is you’re a host. And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host.”
Whoops! That wasn’t a character in The Handmaid’s Tale — that was Oklahoma representative Justin Humphrey in February 2017, talking about his bill that would require women to get the consent of the man that impregnated them before they can get an abortion.
And that was far from the only piece of abhorrent legislation introduced this year in a country that feels more like Gilead every day.
Even as far as the Commander is concerned, this isn’t a pleasant set-up. His wife is required to be present every time he has sex with Offred. Here we have the Mike Pence rule taken to horrific extremes.
Spoiler alert: the Commander turns out to be a giant hypocrite who breaks his own rules. He’s a member of a secret sex club called Jezebel’s that his wife doesn’t know about. We’re sure this has no bearing whatsoever on all those “family values” politicians who cheated on their spouses!
Does Offred ever escape her circumstances? That’s left ambiguous; indeed, there’s a lot of clever ambiguity throughout Atwood’s brilliantly-crafted prose. (Once you realize the hidden theme of the book is “doubles”, you can’t unsee it.)
But if she does, it’s because she has help from the men and women of the resistance — or the “underground female-road”, as the too-aloof professor at the end of the book dubs it.
The Handmaid’s lessons, then, can be distilled to this: Bear witness. Kick up a fuss. Don’t be meek. When you see misogyny in government, call it what it is, no matter what its supporters call you in return. Men and women are as likely to be on the side of female oppression (witness the 53% of white women who voted Donald Trump into the White House) as female liberation.
And just because this is an extreme fictional version, a dark mirror on reality, don’t ever think that some kind of Gilead can’t happen here.