In 1985, when Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was published, Ronald Reagan was U.S. president, climate change was not yet a pervasive mainstream term, Madonna launched her Virgin Tour, and Donald Trump was still on his first wife.
The novel vividly, eerily realized a dystopian nearish-future. I ripped through it. But it did not provoke the stomach-turning fear that nuclear-holocaust films of that era did. Women's lib had paved the way for female Gen Xers like me to pursue our career and life dreams and proudly call ourselves feminists. It did not cross my mind that sexism might block my path. I was strong, I was invincible. If The Handmaid's Tale was meant as a warning – and I understand now that it was – I mistook it for a terrific read that had nothing to do with my potential future.
Watching the (outstanding) first three episodes of Hulu's 10-part TV adaptation, I was reminded of the innocence – no, ignorance – that informed my first reading. I don't know if it's the times or the fact that I'm a grown-up now (or maybe it's my Twitter feed), but I feel as though I am witnessing the slippery slope of sexism all around me. It's scary.
So is this adaptation. The Handmaid's Tale is brutally excellent; my binge-watch this week was so unsettling that when I dashed out of the house to collect my eight-year-old from a play date, I stopped for a moment under the cherry blossoms, marvelling at my freedom.
The central character, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), is a former book editor and mother of a young girl. The latter point is remarkable – with environmental devastation, birth rates have sharply declined. When she arrives at the hospital to deliver her baby, well-wishers crowd the street, cheering her on. Inside, the maternity ward is empty.
After a revolution turns the United States into Gilead, Offred, who is fertile, is forced to become a Handmaid. She is assigned to a household and must participate in a regular "Ceremony" where the man of the house has sex with her while she lies with her head on the lap of his infertile wife. It is state-sanctioned rape in the name of pro-creation.
It's horrific all around, but the most terrifyingly resonant scenes are those documenting the transition from a society that looks a lot like ours – with Uber, Tinder and women who have careers and independent lives – to a fundamentalist dystopian world where women are chattel.
This descent is announced with what initially appears to be an innocuous mix-up. Offred – she was June then – and her friend Moira (Samira Wiley) stop for a postrun coffee, but June's debit card is refused. The situation escalates when the barista, emboldened, slut-shames them. Later, June and her female co-workers are fired without warning. Then at a demonstration, police attack retreating protesters, shooting to kill.
Not to be alarmist, but watching the series, how does one not contemplate, even for a fleeting moment, the scariest question: Is this how it starts?
Planned long before a Trump White House seemed possible, the series bursts with contemporary resonance. In real life, Americans have elected a man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals, who suggested that a female TV host who was tough on him must be having her period. The Vice-President won't dine alone with a woman who isn't his wife. Many Americans have deep concerns about the environment, reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights.
In the adaptation, June is researching sexual assault on campus; this too feels very current. (Atwood herself has been involved in a related issue that has blown up in recent months. She signed a controversial open letter calling for due process for Steven Galloway, who was fired from his position of chair of the creative-writing program at the University of British Columbia after allegations, including sexual assault, were made against him by a now former student. In a statement released through his lawyer, Galloway has said that an independent investigator found on a balance of probabilities that he had not committed sexual assault. Following the outcry over the open letter, Atwood was busy on social media, sparring sometimes with young female writers who felt they had been let down by their feminist literary icon.)
Moira is gay – a gender traitor – as is another Handmaid, an abomination tolerated because of her fertility. Moira is also black, as is June's husband. The women are always second-class citizens. Even the women in charge are oppressed – the infertile Wives, the vicious "Aunts" who re-educate and discipline the Handmaids. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the Marthas, relegated to non-sexual domestic duties.
So why don't they join forces, rise up against the patriarchy? Imagine what the women of Gilead (or anywhere) could accomplish if they turned to each other, rather than on each other. Women are strong – if not invincible – and can save each other. But in Gilead, they are paralyzed by mistrust – generated by the men in charge.
Leading up to the series launch, there was a great hubbub over comments Moss made at the Tribeca Film Festival: "It's not a feminist story; it's a human story, because women's rights are human rights." She clarified this week that the show is "obviously" feminist.
In fact, it is a feminist triumph. At the most basic level, it's a story about women, rich with female characters (and parts for female actors). More than 30 years after the book became essential feminist reading, it feels even more crucial.
"There is no debate. IT IS FEMINIST. IT IS POLITICAL," Reed Morano, who directed these episodes, posted to Instagram on Wednesday. "It's also about men (imagine that?) and women and children and LGBT and blacks and whites – crazy concept, right? It's about how NO ONE is safe if any one single group's rights start being stripped away. It WILL eventually affect us all. … You might want to watch simply to find out what's to come, if we all don't get off our asses and do something."