Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a brilliant achievement of dystopian fiction – detailed, haunting and deeply creepy. The much-praised TV version debuted this week, and, by all accounts, it's spectacular.
The story is set in the not-too-distant future, when environmental poisons (a favourite Atwood theme) have rendered most of the population sterile. The United States, now known as Gilead, has been taken over by a fundamentalist theocracy and the remaining fertile women have been enslaved as breeding stock. When the book was first published in 1985, Ronald Reagan was president and the Moral Majority was in the ascendant. Alarmed progressives solemnly hailed it as a possible portent of things to come.
Today, the book is widely regarded as prophetic. And more people than ever are convinced that women's rights are under existential threat. "The Handmaid's Tale Is Horrifying Because It Seems So Possible," Vanity Fair blared. "The Misogynist Future of The Handmaid's Tale Feels Terrifyingly Within Reach," Jezebel said. "We live in the reproductive dystopia of The Handmaid's Tale," The New Yorker warned. The entire cultural class seems to have been gripped by the fear that women are about to be enslaved by fascistic monsters who will impregnate them against their will and wrench their babies from their arms at birth.
What accounts for these fever dreams? Short answer: Donald Trump. Many women appear to actually believe that he and his religious right-wing cronies will take away their contraception, strip them of their rights and usher in an age of mass sexual assault.
I hate to disappoint them, but it's exceedingly unlikely. Sure, he's a sexist pig. But so are a few Democrats I could name. The religious wars are mostly over and the good guys won. The religious right is in steep decline. Gay marriage is legal. Discrimination is against the law. The working-class Americans who voted for Mr. Trump have been deserting organized religion by the millions. He is the most secular president of modern times. It's too bad he wants to defund Planned Parenthood. But I don't doubt that both women and Planned Parenthood will survive.
Yet, it's not just Mr. Trump. Long before he came along, the rhetoric of misogyny and female oppression had reached impressive new heights. The more progress women made, the shriller the narrative became. The Handmaid's Tale played a role in that. It played to the argument that this progress was a sham. If anything, the activists argue, women's lives have gotten worse.
If this seems weird, then you haven't been following the plot. As Moira Weigel explains to us in The New Yorker, the biggest threat to women's rights is the toxic capitalist system itself. "[T]he cultural forces that Atwood was responding to included a neoliberal revolution that colluded in oppressing women," she writes. "In the America of 2017, as in Gilead, birth rates are falling, not because of mysterious toxins in the air but because many Americans cannot imagine being able to afford children … Others are barren … because they have worked straight through their childbearing years."
Funny, I thought reproductive choice and feminism had something to do with that. But I must have been mistaken.
The dystopia depicted in The Handmaid's Tale really does exist, of course. But no one ever mentions it. It's called Saudi Arabia, which is pretty much a dead ringer for Gilead. And, just as in the book, there really are parts of the world where homosexuals are strung up by the roadside. Iran and Chechnya, for starters. But you won't read those things in the reviews because they don't fit the narrative. No one mentions the stupefying absurdity of giving Saudi Arabia a seat on the UN women's rights commission. That's because the real problem is neoliberal capitalism.
Could the horrors of The Handmaid's Tale actually happen in America? Well, yes. Two weeks ago, a medical doctor in Michigan was criminally charged for allegedly conspiring to perform mutilating surgical procedures on two seven-year-old girls, who were taken there in secret by their parents. These procedures are done in the name of religion. Where was the outcry, enraged editorials, and the protest marches from American feminists? The girls belonged to a Muslim sect who believe in female genital mutilation. So nobody paid much attention. In an effort to avoid appearing culturally insensitive, The New York Times even used the delicate phrase "genital cutting" in its reporting.
At times like this, I badly miss that other great dystopian writer. His name was George Orwell. You should read him, too.