The first masterful piece of mass entertainment reflecting the Trump era is here and, strangely enough, it’s based on a novel from 32 years ago. Thanks Hulu, or more correctly, damn you, Hulu – for your new series The Handmaid’s Tale.
Set in a dystopian future where women have no rights and the country has undergone a cultural/religious revolution brought on by terrorism and perhaps limited (!) nuclear war, The Handmaid’s Tale is simultaneously riveting and extremely difficult to watch. Much like an accident. Or Sean Spicer’s daily White House press briefings when not given by Melissa McCarthy.
Of course, to reduce the retelling of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, which she wrote decades ago in Germany when the Berlin Wall was coming down, as merely an allegory for Trumpism would be selling it short. Not to mention it would be giving the Electoral College POTUS too much credit. (Note: The mere mention of his name is too much credit for me, but that’s another story, and not a particularly funny or readable one. So I will #resist the temptation).
The brilliance of Atwood’s story is that her dystopian world adapts to easily reflect the post-modern apocalyptic realities from any number of time periods in which we currently reside. Though perhaps this series just makes it look that way. More correctly, it’s probably a little bit of both.
Imagine a world where women are not in control of their reproductive rights or being gay is seen as “gender treachery” and appropriately punished. Then revisit Trump’s sound bite at a town hall event with Republican voters in Wisconsin last year where he publicly stated that if abortion becomes illegal women should face “some form of punishment.”
In the Hulu/Atwood world of terrorism, contemporary women, who only hours before were annoyed that their Uber driver was late, now find all their digital imprints frozen and assets seized. It’s for their own safety, say the authorities. Terrorists. Nuclear war. Centralize power and control for PROTECTION.
When mass sterility (due to environmental poisoning) sets in only a few years later it’s not hard to see that the few females that are still somehow able to reproduce become a treasured governmental commodity. I mean, what price is the continuation of the WORLD, right?
The fact that this is a world now dominated primarily by wealthy WHITE men, helped along by a few female counterparts not quite as powerful as they are, is not really questioned. And the fact that it’s not really questioned by the masses is one of the few differences it has from the basic world order in 2017.
Right after the inauguration of Donald Trump 3.2 million people took to the streets in a march for women’s rights. Which in turn became a growing resistance to emerging authoritarian rule that promised to roll back the rights of numerous other minorities – of color, of race, of national origin, of sexual persuasion, you name it – by an authoritarian voted in by a PLURALITY of voters. The idea, to save the country going down the tubes by making it GREAT again, was not sitting particularly well with its masses.
So given what I saw as one of those 3.2 million masses marching back in January it was not too difficult, and more than a little scary, for me to make the leap this Hulu series asks. Especially since the three black hooded corpses of a priest, a doctor and a gay man hanging on ropes high from the walls of what used to be a former library were really only incidental backdrops. That’s how I often feel now as a gay man in Trump country and Trump logic. An annoying incidental to the main story.
Which in some ways is a better place to be than enduring the indignities many females are facing in Trump America. Certainly, it’s better than what the lead women in the Hulu show were about to endure. Though even here I hate to sell the latter short.
It’s hard to tell where any of this is going or whether fiction will for sure prove worse than fact. As a wise psychiatrist once told me, you can only operate from “what is.” And what we do know in the real world is that an estimated 13,000 women are now planning to run for office across the country and a group called Emerge America recently held training classes for 25 female Democratic candidates for Congress, state senate, city council, etc. in 18 states.
Their numbers are up 87% since the election, which seems reasonable. So do comments from the female candidates on a recent NBC news report where one admitted needing practice in the best ways to do things like “asking for money” and “connecting with voters.” Those skills don’t always come naturally for those not born into power positions. But what do they say – Necessity is the mother of invention? Actually, it was not they but the Greek philosopher Plato and yes, I had to look it up. (Note: And yes, he was a man, as far as we know. Which doesn’t make it any less true).
As far as the series is concerned, I take some solace in the casting of Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss in the key lead role of Offred/June, our birth machine/handmaid heroine. Watching Ms. Moss personify the slow empowerment of the 1960s woman as Mad Men’s Peggy Olson – who goes from mousy, intelligent and intimidated to smart, savvy and, yes, empowered, gave hope to many of us hopeless incidentals. And to any of us who have ever felt, or will feel this way.
It’s one of the best gifts a truly gifted actor can give us. So in the bleak but all too truly allegorical world of The Handmaid’s Tale we can’t help but feel safe in her hands.
One wishes the same could be said about the leading player, or players, in our 2017 reality.