A story of enslaved women used solely as baby factories isn’t a dystopian idea anymore, according to the liberal media. Instead, critics argue, that situation especially resonates in “Trump’s America.”
Wednesday marks the premiere of Hulu miniseries The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood. The story takes place in the Republic of Gilead, a reimagined United States conquered by Christian fundamentalists, and follows a woman named Offred and her fellow “handmaids” as they are forced to bear children for the upper class.
But TV critics had another vision of the adaptation: today’s (or soon-to-be today’s) America.
“If there is an urtext of modern feminism … then Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is probably the closest thing we’ve got,” gushed Washington Post writer Monica Hesse. “It means something to people — deeply, politically and almost spiritually.”
Hesse went so far as to say Americans can judge their boyfriends and book clubs by if and how they interpret the “really good” book.
Another Washington Post headline called the Hulu series “essential viewing.” TV critic Hank Stuever pointed to its relevancy in connection to the Women’s March protesting the Trump administration.
He wasn’t the only reviewer to mention President Trump. The Hulu “adaptation arrives with a newfound and unexpected resonance in Trump’s America,” insisted author Katrina Onstad for The New York Times.
And today’s women, others argued, aren’t unlike the subjugated protagonist, Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss).
“In the wake of the presidential election, the resilience of women is what has kept me going,” urged The Huffington Post’s associate women's editor Jenavieve Hatch. “And like the fictional Offred … we intend to survive.”
The show was never meant as a reaction to the November election – but that didn’t matter to the media.
“In April 2016, when Hulu first announced its plans to adapt the book into a television show, a Hillary Clinton presidency seemed forthcoming, and the novel’s setting, in a near future misogynist theocracy, seemed to be at a nice, safe, strictly metaphorical distance,” wrote Slate television critic Willa Paskin. “Then Donald Trump was elected president. That nice, safe distance closed up in a hurry.”
For its take, the New Republic found the book a “warning to conservative women.”
Social media editor Sarah Jones focused on the character Serena Joy, the childless wife of the “commander” that Offred is assigned to bear children for as his handmaid. (Which, by the way, consists of Joy holding Offred between her knees while, at the same time, watching her husband having sex with Offred).
“America is rich in Serena Joys,” claimed Jones. “One need look no further for her contemporary counterparts than Michelle Duggar and her daughters; or Paula White, the televangelist who allegedly led Donald Trump to Christ; or his aide Kellyanne Conway, who defends him as a ‘great boss’ to women. The character Atwood invented is an amalgam of Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dash of Aimee Semple McPherson.”
Whoa. Let that sink in.
New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead also found “themes striking many as queasily prescient” in the novel. Reviewing an audiobook, Mead stressed that Gilead exemplified today’s America.
She pointed to two cases: Trump’s reinstating the Mexico City policy, “defunding overseas organizations that provide abortion services and information,” and Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to avoid “dining alone with women other than his wife,” which she called “an instance of neo-Puritanism that would not seem at all out of place in the Republic of Gilead.”
For Vanity Fair, Hollywood editor Hillary Busis also pointed to Trump and Pence. Atwood’s story, she said, served “not only as a warning about a possible future, but also as a blueprint for how that future might come to pass.”
“With women's rights again on the chopping block under a Trump administration, and a common refrain from critics on the left to resist normalizing Trump, it's difficult if not impossible not to draw parallels between the show and real-life events,” explained TV Guide writer Liz Raftery.
Cosmopolitan writer Laura Beck would agree.
“You don't have to scratch the surface too deeply to find parallels between real life and an imaginary society that doesn't respect women's humanity, considering the highest office in the land is going to be led by a man who calls women bimbos and pigs, says he can grab them by the pussy, and believes abortion is possible at nine months,” Beck wrote in her reaction to the show’s trailer.
Rolling Stone called it “TV's Most Chilling Trump-Era Series,” Harper’s Baazar found it “the feminist horror story 2017 needs” and MTV warned about the “thin red line between The Handmaid’s Tale and reality.”
Vulture advertised it as “your must-watch show this spring.” For proof, TV columnist Jen Chaney highlighted a quote by Offred: “There would be no mercies for a member of the Resistance.”
“You hear her say this, and you know she’s talking about a resistance completely different from the grassroots movement against the Trump administration,” Chaney added. “You shudder anyway.”
The miniseries, as Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips continued, “has been greeted as almost supernaturally relevant to a nation now being run by Donald Trump.”
A.V. Club TV editor Erik Adams even described the fictional Gilead as “this place that looks like the modern-day United States, but for a few key details.”
“In 1986, when ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was first published, authoritarianism and feminism had a rather different context than they do today. Or did they?” wrote Variety TV critic Sonia Saraiya. “The story of 2017 has been one of global movement towards conservatism …”
In some ways, Gilead proved even better than America, according to author Atwood in an interview with Teen Vogue. When the magazine asked if Atwood saw Gilead as a “metaphor for other places, other times,” she responded yes. She elaborated:
For instance, Ceauçescu’s Romania, where he tried to enforce mandatory childbirth with pretty horrible results because he forced childbirth upon women who could not then afford to support the baby. And I have to look at this, you know, because that’s what the Trump regime has just done. Defunding health care for pregnant women. Gilead would be better than that. At least they’re getting adequate food. I’m not kidding. You’re enforcing childbirth on women who can’t afford to eat properly and then they will not be able to afford the medical fees to actually have the baby, so what are you going to have? You’re going to have a lot of dead people.
She didn’t clarify if she was referring to abortion – where one person always dies. Then again, she probably was. According to Atwood, “forced childbirth” is “Rape + pregnancy + no abortion or suicide.”
@BlackbirdYarns: Read history of slave ships, ancient Greek conquests, etc. Rape + pregnancy + no abortion or suicide = forced childbirth.— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) August 20, 2012
In an interview with Time magazine published Monday, Atwood argued that the “control of women and babies has been a part of every repressive genre in history” and added that “somewhere at some time” everything in her novel has happened in real life.
Surprisingly, Atwood and her stars have encountered one media upset while promoting the Hulu series: refusing to outright call the book “feminist.”
“I didn’t start from ideology, I started from what I was collecting and seeing,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I always want to know what people mean by that word.”
Besides the Hulu series, Atwood’s novel has appeared in many other forms, including 1990s movie adaptation which flopped.
“Right after the Iron Curtain came down, people were saying: It’s the end of history — tra la la! All is well!” Atwood reacted to The New York Times. “At those times, dystopia is less chord striking because it seems less possible.”
And there's some truth to that: it certainly seems a possibility – a reality – to today’s media.