NYT: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ of ‘Repressive Patriarchy’ Has ‘Resonance in Trump’s America’

April 21st, 2017 2:01 PM

Is there any more the media can do to promote a new Hulu show, The Handmaid’s Tale, as an ominous parallel to the Donald Trump administration? Yes, apparently: A feature on the front of next Sunday’s New York Times Arts section, yet again promoting the show, based on the dystopian feminsit novel by Margaret Atwood, which drops on Hulu April 26.

Katrina Onstad, a Canadian journalist and movie critic, filed “What World Is This?” from the fraught set in Toronto earlier this year, after the trauma and travesty of Trump’s victory. She reduced the idea of women’s rights to the issue of tax-funded access to the abortion factory Planned Parenthood and lumped in pro-life beliefs with slavery and stoning.

This is how a war on women ramps up: First, their bank accounts are frozen, and then they’re forbidden to work. Protesters gather, waving signs and chanting. Then, in this flashback scene from the first episode of the new Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the police open fire on the demonstrators. Bloodied bodies fall, and the camera holds tight on the story’s heroine, Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, whose disbelieving face seems to ask, What world is this?

Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, the series tells the story of a country reinvented: A violent religious coup has turned the United States into Gilead, a theocracy where women have been stripped of their rights and the more fertile conscripted into “handmaids,” forced to bear children for the elite. Though the protest scene was filmed last fall, and, like the series itself, conceived long before a dizzying election season and aftermath that have catapulted Ms. Atwood’s book up the Amazon best-seller list, the television adaptation arrives with a newfound and unexpected resonance in Trump’s America.

Before the series even debuts on Wednesday, April 26, references to “The Handmaid’s Tale” -- shorthand for repressive patriarchy -- seem ubiquitous. A photo of a group of male Republicans at the White House debating maternity services with nary a woman in sight earned the social media hashtag #Gilead. Last month, women in Handmaids’ red dresses and bonnets sat side-by-side in the Texas State Capitol to protest anti-abortion measures under consideration.

The show was launched in happier times, during the blissful years of the Obama administration.

It was still the Obama era when Hulu pursued the property two years ago, as part of a strategy to broaden its identity from a glorified video recorder to a producer of original programming. The showrunner Bruce Miller threw his hat in the ring when Ilene Chaiken, who had been developing the adaptation at MGM, departed for “Empire.” A veteran writer-producer on shows including “E.R.” and “Eureka,” Mr. Miller had been obsessed with the novel since reading it as an undergraduate at Brown, even having his agent continually check to see if the film or TV rights were available.

The studio set was evidently saturated with sex-based bean counting:

“I was incredibly, and am still incredibly mindful, of the fact that I’m a boy,” Mr. Miller said. “You always try to find people who support your deficits.”

To that end, when Mr. Miller finished writing the first two episodes, he sent them to Ms. Atwood; she approved. He made sure his writing staff was almost entirely female, and hired women to direct all but two of the 10 episodes.


According to Ms. Moss, there was no effort to rewrite the series in light of the new national mood because there was no need. As filming progressed here last fall and campaign-season reports of a boast about genital grabbing and “Lock her up” rhetoric filled the news, any necessary critique was already there.


On a suburban soundstage in January, Ms. Moss sat by the window in Offred’s tiny room-cum-prison. To Atwood fans, the monastic set will be instantly recognizable as the novel’s first line: “A chair, a table, a lamp.” Ms. Moss was wrapped in a modest autumn-red gown, her head bubbled in a white bonnet, staring out the window silently. (“That’s where the voice-over will go,” Mr. Miller whispered, watching on a monitor). Carved in the closet was the phrase left by the handmaid who preceded Offred, the one who hanged herself: “Nolite te bastardes carbonrundorum.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

The edict was scrawled on signs at women’s marches around the world in January, as were other nods to the book. Meanwhile, the debate over legislation to defund Planned Parenthood included frequent references to the measures as Handmaid-ian, and the executive vice president of Planned Parenthood said: “We’re living ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’” It’s all publicity, true, a kind of pop-up grass-roots marketing that a new series on a streaming service trying to compete with Netflix and Amazon can only dream of. But these associations aren’t exactly positive.

Stoning, slavery, pro-life movement, same thing:

Gilead is not technically a futuristic society, but a backward (or sideways) glance. Ms. Atwood is something of a scholar of Puritanism, and she said every horrific episode in the story happened somewhere in history already, whether stonings or enslavement, reproductive restrictions or forbidding women to read.

Ms. Atwood, who was born in Canada, began writing the novel in -- appropriately -- 1984, in West Berlin. At the time, the Christian evangelical movement was finding common ground in the United States with anti-porn feminists, and the ethics of surrogacy were hotly debated. Contemporary audiences are likely to shrug at surrogacy and gravitate toward identity politics instead, and the series subtly updates its feminist bona fides. Pornography was the locus of Gilead’s anti-sex agenda in the book; in the series, the pious headmistress at the handmaid training center spits a mention of Tinder. There’s intersectionality, too, with Moira, a lesbian, played by a black actress, Ms. Wiley. (In the novel, minorities have been shipped to so-called homelands in the Midwest.) In the book’s flashbacks to the heroine’s college days, Moira is writing a paper on “date rape”; in the TV series, Offred’s composing a paper on “campus sexual assault.”

The tweak locates the story in the now, flicking at those who rail against collegiate feminist “snowflakes” with their “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” -- viewers are invited to recognize a new iteration of ’80s Moral Majority scorn.


Almost accidentally, the new “Handmaid’s Tale” enters the culture as its own kind of Offred-like resistance, pushing back against a reality that somehow got ahead of the show’s own imagination. On set in January, several people were wearing a uniform of sorts, as if enlisted: baseball hats that Ms. Moss had bought and distributed. Inscribed on them: Nolite te bastardes carbonrundorum.