GRIM TIMES IN GILEAD
Hulu’s new series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a disquieting depiction of the devaluation of women
Published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a bleak fictional account of modern-day life in a theocratic dystopia. In it, the nation of Gilead is the former United States of America.
Catastrophe (terrorists have destroyed Congress and the presidency, and toxic waste has greatly reduced the fertility rate among women) has given rise to a new order — one in which women capable of bearing children are property. Practically anyone else is sent on a one-way trip to “the colonies.”
As in both Ms. Atwood’s novel and a rich new series debuting Wednesday on Hulu, our guide into this strange new land is Offred (played with steely resolve by “Mad Men’s” Elisabeth Moss). Once upon a time, she was a wife and working mother. And she had another name: June.
When the book was published, what Ms. Atwood prefers to call “speculative fiction” was could-be fantasy. Yes, these things could happen some day but probably not; after all, women’s rights in America had never been stronger.
“I think novelists are great forecasters. They can see around corners the rest of us can’t,” said associate professor Kathy M. Newman, whose class studied “The Handmaid’s Tale” in her Banned Books class at Carnegie Mellon University this past term.
“Atwood was sensitive to a movement that had its beginnings in the 1980s, and it has now come to fruition,” Ms. Newman said.
Fast-forward to 2017. A male-dominated conservative Congress is proposing cuts to women’s health programs, particularly as they pertain to birth control and abortion. A U.S. president defends his past unsavory behaviors toward women.
Ms. Newman’s class finished reading the book a week before the general election, when most polls predicted a woman would be the next president. It met the day after.
“It was a really emotional class. A lot of the students in my class are immigrants, one is transgender, a few are gay.”
Women’s marches around the world in January made references to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and last month, members of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes attended a state senate meeting to protest several anti-abortion bills. They were dressed in the garb of Handmaids, complete with red capes and stiff white bonnets.
The novel — as well as George Orwell’s “1984” and Sinclair Lewis’ “It Couldn’t Happen Here” — became big sellers on Amazon.com this past winter.
“I think most media consumers are pretty sophisticated. They see the political significance in ‘The Walking Dead’ and shows like ‘Homeland,’” Ms. Newman said. “I think everybody gets that this has new relevance now because we are living this reality.”
For women in the Handmaids’ world,