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Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist classic may be fiction, but as our 40-year-old writer revisits the story in the Trump era, she wonders whether it will become our reality.
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“I know this must feel very strange. But ordinary is just what you are used to. This may not feel ordinary now, but after a time it will. This will become ordinary.” – Aunt Lydia, The Handmaid’s Tale
I was 12 years old when I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. At the age of 10 I had started sneaking into my mother’s book stash when she wasn’t home, devouring Steven King, V.C. Andrews, Dean R. Koontz, and Danielle Steel. I’d run out of nearly everything on her shelf when I found it, and discovered fiction unlike anything I had ever read before. Much of it went over my head—I hadn’t even had a period yet, how could I even begin to comprehend a world of women valued only for their fertility, categorized by their ability to give birth, their relation to powerful men, their usefulness in keeping other women in line? But even as a preteen I understood that what I read was horror-inducing. It may have been my first awakenings as a feminist.
I was 17 the second time I read her book. By this point I had become immersed in the world of Atwood—Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, her short stories, poems, anything I could find. For our senior year A.P. lit class we dissected the novel as only a group of budding high-school literary critics can. My friends and created an official flag for Offred’s dystopian country Gilead by sponge-painting a bed sheet with the outline of us laying like handmaidens during the “Ceremony.” The night before it was due, my best friend’s dog peed on it, which we thought made it even more appropriate. Marriage, children, jobs were all still years down the road. With real life still so far away how can a fantasy ever feel like a possible future?
I am now 40 years old, and I just watched the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, and no, we aren’t really on the verge of living in a world of religious police and surrogates stolen from their families and offered to the rich and powerful to produce their living heirs. But the clearest message from the story so far is how no one in the United States truly believed that they were on the verge of such an occurrence, either. The introductory episodes are filled with flashbacks to a life before the religious right took over the country—a life that looks exactly like the one outside our window, or would if you had fundamentalists praying outside hospitals for live births instead of at abortion clinics for “saves.”
“When they slaughtered Congress we didn’t wake up,” explains Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in a voiceover in episode three. “When they blamed terrorists, and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously.”
Maybe nothing does change instantaneously, but there is always a tipping point. When Offred tries to buy a cup of coffee and not only finds she has been cut off from her bank account, but that the male clerk feels justified in vocally berating her and calling her a slut, when she just hours later learns she no longer has a job because a new law says women cannot work, even then women and their allies fall back on their old standard for protesting unfair treatment. “We’re pulling together a march Thursday morning,” says Moira (Samira Wiley).
That march begins like every demonstration, and except for the lack of pink hats could have been a January 21st rally. But by the end it is clear that this is no longer America. By the end everyone has finally woken up.
I’m coming into The Handmaid’s Tale with entirely new eyes this time around. I have married and given birth. Now I understand the all encompassing emotion of a mother’s love and what it would feel like to have a child stripped from you against your will. I have seen the pain of those who have tried to conceive and been unsuccessful. I have walked with those who believe that birth is every woman’s calling and that to refuse a pregnancy is to deny your body what it was born to do. I know the people who say there is no law without God, and no greater role for woman than wife and mother, and I’ve seen them move higher and higher into the government.
In each of my encounters with The Handmaid’s Tale the story has become even more real. Now, I’m desperately hoping that this is as close to real as it ever becomes. Hopefully our America, unlike the America of Atwood, does finally wake up before it is too late.
Robin Marty will be covering each new episode of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu as they’re released. Join us again soon for more coverage.
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