The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu is a horror story.
It’s a world where a class of women are reduced to walking wombs with no right to their bodies or any babies that come out of them. Extreme violence and the looming threat thereof is everywhere. One of the main characters has lost an eye because she didn’t submit quickly enough. A cattle prod is used often. And everyone’s afraid of being sent to the camps where you’re worked to death.
Part of what makes the extreme violence so frightening is the way it’s normalized in this world—people have adjusted to the ever-present repression. In one of many unforgettable moments, the show’s star Elizabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men) and three other handmaids sit with their backs to a giant wall calmly chatting while, just feet away, three men’s bodies dangle at the end of long ropes.
But if that sort of violence were ubiquitous, at some point would it not cease to shock? And God, isn’t that a scary place for a society to reach? Of course, these are women who must submit to periodic ritualized rapes, so they know all about violence and trauma and trying to just survive.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the near future, but it looks like a mash-up between modern military weapons, 20th-century European totalitarianism, and 17th-century Puritanical mores and clothes.
You wonder, “How did they get there, to this horrific place in history?” and the answer is bone chilling: There was a terrorist attack, Congress was slaughtered, and in the interest of protecting the people, the Constitution was suspended. As each of these events happened, “we didn’t wake up,” says Offred, the central character played by Moss. Even more insidiously, some doubt that there ever was a terrorist attack.
That could happen to us. We could suffer a terrorist attack that leads the White House to declare some sort of martial law for our protection. And if the attack is shocking enough, we will accept that. If they’re smart enough, they could turn that into a long-term advantage.
The Bush administration used the threat of terror to fundamentally change American society and give our government far greater powers to watch over us and listen to our conversations. And most Americans feel like that loss of privacy is an acceptable sacrifice in order to keep us safe. Obama expanded the drone program far beyond what most progressives are comfortable with, but it’s for our protection so we accepted it.
What if this White House used a future terrorist attack as a pretext to take even more power for itself? It’s plausible. Citizens in fear for their lives will give their leaders the freedom to take away their freedom. Citizens in fear for their lives can be made to do almost anything. Trump could use that fear and his growing power to try to rapidly and forcefully deport millions, build multiple garish walls, block anyone from entering the country, or repress whoever he decides to paint as the villain. Would we be able to resist if we were racked with fear?
We have seen the best side of America rise up in the last few months. People are repudiating Trump and Trumpism in massive rallies and lots of protests and they’re calling elected officials and engaging with the political system like never before. But who would we be after another massive attack? It’s hard to say. Would we say Americans should put aside their differences while the nation is at war and let Trump snatch untold power for himself?
When there is violence happening all around you at what point do you start to stay quiet because you’re thinking, thank God it’s not me. In another unforgettable moment, Offred witnesses a man being snatched off the street by government agents and thrown in a van. She watches while saying nothing, afraid to even be seen noticing.
How easily we all could be put in that position, so afraid for ourselves that we no longer feel we can fight for others. And once we are at that point, the power structure is free to do anything it wants. It’s easy to say I would never submit, but if you were put in Offred’s position, would you really be different? Would you have the courage to fight back at the risk of severe disfigurement or a horrible death?
Offred is not the central character because she’s extraordinary—she’s like any of us, and she submits to this horrific way of life because she’s human. Most of us would respond just the way she does. And how scary is that?
The Handmaid’s Tale also unearths another horrifying truth about our era. This is not a story about life under Trump—it was written in 1985 (in part as a response to Reagan). But Trump’s impact is so large and so pervasive that he infects everything. When we can no longer watch the Super Bowl without having Trump play a role, how we feel about the game then what chance does pop culture have?
The Handmaid’s Tale is not meant to be about life under Trump, but at this moment in history it’s hard to see it another way. It is, by far, the best new TV show of 2017, a triumph of writing, acting, and cinematography, a brilliant addition to this golden age of TV and it would have been all of that if Clinton had won, but it would have been received differently.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a survivor’s story. Offred’s real name is June and she is submitting not because she is weak, but because she is strong and she intends to survive.
But the rise of Trump makes it harder to see it that way. Trump is bleeding all over pop culture, recontextualizing shows that wrapped filming before he was even elected. More than Offred’s strength, you see the power of the repression. You wonder how the people allowed this to happen—you think of what you would do.
The new soul-crushing government looms larger than Offred’s survivor’s tale. It makes the question of whether we are heading toward our own dystopia ring louder in our mind’s ear. While we watched The Handmaid’s Tale, my wife said, “See, this is why I want to move.” To another country she meant. As if we were watching the news.