The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, is not an unfamiliar premise: a dystopian society set in the near future. As in George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood imagined a future in which people are repressed by their government. What sets The Handmaid’s Tale apart from other such dystopian classics--in which people willingly submit to their oppressors--the majority of Atwood’s characters want no part of their society.
I think it’s the characters’ obedience that makes it easy to think of dystopian novels as unrealistic. No one likes to think that they would be complacent to any authoritarian regime, and it’s hard to imagine how one would come to power (although, as Black Mirror has shown, it’s not as farfetched as we want to believe). But Atwood’s novel stands apart from other dystopian stories in that it both confronts and subverts this skepticism--and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale brings those eerie qualities to life.
The main characters are played by recognizable women: Elizabeth Moss played Peggy in Mad Men, Samira Wiley was Poussey in Orange Is the New Black, and Alexis Bledel of Gilmore Girls has a supporting role on screen. These familiar faces make the “near-future” setting ever more unsettling. We can imagine The Handmaid’s Tale to be our world.
Image source: Hulu
There are references that root the story in our reality more thoroughly than any of the show’s literary predecessors. When the Handmaids are lectured on the vices of the old world, there are references to Tinder, ISIS, Uber, and a flashback to a college party. What’s more, the PowerPoint on screen shows that women’s infertility became a crucial issue in 2015. It’s in this way that time becomes eerie. We cannot distance ourselves from the show’s dystopian imagination of an alternate reality as we could with the most famous dystopian novels.
Image source: Hulu
Atwood’s novel responded to Reagan Republicanism, which arose at a time in which the White House administration sought to cut funding to health care and child care, implemented repressive policies on abortion and contraception, and aligned with the religious right. In 2017, though Reagan is long gone, the feminist issues underlining Atwood’s novel seem more prevalent than ever. Republicans today continue to push for the privatization of resources that support child-bearing.
Though George Orwell predicted the surveillance state we live in (we have him to thank for the quote “Big Brother is Watching You”), there’s something outdated and almost comical about the idea that access to information would ever be so stringently regulated. In the United States, we have unlimited access to a multitude of news sources, accounts by real people on Twitter, and thousands of bloggers, all accessible via the phones we carry with us every day. But the small details rooting The Handmaid’s Tale in our reality remind us that this kind of future is possible, and its lack of melodrama forces us to take it seriously: the mention of the “morning-after pill” as a sinful relic of the old world is spot-on, showing us how easily certain rights and resources relied upon by women could be construed as agents of evil in the event that a right-wing religious group takes power. The Handmaid’s Tale is as much a political warning as it is science fiction.
Unlike the tendency of most dystopian sagas to throw themselves headlong into an unspecified future, Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has stepped just one foot outside our reality--and, for that reason, its depiction of a dystopian tomorrow is all the more unsettling.