As only she can, Helen Razer gave Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a real shellacking this week. Atwood and her Handmaid copped it from all sides – the book, and presumably the TV adaptation, represent the failure of liberals to understand the rise of Trump and everything that is wrong with America.
Razer has a point. Margaret Atwood did not predict the rise of Donald Trump. She is not a clairvoyant. The book is not a “forecast” of the future. At times, The Handmaid’s Tale is unsubtle, and the TV adaptation will probably be worse. The way the book and the TV series are being uncritically hailed as a harbinger of the near future is really annoying.
This doesn’t mean, though, that the book is utterly pointless, as Razer suggests, or even that it doesn’t have any interesting – and accurate – reflections on the history of the United States and the liberal order.
Atwood’s point is not that the worst thing could happen is that America ceases to be “great,” but that it wasn’t so in the first place.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the not too distant future, in a dystopian United States taken over by religious puritans in a violent coup. Women are brutally oppressed, forced into sexual slavery: breeders for rich, white men and their wives. The book follows Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss, pictured below, in the new screen version), a formerly middle class, educated woman who has lost her husband and child, and her struggle to escape her sometimes benevolent master.
In Atwood’s dystopia, extremists take over Congress at gunpoint and suspend the Constitution. That, Razer suggests, is the most horrifying predictor of the future for American liberals – that a group of powerful elites might not respect a piece of paper. Perhaps unintentionally, though, the book also makes the opposite point: that the Constitution is just that – a piece of paper.
In Atwood’s world, liberal elites and the educated middle class failed to anticipate that the flimsy structures of American democracy would not always protect them. They failed to understand what the powerless have always understood: the Constitution of the United States, already a flawed document written almost entirely in the interests of rich, white men, is easily rendered meaningless. In the book, Atwood suggests that the fictional Americans in her story should have seen it coming – just like real Americans shouldn’t have written off Trump with such derision.
Atwood’s point is not that the worst thing could happen is that America ceases to be “great,” but that it wasn’t so in the first place. Offred’s United States is not exceptional. It is in fact just like those many countries it has coerced into pro-American authoritarianism in Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. It seems only logical that those who favoured right-leaning dictatorships in other places for so long would eventually turn to the same system themselves.
While Razer is probably right in pointing out that Atwood herself demonstrates a “faith in liberalism,” the book doesn’t necessarily do the same. Maybe it was unintentional, but at times The Handmaid’s Tale does the exact opposite. In Offred’s world, the country that has long refused to recognise the realities of class and put its faith instead in the fiction of individualism and the American Dream, class divisions have finally been identified and codified. Divisions have shifted slightly, yes, but class is now clear and openly acknowledged. The rich and the powerful keep slaves and servants who are recognised by their dress and their titles. They are kept in place by violence. This picture is “unsettling” because it is already real for so many Americans. That the story focuses on the middle and upper classes doesn’t invalidate the point.
The book surely alludes to the point that white, upper and middle class liberal women fail to understand structural oppression.
In the book, this change appears on the surface to have happened rapidly, which Razer suggests is ahistorical. Atwood’s methods are certainly questionable, but it’s worth noting that her sources are historical. And if the book is even remotely based on the reality of the American political system, which I think it is, the preconditions required for such a radical event were already in place. Power was seized by a small group of extremists – of which there are many, in many different flavours already in positions of power in the United States – because those radicals were already close to the centre. Razer is right to argue that history unfolds within particular structures and that violence exists within systems. Atwood makes the same point – the United States was subject to a violent seizure of power because it is already a system based on violence.
That violence, in both the book and in reality, is often directed at women. Razer suggests that this is representative of the book’s celebration of liberal feminism. But The Handmaid’s Tale could be interpreted as doing the opposite. The book surely alludes to the point of second-wave feminism: that white, upper and middle class liberal women’s failure to understand structural oppression, and their obsession with symbol, individualism and “calling out” that Razer so rightly detests, offers no prescription for women without power or privilege.
In Atwood’s dystopia, women like Offred learn this lesson in brutal fashion. In the book, at least, Offred passively watches things happen around her. She has no control over her own body. She has no money. She leads a life, in short, already familiar to millions of American women. Women who have no access to reproductive health care, education, employment, or physical safety, mostly as a result of their class or race (or both). Lives that white American liberal women, thanks in part to the current domination of the Republican Party (following decades of neglect by the Democrats) are now being forced to consider in ways they haven’t before.
Many Americans accept as a normal state of affairs that corporations and governments will literally poison the working class with impunity.
Part of the reason Offred and the other handmaids have been forced into this sexual slavery is because of an environmental crisis, a common theme in many of Atwood’s dystopian stories. They are forced to breed because babies are so hard to come by – something that terrifies the powerful. They know they can’t perpetuate their power with, in the words of one current (actual) Congressman, “someone else’s babies“.
In Atwood’s world, white, rich American women can’t conceive because theirs and their partners’ bodies are so riddled with poisons. Those babies that are born are often deformed or dead within days. This is already the daily reality for a great deal of the Third World, as Razer points out – not least because of the actions of the United States. Environmental degradation affects the poor and powerless – overwhelmingly women and children of the Third World – first and worst.
But within the United States as well, a similar picture has long been emerging. In Flint, Michigan, the drinking water is poisoned by lead, and nothing is being done about it. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Flint is overwhelming black and working class. This is accepted by many Americans as a normal state of affairs; corporations and governments will literally poison the working class with impunity.
In Atwood’s dystopias, just like in the real United States, the wealthy and powerful have protected themselves from the worst effects of environmental degradation. In The Handmaid, like in Atwood’s more explicitly environmentally focused series MaddAddam, those who hold the power isolate themselves from the worst of these effects, which they deliberately inflict on the poor. But, as Atwood points out, maintaining this isolation on a finite planet will get increasingly difficult. The rich get their food, as it were, from the same poisoned dirt. Climate change will mess up everything, eventually – and if the current Presidential administration has anything to do with it, sooner rather than later.
More recently, like many of her liberal feminist peers, Atwood has certainly been irritatingly self-congratulatory. But sometimes stories take on a life of their own and make points they didn’t intend to. The Handmaid’s Tale might purport to tell the story of a radical break with the past, but it actually suggests one possible, not illogical, continuation of it. Razer dismisses the ‘”this could really happen here” claptrap’. My question is, though, hasn’t some of it happened already?
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