The Handmaid’s Tale seems to be everywhere at the moment: its on the bookshelves – as the sales of dystopia novels reach record highs; its on the TV with the recent hit show of the same name on America’s Hulu; and its in the click bait on your Facebook newsfeed, dominating every political conversation that remotely touches the political position of women. As someone from the UK I am not yet able to watch the new television drama sensation – Hulu doesn’t cater to the UK *sob* – yet the recent popularity of the story of The Handmaid’s Tale seems to have engulfed so much of social media and current political conversation that watching the actual show or even reading the book seems almost incidental to getting involved with the current craze.
The novel and TV show follow the horrifying tale of Offred, one of the few fertile women left in the wake of a nuclear war who is forced to become a “handmaid”: one of many women who become the property of men and their barren wives and are forced to engage in a ritualistic form of rape so that they might bare children. Despite having a premise that would seem to defy mainstream televisation, the recent show has drummed up huge popularity for what was once a bit of a geeky novel, half-remembered by people from their English Lit A-level or undergrad days at university. Now the liberal arts course favourite has become not only a mainstream popular culture craze, but has come to define the political moment of the Trump administration, as women donned white bonnets and bright red capes during the recent Women’s Marches. The show has elevated the novel’s narrative from dystopian literary classic to an icon of a specific type of popular feminist politics where any action by a man in power that involves women’s issues can be interpreted as a malevolent and considered attempt to oppress women.
The widely shared meme showing a picture of President Trump surrounded by a white male congress signing a bill to limit the funding available to charities overseas with the much tweeted caption “men making decisions about women’s bodies”, began the recent hysteria over the precarious nature of women’s rights in the US. To clarify, the bill limits the conditions under which funding is available to charities so that said charities which receive funding are not allowed to offer abortion aid or advice. Now, holding charities to ransom in this way is an appalling practice, however making the leap from government withholding funding from certain overseas organisations to “women’s rights are being taken away – THE DYSTOPIA IS COMING!” Is a ridiculous and even dangerous one to make.
Yes, it is true that congress is largely male, and the president is male – this has been true for hundreds of years and its not a great situation but its nothing new. Also, the bill in question has been bandied around by both republicans and democrats for some time – so this is not like some huge new measure brought in by the trump administration. It’s become almost a truism now for bloggers and columnists to describe The Handmaid’s Tale using phrases like “frighteningly relevant” or “eerily similar to our own times”. While the position of women in the west is far from perfect it is hardly similar to the world depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale where women are raped en mass and prevented from reading and writing. However, what is most worrying is not so much the trend of deliberately misrepresenting news (and forgetting everything that happened before Facebook and twitter existed) in order to further a specific political agenda, is the way in which Margaret Atwood’s own work has been hijacked along with the TV show.
In a recent Jezebel blog post, Anna Merlan wrote about how the drama is problematic because of the production team and casts refusal to associate itself with the word feminism.
“To insist that the goddamn Handmaid’s Tale has no special relevance for women is, of course, intentionally obtuse in a way that suggests that the people shaping the show’s marketing campaign are worried. http://themuse.jezebel.com/isnt-it-relevant-that-the-star-of-the-handmaids-tale-be-1794667562”
In the current climate where popular mainstream feminism amounts to microaggressions, twitter SJ wars and moaning about protein shake adverts then who can blame them for not wanting to distance themselves from all that childish rubbish? Nevertheless, this sort of feminism has taken hold in the university campus and spread out to the rest of the milleniel generation and beyond. What’s most frustrating about this particular article, but also eye-opening, is the way in which (in the long tradition of feminist in-group fighting) everyone associated with the fiction of The Handmaid’s Tale is basically being described as doing feminism wrong. Not only is the TV, the cast and the marketing team behind the programme betraying the cause so is the author of the original novel on which the show was based no less!
“Disappointingly, even Margaret Atwood herself gave the NYT a terrible answer that fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the term ‘feminism.'”
It would seem that the only people who really understand the term and are enlightened enough to use it CORRECTLY are not the authors of ground breaking novels about women’s rights, but rather those who appropriate the themes and messages of those novels to further their own cultural and political aims. The story of The Handmaid’s Tale unfortunately no longer belongs to the artists involved in the creation of ‘texts’ associated with its narrative but rather is has been claimed as the intellectual property of the wider feminist rabble. Interestingly, Atwood herself never entirely distanced herself from the word feminism but rather was very clear about the specific type or definition of feminism she felt applied to her:
“When you say ‘feminist’ do you mean: Should women have the same rights as other human beings? Then, yes. But what else do we mean by that term? Do we mean women are angelically more perfect than men? Well, no. Women are human beings. That can be a plus or a minus.”
This is the real problem with the term ‘feminism’: it can mean almost anything, like so many similar ‘isms’ it is a highly vague term used to talk about something that is incredibly complex. An idea that should be treated with the utmost care and nuance is reduced to a single word which can be hijacked by the populist masses with ease. Feminism is not a complex political ideology anymore, its a buzzword for a growing cultural tide that now has as its mascot and poster child the perfect sensationalist image: a downtrodden woman in a heavy blood-red robe.