On a recent Monday, more than two dozen women braved the drizzling rain to gather in a luxe penthouse, with the goal of discussing dystopian fiction. The meet up took place at The Wing — the cool girl social club and workspace that launched last year in Manhattan, where members pay $225 a month for perks that include a conference room, on-demand blowouts, fancy mouthwash, and the occasional catered literary salon.
Their novel du jour: The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's iconic book about a totalitarian theocracy that overtakes the United States. The story has been in some state of heyday since it debuted in 1985; but in 2017, the renewed resonance is twofold.
First, because it's been turned into a big ticket series for Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a woman forced into sexual subjugation by the regime; second, because Republicans seem to be taking inspiration from the novel and applying it to their social policies. If Hulu actually does wind up with a hit on its hands, the streaming platform may owe thanks to men like Donald Trump, Rep. Tom Cotton, and Rep. Justin Humphrey (who recently referred to pregnant women as "hosts") for scaring people into watching the show.
That fact was not lost on the women of The Wing, many of whom said that they reached for their copy of Atwood's book in the weeks after the election; over canapés and wine, they admitted to being afraid of how life seemed to be imitating this particular work of art.
Margaret Atwood, who was beamed in on a big screen, with a prerecorded Q&A segment, mirrored those concerns. "People have a nostalgia for what they think of as the good old days," she explained to the camera. “Some people think they would like to move back to those good old days, without knowing — or possibly caring — what those days were actually like, and why people wanted to change those situations in the first place.” A woman across the room finished her glass of wine in a gulp and then checked her phone. Another leaned over to her neighbour and audibly whispered the words "fifty-three percent."
After Atwood wrapped, more snacks were piled on chic, eco-friendly plates and the club settled back in to dissect the themes of the novel through the lens of Trump's America. “It’s really interesting, reading this book now, when people are exploiting the language of supporting women, and using that language to support oppression,” said a woman, second row from the front.
“I don’t want to say Ivanka Trump...” she added, though she obviously did want to say Ivanka Trump. The room tittered, and here's what no one said: In an alternate universe, where Hillary Clinton was the 45th president, Ivanka might have been a Wing woman herself. Maybe not the kind of member who comes to book club, but certainly one who could get down with the wash of millennial pink decor. Talking about the first daughter segued into talking about "anti-feminist feminists" in general. (This time nobody said it, but to would be a solid bet to assume the subtext turned to Kellyanne Conway.) “Some women are masochists. Some are doing it to save themselves,” a woman in a black leather jacket called out from the back row, referring to both the book and real life.
"How do we get men to read this book?" was another question that surfaced, during a brief foray into the subject of toxic masculinity. The women of pondered the problem without conclusion; a few suggested that they might demand their partners to watch the show alongside them. Short of inviting them to a women only reading club, that seemed like a reasonable solution.
Nearly two hours after it began, book club started wound down. Party swag, co-branded by Hulu and The Wing, were distributed: a box of matches emblazoned with a line from the book, “The world is full of weapons if you’re looking for them”; a signed copy of the novel; as well as a key chain featuring another famous Handmaid’s Tale motto, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” (A note for purist fans: The phrase was written in English, not Latin.)
As the women drifted toward the elevators, some discussed gathering around the television here to watch the new series. One thing that some seem to have realised over the course of the evening was this: Reading the book alone is one thing, but watching it come to three-dimensional life breeds a new level of anxiety. Viewing party details unconfirmed, they agreed to follow up and stepped into the rainy night.
The first series of The Handmaid's Tale is shown on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.