The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of an America that woke up too late. "Now I'm awake to the world. I was asleep before,” protagonist Offred (Elizabeth Moss) explains in the the prescient new Hulu series, based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. "That's how we let it happen. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it."
The world she has come to in is Gilead, a version of the United States in which a fundamentalist Christian cult has come to power following environmental disaster, an infertility pandemic, and — allegedly — a deadly terrorist attack on Washington D.C.. While Offred’s line is lifted from a book written over 30 years ago, that surreal realization — the dreadful feeling of opening your eyes to a disturbing reality you should have seen coming — will be familiar to anyone who woke up on November 9, 2016, shocked and gutted at what we let happen. That’s why The Handmaid’s Tale is the most viscerally terrifying and most vitally important show of the Trump era: It speaks to the same hollow place of despair and disbelief — the pang of being betrayed by our government, by our men, by each other — that pains us now.
The authoritarian regime Offred lives in has regressed society to a simple, puritanical lifestyle, organized around a patriarchal power structure that divides women into a caste system based on their utility to society. Fertile women are breeding stock (the Handmaids), assigned to a well-off man (a Commander) and his barren partner (a Wife). Everyone else is either a domestic servant (a Martha), a militant enforcer of the system (an Aunt) or an "abomination" forced to work to death in the region known as the Colonies (an Unwoman), or punished for "the sin" of being LGBTQ (a Gender Traitor).
Women are not allowed to read, or speak freely. Handmaids, like Offred, are raped by their masters in a monthly ritual that begins with a Bible reading. The Wife holds the Handmaid in her lap as the husband thrusts into the Handmaid, who lies there limp as a rag doll. It’s what you might call female torture porn and it’s as sickening to watch as it sounds.
But The Handmaid’s Tale exacts a slower form of intellectual torment on its viewer, and it’s equal parts enthralling and excruciating. It’s the searing precision with which The Handmaid’s Tale reveals how America got there: How a democratic republic could devolve into an authoritarian regime, spurred by the fear, paranoia, and panic following mass tragedies. It gradually unfurls the path, backwards, from the tyranny of Gilead to the present-day U.S., revealing in flashbacks the incremental stripping back of women’s rights (and the protests against it that look eerily like footage from the Women’s Marches this January).
Although the book was published over three decades ago, the patriarchal hell of Gilead takes the strands of terrifying threats in our present-day — the curtailing of abortion rights, the institutionalization of misogyny, the rape culture of victim-blaming, the fear and paranoia a far-out leader can sow amidst chaos, the suspension of our country’s values in desperate times — and pulls them all the way through to their unnatural conclusion, creating a horrific shroud of sexism and totalitarianism that we can’t help but recognize patterns in.
We currently live in a country where over half of white women voted for a man who, according to reams of firsthand accounts (including his own), has routinely treated women like pieces of meat; been accused of sexual assault by over a dozen women; and implied a journalist was on her period because he didn’t like her line of questioning. We also have a vice president who won’t dine alone with women and supports government funding of the barbaric practice of gay conversion therapy. We witness groups of all-male lawmakers debate the fate of women’s health care and fail to pass laws protecting rape survivors from having to share child custody with their attacker. We force women to go back to work days after giving birth, still stitched up and bleeding, because the U.S. is the only developed country without a paid maternity leave policy in place. We have a Congress passing bills that pave the way for outlawing abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. And then we punish rape survivors with exorbitant medical bills or blame them for their own rapes because they were dressed too slutty, drank too much, or didn't scream loud enough.
Of course, we will always have our Constitution to protect our most basic liberties. But will we? In The Handmaid's Tale, we learn that what was supposed to be only a temporary suspension of the Constitution after the terrorist attack preceded the stripping of women's rights. The fact is that we have already proven susceptible to the "desperate times call for desperate measures" siren call of authoritarian action. Our president continues to try to pass an immigration order that is the very definition of the religious discrimination outlawed by our Constitution in the name of national security. So tell me, is it actually so wild to conceive of a future in which we might temporarily curtail women’s reproductive rights in the face of a population crisis, all in the name of the greater good?
This is the horrific brilliance of The Handmaid's Tale. It’s not only the bleak future it presents that is so scary. It’s the road map it unveils of how we would get there, the unveiling of a path much shorter and more direct than you might have imagined.