The Handmaid's Tale isn't timely; it's timeless

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Jun 13, 2017

The finale of the first season of the Hulu original adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale is upon us.

The response to the series was overwhelming. Critics says it’s raised the bar for television drama. It's gripping, claustrophobic and intimate.

They've also said, over and over again, that it's "eerily timely." Unexpectedly apt for our times. Prescient.

To these critics I have a shocking idea to offer: The timing isn't eerie. None of this was unexpected. It isn’t prescience, but science.

Look around. The Handmaid’s Tale is an exaggeration of the world in which we live.

The structure of the show allows us criss-crossing timelines of comparison from June/Offred's point of view between the way things are, the way things were and how she got here. In each of these modes of examination, parallels between her world and ours are easy to draw. It's not a stretch; one can reach them in recent memory, in our own country.

When June/Offred recalls militarized police opening fire on a peaceful protest, it immediately recalls tanks and gunfire in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown. Kids go down on the pavement like Kent State.

Many viewers watched those scenes with the January 2017 Women's March fresh in their memory, layered on top of growing unrest and toxic cop culture that escalates, rather than protecting and serving.

When a group of handmaids in a re-education camp point their fingers and tell a woman recounting a gang-rape in her past, headlines come to mind. The girl raped behind a dumpster by a Stanford student who was at fault because she was drunk. Victim-blaming is rampant in our own world, whether to victims of sexual violence or young black men slain by police.

Whose fault was it, America? She had been drinking. He was a thug. Point your finger.

The series' most privileged women, the sterile wives of the commanders, outsource childbirth and nursing to a permanently disadvantaged underclass of women whom they denigrate and dehumanize. It immediately reminds us of the morally ambiguous arrangement struck between infertile American couples and deeply impoverished women in India and other nations, where surrogacy is unregulated and the surrogates have no legal protection.

The Handmaid's Tale shows us intersecting oppressions in its flashbacks and passing mentions. Moira, one of the cast’s few women of color, is among the first to realize that she and her friends are in real danger from the change in government regime. She loses her partner in what she passingly refers to as "one of the dyke purges."

Moments like this reflect our country's current "white feminism" problem, where women of color, lesbians and transwomen are often sidelined, ignored and sacrificed to the patriarchy in order to preserve white women's safety and feelings of supremacy.

Economic anxiety has lately been en vogue as an explanation for 45's victory in November, but is often applied only to white men who want coal mining and factory jobs to return to Appalachia. The Handmaid's Tale reminds us that economic anxiety is a real and ever-present issue for women, and how tenuous our economic power really is.

The show exaggerates our current economic anxiety by stripping women of their reproductive freedom and making it illegal for them to own property or have their own bank accounts, which are conditions the current generation has never faced.

Our grandmothers, however, did.

At the end of the third episode, there is a horrifying reveal that a secondary character, Emily/Ofglen, has been punished with a clitoridectomy for being a "gender traitor" (read: lesbian). This may seem far-fetched to many who are not familiar with the practice of female genital mutilation or the history of clitoridectomy as a means of controlling childhood masturbation in girls. This is not dystopian fiction; this is reality.

All the women on the show: wives, handmaids or domestic servants called "Marthas," must adhere to a strict dress code that enforces their role and status in society. This one is so ripe for comparison that the mind log-jams between the assertion from many American schoolgirls that dress codes are inherently sexist, applied on a sexist basis, and used to perpetuate rape culture ... and the constant obsession in every culture and every religion and in every age of human history with what women are wearing.

Each of these things is an example of something that is happening now, has happened before and will probably happen again. Atwood's novel of the same name was darkly prescient and eerily timely in 1985. It would have been daring, but apt, in 1955.

All of these issues are still problems that women deal with in 2017; we just happen to have an unabashed misogynist in the White House to make it seem worse than ever.

The Handmaid's Tale works in any age, because this is what fascism always looks like. It's not timely; it's timeless. Fascism always crushes the marginalized. It always wraps up nationalism with sexism and the safety of our children, tying it all up with a religious bow.

And it is always, always obsessed with bodies and sex, and controlling them at all costs.

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