By Hannah Sole | Think Pieces | February 16, 2017 |
By Hannah Sole | Think Pieces | February 16, 2017 |
Confession: I bloody love Margaret Atwood. She’s given me nightmares over the years (pigoons, anyone?) but that’s a natural result of her particular brand of speculative fiction. After my first reading of The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ll admit it, I saw ghosts of Gilead everywhere. I’m not the first reader (and certainly won’t be the last) to see a headline and get that sick feeling in my stomach, that “it’s coming true” panic.
But then as the years went on, Oryx and Crake started to seem more plausible. We had moved on, surely, from the terrifying potential rise of the Christian Right, and those darned pigoons replaced Aunt Lydia and the Eyes in my nightmares.
When I’m wrong, I’ll say I’m wrong.
In October 2016, I taught The Handmaid’s Tale again for the first time in a decade, and it did not take long for that sick feeling to come back, with a vengeance. The run up to the election was full of Gileadisms: Trump thought women who had abortions should be punished; his running mate was renowned for signing the most abortion-restrictive regulations in the nation — and Ted Cruz had gone even further in his earlier campaign.
The anti-Hillary backlash didn’t exclusively arise from misogyny, but it was there, plain to see. She wasn’t a ‘nasty person’, no, she was a ‘nasty woman,’ as if her nastiness and her gender were inextricably connected. Trump’s groping boasts were dismissed as ‘locker-room talk,’ while Clinton was nicknamed ‘Killary’. (Was Bill nicknamed ‘Kill’? No?)
When the Trumps appeared at the Inauguration, there was Melania, decked out in Serena Joy blue, standing next to her husband, the Commander (in-chief).
Just hours after women marched in cities across the world, waving their ‘Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again’ placards, we saw the return of the Global Gag rule. Then came a succession of proposals from individual states:
Texas lawmaker: Jailing women for abortion will make them ‘more personally responsible’ about sex https://t.co/lMlOyb7SnT— Eric W. Dolan (@EWDolan) January 24, 2017
GOP supervillainy, cont.: TN bill proposes to classify children born via artificial insemination as "illegitimate." https://t.co/0SKWnqQ9Dm— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) February 12, 2017
Arkansas just passed a law that will let rapists sue victims who want an abortion https://t.co/FnYvDEIRUw— The Independent (@Independent) February 3, 2017
These would be hilariously bonkers if they weren’t so horrifying. You couldn’t make this up.
We are deep in Gilead territory here. And that’s before we start looking at the rise of xenophobia, racism and religious intolerance, and the punishment of homosexuality, which are also key aspects of Atwood’s novel. Suddenly, Atwood seemed like a prophet.
And that’s the thing with speculative fiction - its nightmarish potential is rooted in its plausibility. For a credible dystopia to exist in literature and on screen, it must be sufficiently recognizable- both familiar and unfamiliar.
Tell them I put no detail into it that has not happened somewhere, sometime (incl. the banning of reading) Shock is that it's set in the USA https://t.co/ZCixf186yj— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) December 4, 2016
Gilead’s plausibility is thus proven — its features and policies are based on things that have already happened — there is a precedent for Gilead. Like George Orwell, Atwood looks both at the past and the future, and creates a brutal, oppressive world that seems merely a couple of global catastrophes away.
Interestingly, Aldous Huxley never totally bought in to Orwell’s vision of a ‘boot-on-the-face’ regime; for him, there could be no total state control without there being something in it for the majority of people. And therein lies some hope. (Not a great deal, granted, but let’s take what we can). In a letter to Orwell, Huxley wrote:
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large-scale biological and atomic war —- in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
For Huxley, the most powerful weapons were brainwashing and drugs, both designed to keep people happy, or under the illusion of happiness - getting people to love their servitude. We can see this idea in The Hunger Games: Panem itself is named after the Roman idea of ‘bread and circuses’, all that is needed to keep the populace happy and under control.
Conditioning is right there in The Handmaid’s Tale, with the brainwashing of the handmaids by the Aunts. The fearsome Aunt Lydia (who in my imagination is some sort of grotesque cross between Miss Trunchbull and Dolores Umbridge) likes to spout conditioning catchphrases, like “ordinary is what you are used to”, as well as preaching lessons to the women, such as the difference between “freedom to and freedom from”. Aunt Lydia also admits that “it is the hardest” for the “transitional generation”; future generations will be born into this way of life and will accept it as “ordinary”. But no-one is happy in Gilead; even the architects of the regime are trapped in a prison of their own making. “Better never means better for everyone”, says the Commander. “It always means worse for some.” In the novel, it doesn’t actually appear to be better for anyone. Is this a fundamental weakness in Gilead?
I promised some hope, and here it is: if ordinary is what we are used to, let’s not get used to it. It is exhausting fighting back all the time, I know, but we need to hold the line. ‘Freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ are not mutually exclusive. Let’s not sacrifice our rights for our safety; let’s demand both. And let’s not give up. Let’s make sure that the party line isn’t the only source of information out there. Let’s be the voice that keeps shouting from the rooftops. Let’s keep shining a light on the ridiculous, the irrational, and the oppressive. Let’s refuse to let this become normal. The fact that Atwood’s novel is back on the bestseller list shows us that we are not alone.
When The Handmaid’s Tale hits our screens in the spring, it might give us nightmares again. It might feel too close for comfort. But it will remind us of the need to keep resisting.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down.