This week, surprising no one familiar with the series, The Handmaid’s Tale won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, collecting home a total of eight trophies, five of which were Emmy Awards —— tying HBO’s “Big Little Lies” for the most wins of the year.
What has made this series so successful, besides its huge talent pool and high quality, is its timing.
In many ways, the timing of this screen adaptation of award-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood‘s 1985 dystopic novel could hardly be apter. An environmental catastrophe and a pandemic of sexually transmitted disease render much of the population infertile. In America, a fanatical ultra-right-wing Christian cabal grabs power in a military coup after terrorists murder the president, the cabinet, and the entire Congress. The military says the murderers are Islamic fundamentalists, but many believe the military themselves carried out the massacres to justify the coup and the newly imposed order.
That new order means martial law, extra-judicial killings of nonbelievers, homosexuals, and dissidents – indeed, anyone perceived as decadent or a threat. Every day, the hooded bodies of the newly executed hang from hooks on city walls. All women, apart from the wives of the top rulers, are stripped of rights, barred from education and forbidden to read or write. Younger fertile ones are forced to become surrogate mothers – the handmaids of the film’s title – for childless elite couples and forced to have ritualized sex with the husbands in order to propagate the species. These handmaids and other young women are also used in special clubs – in reality, secret brothels – where they must entertain the regime’s high officials and visiting trade delegates. As in the book, the TV series is narrated through the eyes of one of the handmaids.
The response of Western governments today to Islamic terrorism cannot be compared to the totalitarian regime imposed by the military in The Handmaid’s Tale, yet viewers are bound to draw parallels. After a series of terrorist attacks in France, for example, the government declared a state of emergency that suspends certain fundamental rights of citizens and empowers the police to enter homes without a court warrant. In the US, the government wants to block immigration from some predominantly Muslim, countries, and Britain’s main reason for leaving the European Union is to take back control of its borders.
The world depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale is pure fiction, yet the series asks the viewer this question: is it inconceivable that a powerful, fanatical elite in some western country could use extreme circumstances to justify withdrawing citizens’ constitutional rights and establishing a quasi-totalitarian regime? History suggests that it is not. Even in now-liberal Western Europ, such things happened before. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, and all the post-Soviet Union countries had some form of fascist regime for a period in the last 70 years.
Set in a futuristic America, The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning that, given the right conditions and convenient scapegoats, democratic systems with all their constitutional checks and balances are not immune to usurpation by clever demagogues. Within the last century, the scapegoats of authoritarian regimes have included Jews, Christians, Muslims, communists, capitalists, homosexuals, monarchists, and people of different races.
Because it is set in a futuristic America, most people view The Handmaid’s Tale from a Western perspective and, thus, as far-fetched fiction. That perspective is too narrow. In 1988, Margaret Atwood said that all the horrors depicted in her book are based on history and many of them are still happening today. As Mona Eltahawy points out in her New York Times op-ed in May 2017, Saudi Arabian women today “are literally living The Handmaid’s Tale.” Thirty years after the novel publication, its message is no less relevant.
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