You’d have to be fairly clueless about the current political moment not to feel a shiver of recognition watching “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the new dystopian drama on Hulu.
Based on Margaret Atwood’s bestselling novel, the show debuted Wednesday after weeks of politically fueled anticipation. The timing is apt. The action takes place in Gilead, a fictional future America that has been taken over by a fundamentalist group of men who systematically strip away women’s rights.
That description might remind viewers of President Donald Trump’s first Monday in office when, surrounded by other men, he signed off on the global gag rule ― an anti-abortion order that restricts women’s reproductive rights around the world. Or, perhaps it also brings to mind Vice President Mike Pence, who chooses not to socialize alone with women who are not his wife.
Even Trump fanatics saw the connection, calling the show anti-Trump propaganda.
But there’s plenty of reason to believe American women are not headed toward the extreme fate faced by their fictional counterparts, whose highest purpose is to serve their husbands and bear children ― and if they can’t do the latter, so-called handmaids are forced to serve as surrogates.
That’s not us. The resistance in the U.S. is very much alive and well. And in the first 100 days of the Trump administration, it’s been remarkably effective. Indeed, just last week ― under pressure from activists energized by the election ― Fox News was forced to oust longtime star news host Bill O’Reilly, who was under fire for sexually harassing women.
Other executives at the network seem to be headed for the chopping block, as well. It’s a sign that even at one of the most conservative, pro-Trump companies in the country, women are finally being heard.
Paradoxically, O’Reilly’s ouster seemed to be made possible by Trump’s election. Putting a man in office who’d been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women didn’t scare anyone into silence ― it sparked a massive wave of outrage, energy and activism.
So much so that Trump’s first nominee for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, was forced to withdraw his name from consideration after decades-old domestic violence allegations resurfaced.
The day after the inauguration, millions of women took to the streets in dozens of major cities around the world wearing pink pussy hats and decrying the patriarchy. The marches were largely peaceful.
There’s more: The first shot at Obamacare repeal ― which would have left so many women without health care ― didn’t work. His anti-immigration orders have been stopped by the courts, with the help of a huge number of female immigration lawyers, as New York magazine noted.
Emily’s List, the nonprofit progressive group that helps women run for office, says it has seen an “unprecedented” level in interest since November.
What is happening now in the United States is actually real progress for women.
It’s easy to forget that up until the 1990s, it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife. Until the 1970s, a woman accusing someone of raping her wasn’t considered a reliable witness in court (a situation eerily recalled in a terrible courtroom scene in a later episode of the Hulu show). And we haven’t even noted how women’s rights are curtailed around the world.
Of course, there’s no doubt that putting a misogynist in the Oval Office is an enormous setback. There’s not a single woman in Trump’s inner circle, aside from his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and a spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, who’s been recently silenced. Only 23 percent of his White House staff is female.
Despite progress, women in the U.S. still have a frighteningly long way to go.
The overwhelming majority of married women in this country still take their husband’s names, some without questioning why. And only recently, a Republican state representative from Oklahoma referred to women as “hosts” for fetuses.
More troubling? A majority of white women voters went for Trump, an echo of “Handmaid’s Tale,” too. In the book, elite white women ― the wives of the new political leaders ― seem to be true believers in the new world. Internalized sexism is a modern-day plague.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” came out in 1985, a perfect comment for those times, when Reagan-era conservatives were working feverishly to restore “traditional” values, i.e., restricting women’s reproductive rights, demonizing single mothers (particularly ones of color) and generally making it harder for women to choose to work outside the home. The Hulu show got the green light before Trump’s candidacy turned real.
Atwood, for her part, based the book on real historical examples.
“One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the nightmare of history,” Atwood explained in the New York Times this year. She explains that she’s grounded the book and its setting in 17th century puritanical American values (remember those witch trials).
One of Atwood’s favorite signs at the Toronto women’s march read “I can’t believe I’m still holding this fucking sign,” the 77-year-old author told The New Yorker.
When asked whether her book is a prediction for our future, Atwood offers hope and a warning.
“No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities,” she writes. “Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”
Progress does not happen in a straight line. Setbacks are inevitable. What’s critical is what comes next.