June 27, 2019

"The Handmaid's Tale" Chose Politics Over Art

““This isn’t a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale,” Kamala Harris wrote in recent a fundraising email, “This is happening in our country.” In his late night monologue, Stephen Colbert joked that a rash of new abortion laws felt like “some pretty intense viral marketing for the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale.” Protestors dressed in red cloaks with winged bonnets, the costume of enslaved handmaids in both the novel and the television show, surrounded the Alabama courthouse to protest the state’s severely restrictive abortion law. The Handmaid Coalition is a new nonprofit organization dedicated to sewing handmaids costumes for protest in the “fight to keep fiction from becoming a reality.”

Over the last few years, references to The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, now a Hulu series whose third season debuts on June 5—have increasingly served as a quick and easy pop-cultural shorthand for the extremity of our moment. People type “under his eye” (the religious mantra of the restrictive, fundamentalist country of Gilead) when sharing links to articles, or “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (a Latin phrase used by the underground Gilead resistance movement Mayday, which means “don’t let the bastards get you down”). The idiom of the show, which Atwood invented in her book, has become a way to communicate that you know that things have gotten really bad—that this timeline feels like that terrifying thing you saw on streaming television.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these references: People have always turned to film and literature in order to make sense of the world, to process and provide context for complex, frightening times. But watching the first episodes of the new season, what strikes me is that the set of symbols that the show unleashed has far outpaced what the show actually provides. The striking metaphors The Handmaid’s Tale birthed all belong to the book and to the show’s first season, in which the horrifying vision of a patriarchal fascist state and all its paraphernalia becomes clear. The Hulu show has since become a long-running soap opera about women’s trauma, and like any good soap, it needs the drama to continue endlessly, and to raise the stakes continuously.”

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