A woman sits down at her laptop, opens up a news website, browses. Each headline declares another disturbing development: Reproductive rights taken away, federal departments defunded, healthcare "reforms" that will see people suffer and die. She grimaces, shuts the laptop, prepares to greet her day as a the now-familiar sense of dread curls heavy in her stomach. This is the world she lives in now, and the only thing she can do is try to survive it.
Am I describing a flashback scene in The Handmaid's Tale, or what I did before I went to work this morning? Difficult to tell, nowadays. Back when Margaret Atwood first penned her magnum opus in 1983 — a book that would tellingly be banned by dozens of conservative schools and libraries — she was making a bold statement, warning the world of what could happen if certain things continued the way they were going. The Handmaid's Tale went on to become a famous cautionary tale, and one which society seemed to be heeding — for a while at least. But as Hulu's excellent adaptation brings us a fresh emotional horror story every week, The Handmaid's Tale isn't just an imaginative piece of speculative fiction any more: It's terrifyingly close to what's happening right now.
The Parallels Between Reality & 'The Handmaid's Tale'
As we watch June recount how her world descended into the horrors she now lives, there are far too many similarities for comfort. We can conceivably accept the idea that the USA could be put under martial law in response to a terrorist threat that may or may not be fabricated. As we watch June lose her job and her earnings in Episode 3 "Late," we're left wondering just how easy it would be for Gilead to exist in our world. Because right now, it feels like we're living June's origin story.
It would be easy to say "it all began when Trump was elected", but that's not strictly true. Although, granted, everything got a lot worse when the loudmouthed orangutan ascended to Commander in Chief, we've seen a definite trend away from liberal politics and towards conservatism in recent years. Crises like 9/11 and the threat of ISIS have sent the West (specifically the USA) spiraling, with everyone looking for something to cling onto, something to blame. Things were similar in The Handmaid's Tale — pollution lead to widespread infertility, and in the ensuing panic the blame fell on apparent "promiscuous" women, rather than addressing the root of the problem. Terrorism was used as a cover for fundamentalists to come to power, again feeding off the fear of the people.
Just like when Gilead's theocrats came to power in The Handmaid's Tale, when Trump (an accused rapist and sexual harasser) was elected suddenly the prejudices and bigotry were thrown into sharp relief. Fundamentalists don't just have a platform any more, they hold office. Like other presidents before him, the first few months of Trump's regime have seen him usher in a multitude of bureaucratic changes. Here are some legislative measures that seem to have been taken straight from the pages of The Handmaid's Tale.
- States are now allowed to cut off funding to any medical institution that facilitates abortions.
- The proposed criminalization of abortions (Bill HR 147).
- Proposed Bill HR 899 that calls for the "termination" of the Department of Education.
- The defunding of dozens of environmental agencies (including the National Parks Service) in favor of military budget increase.
- The proposed defunding of PBS, and therefore Sesame Street.
- The revoking of Obama's guidelines on transgender people being able to use any bathroom they wish.
- Bill HR 83 which seeks to cut federal funding to "sanctuary cities" that have opposed and ignored Trump's deportation policies.
- The Religious Freedom executive order which would allow religious business owners to refuse service based on their beliefs — meaning, they can refuse service to LGBT people.
- James Comey, FBI Director, was fired by Trump for investigating the President's relationship with Russia.
- The proposed Restoring Internet Freedom Act — which would end net neutrality.
And of course, who could forget Trump's shortlived Muslim Travel Ban, which prevented anyone born in certain Muslim countries from entering the States. The sweeping order disrupted everything from business trips to vacations, and even prevented lifesaving surgeries from taking place. Trump is still fighting in the courts for this ban to be made law.
Suffice to say, there's a definite trend here. Many of the legislations proposed, and those already passed, target women, Muslims, and LGBT people specifically. Not to mention, those with chronic (read: pre-existing) medical conditions are facing a grim struggle to survive if/when Trump's healthcare changes pass.
Are We Actually Heading Towards Gilead?
Of course, there's a difference between fictional dystopias and reality. Yet the parallels are frightening: In both situations, radical fundamentalist white men were in power, with crises increasing fear in the general population, allowing those in charge to pass strict laws. Ironically, there's one way in which Gilead is more progressive than whatever apocalyptic future the USA is heading towards: Despite the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and increasing controversy surrounding the multiple deaths of people of color at the hands of the police, The Handmaid's Tale showrunners decided to erase Gilead's colonial racism in the televised adaption of the book.
As show creator Bruce Miller explained to ThinkProgress, this was an effort to increase representation in media, arguing that in a reproductive crisis those in power would want all the healthy children they could get, regardless of race. This was an interesting move for the Hulu show, and it adds another dimension to the idea of commodifying fertile women.
There are other areas where the similarities between Gilead and reality fall apart. It's a bit late in the day to add this disclaimer, but this is by no means a conspiracy theory article arguing that the USA exists in the same reality as The Handmaid's Tale. However, fiction is informed by reality, and the fact remains that The Handmaid's Tale was written decades ago — and yet it seems to have more in common with today's political situation than that of the past. We have been thrown into the turmoil of a regime change, with new legislations threatening our freedoms every day — and June found herself in much the same situation in the days before Gilead.
We're not in Gilead yet. But that's the key word here: yet. If the past year and a half have proved nothing else, it's that our liberal bubble is fragile. The social and political progress we've made since 1985 can be easily reversed, and bigotry will rise as soon as it's given a legitimate platform from which to spew hatred. Those of us who grew up being taught that racism, sexism, and social inequalities were history's problems — problems that we were well on our way to solving completely — have had a rude awakening in recent years. In many ways we seem to be going backwards.
Yes, Gilead is a long way off. But if we're not careful, we could find ourselves in a very similar dystopia. So we must heed Atwood's warnings again, and make sure that this cautionary tale never becomes a reality. Because right now, we're only a few proposed Bills away from those womb-red robes.
Tell us in the comments: What do you think of Gilead as a dystopia?