“The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about an enslaved woman in a totalitarian theocracy called Gilead — formerly the United States of America — premiers on Hulu this week. And if there’s one thing on which virtually all entertainment writers in leading publications seem to agree, it’s that the miniseries is uniquely relevant in the age of Donald Trump. It’s “newly resonant.” It’s “timely.” It “demands our attention now more than ever.”
As a fan of the novel, and not a fan of Trump, I can only say: Get a grip.
In Atwood’s America, where a shadowy group of ultraradical Christian fundamentalists has seized power after a series of devastating events that included a massacre of elected leaders, women are forbidden to work, own money or (except for a cadre of female enforcers, the Aunts) read and write. They’re forced to wear uniforms that mark them as elite wives, domestic servants, rank-and-file married women or “handmaids” — fertile women assigned to elite men with infertile wives for the purpose of childbearing. (Atwood’s futuristic world is plagued by an infertility epidemic.) Those who don’t fit any of these roles are classed as “Unwomen” and sent to camps where they labor cleaning up toxic waste. Meanwhile, gays, religious dissenters and other undesirables are publicly hanged.
How is any of this relevant to today’s America? Is it Republican attempts to deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood, whose executive vice president has asserted that “we’re living ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ ”? But denial of federal funding is not a ban, and not even the most conservative Republicans are challenging the 1965 and 1972 Supreme Court rulings which held that laws banning or restricting the use of birth control are unconstitutional.
Is it the attacks on abortion rights, also a timely issue in 1985 when the novel was published? But even the worst-case scenario — a nationwide ban on abortion, which no one in the Trump administration has proposed — is a far cry from Atwood’s dystopia. (Ireland, where abortion is illegal, is not exactly Gilead.)
And no, conservative evangelical Christians such as Vice President Mike Pence are not would-be theocrats who support hangings of gays or the banishment of women from the workplace — even if they have personal rules about one-on-one dining with women other than their wives.
There are many real reasons to be concerned about the Trump administration, from the convergence of the presidency with the business interests of the Trump empire to the president’s volatile approach to foreign policy to the hysteria targeting immigrants here illegally (and likely to affect many who are here legally). A plot to consign America’s women to domestic and sexual slavery in a Taliban-like religious patriarchy is not one of them.
Granted, hyperbole is not the sole province of liberals or feminists. Early in the Barack Obama presidency, some people on the right started describing Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” — in which industries are nationalized wholesale, business people are demonized, and America is overtaken by squalor, ruin and mass unemployment — as a prophetic novel for the age of Obama. It was silly and overwrought then; but at least it was limited to conservative activist groups and media outlets. Today, “Handmaid’s Tale”-as-Trump’s-America hyperbole is in the mainstream media, and it’s still silly and overwrought. All it does is undercut valid criticisms of this administration.
Atwood’s novel does warn that, especially in a crisis situation, people — women and men alike — can all too easily adjust to the loss of basic liberties and accept it as the new normal. It’s an important message, but it’s relevant to the human condition, not just the age of Trump.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.