Could The Handmaid’s Tale become our reality?
That was the terrifying question posed to author Margaret Atwood by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg on Friday at the Women in the World Summit in New York.
When she wrote her dystopian novel in 1985, the celebrated writer had no idea that the future would slowly start sliding backwards. Her parable about reproductive tyranny was greenlit to be adapted for Hulu before President Trump’s election, but Atwood—now the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays—said the creative team “woke up on the 9th of November and said, ‘We are in a different show.’ Nothing in the script changed, but the frame changed, and people were going to see it differently.”
In the first season, which won eight Emmy Awards, flashbacks outlined a relatively normal world changing in slight ways. People gradually became a little more outspoken, a little more radical. Subtly and insidiously, more drastic changes took root.
Regarding the rise of right-wing populism in the U.S., Atwood said, “The United States is very big, you may have noticed, and it’s very diverse — and I’m not giving up hope on it yet, and neither are a lot of people. That’s why you see such increased political activity and such pushback. And they haven’t yet started shooting protest marchers, but that’s always a bad sign.”
She sees the current moment as containing two opposing forces, arguing that we’re not living in The Handmaid’s Tale yet. “If we were, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” she said. “I would be in jail.”
Lately, Goldberg noted, Atwood has fallen afoul of not only the right-wing, but also some feminist purists. “I don’t think that feminism and human rights ought to be on opposite sides of the fence, but in certain circles they are,” said Atwood. “Of course, feminism isn’t about one thing, it’s about 50 things. In certain circles, human rights are viewed as some sort of disguise for male empowerment, but if you look at the [United Nations’] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it’s pretty favorable to women, because it views women as people. How radical.”
The crowd watched a clip from the first season, in which the terrifying Aunt Lydia (played by Ann Dowd, who won an Emmy for her portrayal) tells handmaids they are privileged girls and women whose fertility will be used to bear children for the leaders of the faithful and their barren wives. “What a great actress,” Atwood said. “She’s channeling my grade four teacher.” When Goldberg asked if we’ll find out what made Aunt Lydia who she is, Atwood replied, “Eventually. In anyone’s life there are a series of choices that someone can make. What were the choices that the younger Lydia had offered to her?”
Now that the TV show is progressing beyond the book, Goldberg wondered, might it be strange for Atwood as an artist to witness other people running the world she created?
Atwood said she embraces the expansion. “Once in a while, it happens to books that they escape from their covers and take on a life of their own,” she said, pointing to an iconic character like Scrooge. “I think The Handmaid’s Tale has escaped from its book and is being reinterpreted—not only by the television series, but by its readers.”
Protesters around the world have donned the handmaids’ arresting red smocks and white hoods as a means of silent dissent—an act of which Atwood wholeheartedly approves. “This movement of dressing as handmaids and sitting meekly in legislatures or standing outside is quite brilliant. Nobody can throw you out, you’re not making a disturbance—you’re just there. Anybody looking at you knows what that means. They may find it irritating, but they can’t actually do that much about it.”
The movement started in Texas, Atwood said, after a group of women ordered handmaid outfits that mistakenly arrived in a shade of pink. So they devised and sewed the patterns themselves, posting them online so others could follow suit. Since then, women have dressed as handmaids for protests in Poland, England, and Croatia—all places with friction points where governments are trying to withhold rights for women or take away rights they already have.
Goldberg—who had a sneak peek at a few episodes of the second season, which premieres April 25—noted that future episodes are getting especially brutal. “We don’t just say ‘brutal,’ we say ‘brutal and riveting,’ ” Atwood said with a laugh. “This is a team that’s extremely invested in the show. They’re sticking with my main rule, which is nothing goes in unless it’s already happened someplace else.” She emphasized that the show’s writers do research into historical events to find inspiration. “They’re not pulling any punches,” she said.
Nothing in the story is fiction. “I put nothing into The Handmaid’s Tale that hadn’t already been done elsewhere,” Atwood said, referring to a decree issued by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu mandating monthly pregnancy tests and restricting access to contraception and abortion so as to force women to have at least four children. “It was really cruel and inhuman to force women to have children if you’re not going to give them the money to bring them up,” she said. “I’d say that’s a recipe for despair and death.”
The world of The Handmaid’s Tale is portrayed in the first season of the series as beautiful and lush—something that will change in the second season. “We have this idea of dystopias that are always grim and full of dust, and that’s not usually the way things are,” Atwood said. “They’re often very nice for some people.”
Atwood wore a button that said “After Me Too,” referring to a movement in Canada—“that cold place to the north,” she said—that started in the entertainment business and aims to create a structure providing immediate support for sexual assault victims and survivors, a safe place to report assaults and a fair process, including independent and third-party professional investigations. She reminded the audience that Canada is available as a refuge. “When things get very bad here, you’re all very welcome. You’ll have a nice hot cup of tea waiting, and there’s a little America up there, just like a little Norway in World War Two,” she said. “You can have a nice mattress in a church basement and some soup too. But you don’t have to do that—in fact we’re hoping you don’t, that you stay here and vote next time.”
Sci-fi writers are especially good at anticipating future events, Goldberg noted, so what happens if we live in a time when none of the possible outcomes feels plausible.
“I’m about to see some of my sci-fi writer friends, and I will ask them,” Atwood joked before turning serious. “There is no one ‘the future,’ there are a number of possible futures, and the one we get will depend partly on what we do now.”
“There are a couple ways of thinking about the future that are not very productive, and one is that progress is inevitable,” Atwood continued. “That has never been true. That’s just an excuse for not doing anything, thinking, ‘Well, it’s all gonna work out anyway.’ Or saying everything is circular and you can’t make real progress. Not true either. There are a number of different possibilities, and writing dystopias and utopias is a way of asking the question, ‘Where do you want to live?’ And that depends partly on what you do now.”
Goldberg asked if we would ever see a society where men and women were truly equals, and Atwood walked the audience back in time, noting that during the era of hunters and gatherers, people were healthier and more equal. The introduction of wheat meant there was a surplus, and people could pay a standing army to defend the territory on which it was being grown, she said. Women began to be fed less than men, and women were also expected to produce children to help grow the wheat. That was the start of a stark inequality.
But, Atwood continued, “We’re in an age when upper-body strength to defend the wheat with your sword and armor isn’t such a necessity anymore. Because guess what? Women can work a keyboard, and also they have this thing called a brain, in an age where keyboards and brains are quite important.”
And then what happens next? Says Atwood: “Women get an edge again.”
Watch highlights and the full video of the conversation at the top of this story.
Additional reporting by Gina Kim.