In an introduction to a new paperback edition of the novel, Margaret Atwood herself described “The Handmaid’s Tale” as an “antiprediction,” made in the hope that “If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.” That line has stuck with me as the release of Hulu’s magnificent adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” approached — and as the story has been held up as a totem of our political moment by everyone from conservatives who claimed that the 32-year-old story was anti-Trump propaganda to protesters who adopted the novel’s imagery to push back against proposed abortion restrictions passed by the Texas Senate. If we use “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or any other richly resonant dystopian fiction as a road map for what might happen to us next, are we missing the point?
I don’t mean to say that it’s wrong to argue about possible comparisons between the stringent theocracy of Atwood’s imagining and the Trump administration, especially as a way of talking about the depth of the political waters in which we find ourselves.
James Poniewozik wrote in the New York Times that “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which a theocratic coup transforms America in the wake of a terror attack, is about “the way people will themselves to believe the abnormal is normal, until one day they look around and realize that these are the bad old days.” My friend Megan McArdle argued against this idea in Bloomberg, reminding readers that Trump “hasn’t got control of Congress, or the courts, and has nothing like the mass movements behind him that brought other dystopian governments to power, whether fascist, communist or theocratic.” Beyond that potent concept, there are points of comparison between a completely dystopian world where men make vital decisions about women’s health and reproductive freedom and our own merely-unnerving one. (Atwood told me at a panel I moderated for the Smithsonian Associates last week that the most relevant dystopian fiction for the present moment was George Orwell’s “1984.”)
But Atwood’s idea of an “antiprediction” is a reminder that it’s possible to walk different roads to the same destination. Yes, Vice President Pence’s views on gender equality and reproductive freedom have some things in common with the patriarchy that rules the former United States, now the Republic of Gilead, in Atwood’s novel. But Americans didn’t vote for Pence to be president, they just got him, and cuts for federal funding to Planned Parenthood, in the bargain.
Instead, we elected Donald Trump, a man of paltry faith, little fidelity to or interest in ritual and no strong perspective on how to confront the serious challenges his nation faces, who went out and sold voters not on a return to austere Puritanism, but a glitzy, punchy spectacle of national greatness. You can make your way to a feminist dystopia by treating women as if we’re dangerous, insatiable temptresses whose sexuality needs to be kept under strict control. And maybe you can also get there by treating us as decoration to be grabbed, repositioned and replaced at will. You can oppress us because you ascribe us too much power and the wrong kind of importance, and because you assign us none at all.
Dystopian fiction — and any fiction, really — shouldn’t be judged by the extent to which it serves as a bulwark against actual, radical changes to American society. It is enough to ask that a story be entertaining and well-executed, and that its characters be rich and memorable. Fiction can’t save the world, but it can describe important forces at work in our politics and culture that may not be captured in polling data and conventional political reporting. The question is whether we recognize these salient descriptions when we see them, and what we do in response.
During the 2016 presidential election, critics — myself very much included — turned out piece after piece about art that had diagnosed or described the very forces that helped propel Trump to the presidency, many of them made in the years in between Trump’s brief flirtation with a run for the Libertarian nomination in 2000 and his actual entrance into the Republican field in 2015.
Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” depicted a populace drunk on and deluded by corporate products and entertainment spectacles such as professional wrestling and monster truck rallies. Michael Bay’s auteurist “Pain and Gain” captured a particular kind of American entitlement, and the decoupling of wealth and accomplishment from the hard work that can produce both. And Richard Kelly’s remarkable and remarkably flawed “Southland Tales” depicted an America where citizens had been goaded into accepting a nation-wide identification and monitoring system after a series of nuclear attacks, and were anesthetizing themselves with pop songs by porn stars and falling in thrall to hucksterish entrepreneurs.
I honestly don’t know if consuming this sort of dystopian fiction, which very much includes “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is the equivalent of pressing on a bruise, as my colleague Monica Hesse suggested, a way of experiencing our worst fears and steeling ourselves against them. It could also be that we use these stories, however grounded their authors may have tried to make them, as a way of shoving away our concerns and reassuring ourselves that we’re immune from them.
When the future turns out to be “far more futuristic than [scientists] originally predicted,” as one character in “Southland Tales” puts it, or when reality begins to defy the laws of fictional plausibility, as so much of Trump’s unlikely run for the presidency did, what are we supposed to make of dystopian fiction, and of ourselves? Maybe we should simply learn that we shouldn’t discount the unexpected. The world is a strange place, even if it’s not strange in precisely the ways that Margaret Atwood, Mike Judge or Richard Kelly imagined.