Offred is a protagonist who lives in a world gone crazy. In a cautionary tale that borders on post-apocalyptic mania, The Handmaid’s Tale pulls a Planet of the Apes and seduces us into the horrors of Offred’s world and then reveals them to be our own. Offered is us. This is meant to terrify us and indulge our worst slippery slope fears. Rarely does that make for enjoyable entertainment, though. Thus, I blooped my way to Hulu’s new series, with my dog-eared, annotation-scribbled copy of the book still on my nightstand, wondering if I even wanted to spend hours of my life sucked into a vortex of depression. What I found, though, oddly delighted me. It turns out my paranoia enjoyed being indulged.
After an alleged terrorist attack on U.S. Congress, martial law is declared in Offred’s America, and there is a public movement for a return to basic values–which includes women staying in the home and owning no property. This would be terrifying enough, but Margaret Atwood, author of the book from which Hulu plucked its content, chose to add a special science-fiction twist: For reasons unstated, women and men face obliterating infertility rates. This warps the nightmare into a nation with a breeding program in which the “lucky” women are turned into procreational sex slaves.
This is the turn of the screw that is supposed to draw you in. Hook you. Women as forced breeders, wearing wimples and enslaved under such miserable conditions that most opt for one form of suicide or another. As a book reader, I was almost a bit disappointed that Atwood took it to this level. Sure, it makes the story stunning and tragic, but takes it just slightly beyond the grasp of what feels realistic. It disconnects us from feeling the likelihood that this could happen to us.
And it could. Atwood has warned of it herself. Were it not for the fertility plot line, this forced female servitude feels like it is only one international crisis away. One cry for a return to our “values”. One coordinated and well-funded grassroots movement away from decrying that women are not permitted to work outside of the home because, the children. Because the 1950s was when we were a pure and righteous nation, right? When men were men, and women knew their place. So the movements call and chant and wail that we need to go back to our roots, and they share it feverishly across social media. And in turn Facebook and Twitter accounts and voter registration records are used to identify who is a “patriot” or a “believer”, whichever bent the crusade takes. Add a pinch of racism and misogyny, a whirlwind of fear, and some financial incentives, and you’ve got yourself a real modern dystopia.
This is why I am so grateful for the updates and tweaks that Hulu has thoughtfully provided to Atwood’s mad world. It warms the world and makes it feel like it could have been our own once. Yes the show preserves the infertility thread–no way to avoid that– but it takes care to modernize the technology and add some haunting (an sometimes jaunty) soundtracks. I know those songs. Pre-Offred Elizabeth Moss knows those songs. And she orders pretentious coffee, swipes on Tinder, and worries about her profile pic. Sure the original names are still very 1980s, which is when the story was originally penned. Lydia. Janine. Angela. But there I am with Pre-Offred, believing I could hang out with her, or that I could at least pass her on the street. She is a real, modern flesh-and-blood American.