Culture

The Handmaid’s Hysteria

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
No, the Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction is not a documentary.

Exciting news, America! In case you haven’t heard, we’re living in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Normally, I would take this shot of news with a chaser of instant panic, given that The Handmaid’s Tale — first published by Margaret Atwood in 1985 and now elevated to larger-than-life status with a much-ballyhooed new miniseries on Hulu — is a downright nightmarish story.

In Atwood’s dystopian world, a sinister cabal of fundamentalist Christians (it’s always those dastardly Christians, it seems) seizes power, transforming what remains of the United States into the cruel Republic of Gilead. In this terrifying new world, certain fertile women — the “handmaids” in question — are forced into sex slavery, dissenters are sent off to clean up toxic waste, and a sly yet miserable cadre of privileged upper-class women manage to quietly enable the whole thing.

According to a rash of earnest think pieces from dozens of news outlets, The Handmaid’s Tale is “timely” (the Washington Post), feels “chillingly real” (the San Francisco Chronicle), and has “an unexpected relevance in Trump’s America” (the New York Times). Atwood’s dystopia, writes Rebecca Nicholson in the Guardian, “has reignited the interest of readers, who have been drawing fresh parallels between Gilead and Trump’s America, and the novel topped the Amazon bestsellers list around the same time that signs at the global Women’s Marches asked to ‘Make Margaret Atwood fiction again.’”

Never one to miss a good marketing opportunity, Atwood affirmed our apparent unfolding national horror show on April 19, speaking to the Los Angeles Times about the Hulu series: “The election happened, and the cast woke up in the morning and thought, we’re no longer making fiction — we’re making a documentary.” According to a recent article in The New Republic, lo, have mercy, for great woes have apparently befallen me, a wide-eyed, unsuspecting resident of the Lone Star State: “Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.”

Sheesh. You’d think that, as a woman, I would have noticed the collapse of the world around me, but hey, it’s been a busy spring. I’ve had a packed social schedule, and as the old saying goes, you never notice the brutal rise of a women-enslaving dystopia when you’re attending a gala celebrating successful women entrepreneurs just a few blocks down from a clinic that cheerfully offers almost-free government-subsidized IUDs!

Well, never mind. In wild-eyed national discussions like these, one could bring up several facts: the fact that Republicans, not Democrats, have championed over-the-counter birth control; the fact that Planned Parenthood could thrive on private funding if it lost the $500 million it finagles annually from taxpayers; or the fact that our new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, announced during confirmation hearings that he would “have walked out the door” if Trump had asked him to overturn Roe v. Wade.

These facts, of course, will promptly be ignored.

In the feminist world, babies just seem to ‘happen’ to women; it’s almost as quaint as the stork.

The Handmaid’s Tale hysteria, in short, is simply not serious. There are many things to worry about in the Trump era — personally, I might choose the various nukes bouncing around North Korea, but you can pick your own poison. It’s telling, however, that much of the feminist hand-flapping bounces right over Trump, landing on . . . wait for it . . . the mild-mannered Mike Pence. “Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to have dinner with women who aren’t his wife, for example,” wrote Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic, “smacks of the same kind of Puritanism that saw women condemned as witches and harlots just for the virtue of being born female.” Well. That escalated quickly.

But there’s something infinitely more interesting going on beneath the surface of the great Handmaid’s Tale brouhaha, and it highlights one of the biggest, most baffling problems with modern feminism: the consistent insinuation that women have no personal agency.

It is a theme that quietly underscores almost every panicked article about The Handmaid’s Tale. But perhaps Atwood puts it best, suggesting to the Times that America — a country where minors can get IUDs without parental consent in 21 states, while Republicans earn mass panic for suggesting that Planned Parenthood, an organization that paid its CEO $957,952 in 2014, doesn’t need taxpayer help — is on the verge of a Ceausescu-like regime where women are “forced” to have babies.

This would be very scary, I suppose, if one were detached from reality and also didn’t know how babies are made. In the feminist world, babies just seem to “happen” to women; it’s almost as quaint as the stork. It also all takes place in an imaginary world where modern birth control and individual agency don’t exist. (Spoiler alert: Birth control, despite what you may read, is not about to get banned. It will also probably remain subsidized to the hilt.)

Weirdly, for all of their talk about women needing to “control their own bodies,” feminists often act as if women are helpless and completely incapable of doing so on their own — unless, that is, they’re guided by a large, expansive, paternalistic government.

Good heavens. Forgive me, but for a moment, that almost sounded like The Handmaid’s Tale.

— Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.

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