Much exalted as a preview of “Trump’s America,” Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has emerged as one of the favorite cultural rallying points of the so-called resistance against the president. Publications from Politico to Rolling Stone have opined on the virtues of the television series as a blueprint for rebelling against the impending theocracy led by that known Christian zealot, the thrice-married Donald Trump.
The irony of this interpretation is that The Handmaid’s Tale, more than anything else, serves as an indictment of collectivism and identity politics, the two values most prized by modern leftism.
For those unfamiliar with the story’s premise, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian near-future in which the United States government has been overthrown by extremist Christian fundamentalists who have rechristened the nation “Gilead.” Responding to environmental and health threats that have rendered most of the population infertile, Gilead segregates men and women into distinct social classes. Our protagonist, Offred, is one of the few fertile women remaining in Gilead, so she serves as a “handmaid,” belonging to a “commander” and his wife, for whom she acts as a sex slave and surrogate mother, respectively. Like every other handmaid, she is cloaked exclusively in red.
Gilead also strips handmaids of their names, replacing them with new names denoting their tribe. Offred, who we are told in the Hulu series was originally named June, is so called because her commander, who ceremoniously rapes her monthly for the good of the state, is named Fred. She is literally “of-Fred.”
Fred’s wife, Serena Joy, acts as a Pied Piper of women’s oppression, leading uprisings to institute Gileadean reforms. In a scene in the series with a foreign ambassador, she boasts, “We have made great strides cleaning the environment, and restoring a healthy and moral way of life.” Sound familiar? (No, that’s not Mike Pence you’re imagining.)
While Trump is no paragon of limited-government conservatism, his administration as a whole is certainly far from statist. Vice President Pence, despite being painted as hell-bent on imposing socially conservative programs, has so far favored only defunding progressive entities such as Planned Parenthood. Neither man has come anywhere close to endorsing the notion of a government so powerful that it is able to mandate class divisions, systemic state-sanctioned rape, and the erasure of individual identity.
While many correctly point out the parallels between the subjugation of women in Gilead and their treatment in states like Saudi Arabia, The Handmaid’s Tale more distinctly indicts utilitarianism and segregation on the basis of identity, a modern form of class consciousness more present on the American left than in fundamentalist Islam.
Leftists have appropriated the imagery of women uniformed in red dresses and white bonnets to represent the supposed oppression they are suffering at the hands of the Trump administration. But the visual homogeneity of the handmaids’ dress acts rather as a forceful imposition of a kind of Marxian class consciousness. In this case, the members of the handmaid proletariat are not united by their status as laborers; instead they are forced to identify themselves as the fertile means of producing children for the state.
Gilead thrives on the sacrifice of the individual, June, for the collective, the elite whom she serves. The government tears apart biological families and disregards the inherent value of individuals. The state imposes groupthink and controls and oppresses those who deviate in a Foucauldian model: In an early flashback, Offred recalls a scene at the Red Center, the training center for the handmaids set up at the start of Gilead’s rule, where authorities require all of the handmaids to chant “her fault” in response to one handmaid’s story of being gang raped.
Women who deviate from Gilead’s class standards are deemed “unwomen” and are denied the protections that Gilead grants women in the various state-imposed social strata. Some on the radical left (not all liberals) have used similar language against conservative women, reveling in sexist slurs and rhetoric aimed at Kellyanne Conway and Ann Coulter as though they exist outside of the protection of the feminist warranty.
Of course, one shouldn’t make too much of the parallels between leftist identity politics and the fictional Gilead. Radical Leftists are — mostly — still bounded by the Constitution, while Gilead’s rulers control the entire state apparatus. But if The Handmaid’s Tale serves as a warning of any sort of a nascent threat to our politics, it’s not the one coming from those who want to take away your handouts. It’s a reminder of the danger of promising security and identity politics in exchange for individualism and your identity.