Unlike Norm Macdonald, I enjoyed Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But then again, I’m a sucker for dystopian stories. From Animal Farm, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, to Kafka’s The Trial, dystopian narrative plumbs the visceral fear that individuals have in response to the rise of the modern state, especially as the balance between the individual and greater whole seems constantly to fall uncomfortably against the individual.
Regardless of the original intent of the authors or even of posthumous political interpretations, dystopian stories rarely speak to the dangers of too much freedom. Instead, they offer up warnings and admonitions about the rise of a managed society and caution against the all-too-human inclination to abuse the broad coercive power of the state even in pursuit of the noblest of stated purposes.
During Barack Obama’s tenure, the theaters were filled with Young Adult romantic dystopian fare. Between “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “The Giver,” and “The Maze Runner” there was almost too much dystopia to choose from—so much that many critics complained of dystopia fatigue. Article after article proclaimed the death of the genre and pronounced its staleness. Some even argued that these stories had the “insidious” effect of creating a cynicism for the state and teaching extreme libertarianism to young and fragile minds. When Trump was elected, however, we were treated to story after story about how 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 were flying off the shelves. Dystopias were sexy again and none seems to be sexier than “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel premiered on Hulu in late April. The marketing was brilliant and, in addition to the social media conversation, ubiquitous. Billboards, cleverly playing with language, read: “We will bear no more” and “Object.” These conveyed to the prospective audience a small glimpse into the broken world that Atwood created: a world in which the United States is usurped by religious right-wing zealots (who else?) and who create a theocracy named Gilead, the defining characteristic of which is its oppression of women. Specifically, it is an oppression where an underclass of women, deemed Handmaids, are kept for reproductive purposes in response to the demographic pressures of a declining birthrate. As such, in addition to being forced into child-rearing, their clothing, movement, and morality are highly controlled and constrained. They are to wear full-length red robes with bonnets that cover their faces (different classes of women in Gilead, based on their fertility and social stature, have other uniforms) and cannot move about in public except in pairs.
What makes any dystopian novel or movie compelling is its ability to draw parallels with—and act as a cautionary tale against―current social and political trends and events. Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in direct response to a meditation on the Iranian revolution of 1979 where a society very quickly went from a relatively liberalized one with regards to women’s rights to one which demanded women be veiled and covered―with those mores policed by morality squads. Working off her knowledge of the Iranian revolution, Atwood’s novel is predicated on three things: The simultaneous and complete destruction of the executive and legislative branches of the United States government (think “Designated Survivor”), a declining birthrate, and a revolution that sweeps in to fill the power vacuum which then invalidates the entirety of the Constitution in favor of a theocratic and biblical model. In this society, women’s rights are trampled upon as these women are forced to bear children against their will.
While Atwood presents her tale as occurring in the United States, and the buzz surrounding the release of the Hulu series implies that her vision is timely for America today, in truth, the dystopia she posits has a significantly higher chance of becoming reality in Europe. After all, Europe is the place where trust in and over-reliance upon centralized power, declining birthrates, and an appeasement of an unyielding worldview―the one that actually inspired the novel―are all threatening quickly to overturn what was once the font of liberalism and birthplace of the enlightenment into a religiously dystopian and morally bankrupt society.
If anything like “The Handmaid’s Tale” were to come to the United States, it would do so after it had already swept through Europe. According to Atwood’s narrative, for The Handmaid’s Tale dystopia even to begin taking hold in the United States, the entirety of our system of government—set up specifically to check centralized power—needs to fall.
While arguments that over the past century the United States has moved ever closer towards European Style centralization are compelling, we still retain many bulwarks against centralization—not least of which is our people. European governance, conversely, is generally more centralized and, as the European Union experiment has shown, there is an ever increasing move towards greater centralization. In what began as a purely economic union, the EU has expanded into all manner of political control. No counterfactual Handmaid catastrophe need occur to create the requisite centralized political structure in Europe, it already exists. If anything, “The Handmaid’s Tale” serves as a warning to Americans infatuated with European style, top-down governance. It speaks to the threat of over-centralization and should engender a healthy skepticism of our apparent trajectory towards an ever more powerful Administrative State.
Second, there is the question of demographics and declining birthrates. While the U.S. birthrate is not great, it is still higher than that of Europeans which has been on the decline for some time with some of the lowest birthrates in the world. But, while the birthrates in Europe are declining for Europeans, they keep growing for recent immigrants. The population is being supported by a high rate of immigrant births. Further, an aging European population with a declining birthrate and massive centralized welfare state needs workers and people to care for the elderly, so immigration policy is loosened to meet those demands. In 2015, The Guardian noted:
Record numbers of economic migrants and asylum-seekers are seeking to enter the European Union this summer and are risking their lives in the attempt. The paradox is that as police and security forces battle to keep them at bay, a demographic crisis is unfolding across the continent. Europe desperately needs more young people to run its health services, populate its rural areas and look after its elderly because, increasingly, its societies are no longer self-sustaining.
To bring the demographic issue into even clearer focus there is the issue of polygamy. Despite local laws, many of the migrants embrace polygamy. Some European countries already accept the validity of polygamous marriages performed abroad and there have been proposals, so far rejected, which toyed with the idea of legalizing polygamy on multicultural grounds. So you have a declining European population and an ever increasing population of immigrants whose marital customs, by definition, result in tremendous demographic gains. Those gains normally would be a boon to society. However, many of these immigrants bring with them mores and values that resist assimilation over time and are at odds with the liberal democratic societies that have taken them in.
This gets us to the third rail of the issue—culture itself. The disturbing fact is that a plurality of the immigrants that are filling the demographic and economic vacuum in Europe, the ones whose many children will form the basis of the centrally organized governments of Europe’s future, bring with them a fundamentalist, tribal, and religiously conservative ideology that holds in contempt the western ideals of tolerance, individual rights and respect for women. They bring with them a cultural misogyny that is inimical to most western sensibilities. Further, this culture is proving to be extremely resistant to liberalization—even (or especially) transgenerationally as the children of recent immigrants often romanticize the culture of their origins and are prime targets for radicalization in spite of secular education or upbringing. Depending on circumstances, a well considered and permissive immigration policy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Numbers in and of themselves are not the problem. But culture does matter. If immigration is to be encouraged, it has to be accompanied by an expectation of a basic level of assimilation with regard to the fundamental mores and building blocks of the society into which the new group enters. In Europe, among the chattering and ruling classes, the desire to be culturally sensitive has deemed calls for this kind of basic assimilation bigotry and hate-speech.
Of the most wretched and evil characters in modern literature, Atwood’s Aunt Lydia places at the top. She is the apologist voice and cheerleader for the Handmaid’s dystopia. When not presiding over the “salvaging” of women—hanging them in Harvard Square (a mass execution of women in a public place . . . reminiscent of the Taliban’s soccer stadium executions), she’s busy explaining why the women’s oppression isn’t really oppression at all, but a freedom from male oppression. She argues that the new mores and constricting dress are, in fact, a form of freedom:
“Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles.
‘There is more than one kind of freedom,’ said Aunt Lydia. ‘Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.'”
Lydia argues that with the correct modification of mores and dress the oppressed women are actually freer than they were when they were always worried about the unwelcome sexual advances of men. This distorted narrative, that correct dress and behavior will lead to a freedom from assault, is currently being played out in Europe.
In response to the rapes and sexual assaults that occurred in Europe over the New Year’s celebrations and at other times, politicians, many of whom are female and self-described feminists suggested that women, the prospective and actual victims of rape, need to modify their behavior to avoid the rape. These suggested behavior modifications range from walking at arm’s length from migrants, to walking in pairs (similar to the Handmaids who were always to walk in twos), and to avoiding provocative dress. Most recently a Paris newspaper reported on areas of East Paris where women won’t walk alone for fear of being harassed and treated like prostitutes by men. One of the women interviewed states:
There are insults, incessant remarks. The atmosphere is agonizing, to the point of having to modify our movements and our clothes. Some even gave up going out.
What we’re starting to see in Europe is Lydia’s the notion of Freedom From. If a woman wants freedom from assault in today’s Europe she is being told by her female feminist leaders that she must act and dress a certain way.
In Europe, we are actually seeing a fairly accelerated move towards the society posited by Atwood, one where a centralized state with fundamentalist and apologist leadership uses the power of the state to control women’s behavior, all due to a declining birthrate. Like Cassandra, the red-robed oppressed of “The Handmaid’s Tale” warn of impending doom, but it seems, as is always the tragic case—no one wants to listen honestly. Yes, Atwood’s novel was prescient and is timely—but not necessarily in the way that most American media has painted it out to be.