I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 (before it was cool). I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I did not read it because I was a baby feminist. While I did subscribe to the still-bafflingly-radical notion that women are people, my primary concerns as a teenager were unrequited crushes and how to stop my hair being so frizzy.
Sidebar: At this point, I must apologize to my older daughter. She has always loved reading, and telling me about her latest library discovery. It was through her that I discovered Harry Potter (which remains the only books we both like, btw). Around age 13, the stories she was gushing over seemed to all have the same theme: girls her age enduring horrible circumstances in a dystopian future. The Hunger Games was one (which she read before it was cool) and there was another one, whose title I forget but which involved a gruesome sounding process called “unwinding”.
I remember telling her “Oh my god can’t you read anything cheerful!” I thought her affinity for teenage girls being tortured was some kind of metaphor for how she felt about my parenting. But looking back at my own favorite books of my adolescence – Sybil, Helter Skelter, The Stranger Beside Me (about Ted Bundy) and yes, The Handmaid’s Tale – I realize that being super into tales of suffering is probably just A Thing that teenage girls go through. So, sorry Natalie! Add this moment to the time you beat me at Scrabble and the time you were right about traffic conditions.
Anyway, back to The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it, liked it, and never thought for a minute it could actually happen. PornMobiles and PornMarts – nah. I mean sure, we’d probably have those things conceptually, but they wouldn’t be called that. Those are such blatantly fictional names.
Several years later, I was unpacking after a move and came across all my old books, including The Handmaid’s Tale. I settled down to re-read it (anything to avoid more unpacking!) but quickly discovered that I could not bear it anymore. I’d since had children, and could not read Offred’s descriptions of losing her daughter without sobbing.
When I first heard about the Hulu TV series, I figured enough time had passed, post-partum hormones had long since left my body, and I could watch the show without ugly crying. And that much, at least is true. I don’t watch it and cry. I watch it and feel queasy.
It’s a claustrophobic show, taking place primarily in one house with rooms that have too much furniture and too much silence. Most of the characters are in a perpetual state of terror, and the ones who aren’t get off on the fear they instill in others. I still don’t think it could actually happen – “it” being the specific scenario of a theocracy established by murdering the President and everyone in Congress and women separated into clothing-defined castes and government-sanctioned nonconsensual three ways happening every month.
But the underlying concepts – that women are merely walking wombs, that you can’t oppress a group of people without the participation of some of the members of that group (I’m looking at you, Aunts) and that people who say they are doing the will of god are always coincidentally also doing the thing that most benefits them – that shit is for real. I keep watching, even though it’s depressing as hell, because I know that not watching won’t make any of that less true.
But there is a balm to Gilead: the new Wonder Woman movie.
I am not a comic book person at all, and as a child I was way more into The Bionic Woman (she had better clothes, lived in a cool loft and had a dog!) but my god I fricking loved this movie. No, no, I don’t want to hear about plot holes or too much CGI or pacing issues.
I’m not going to write an essay about the male gaze, or microaggressions or empowerment, I’ll just say that moment Diana emerged from the trenches, strode confidently into No Man’s Land and stood there, taking an onlsaught of bullshit from a bunch of dudes – that is the most apt metaphor I have ever seen on film.
And no, the romance with Steve Trevor wasn’t forced. Diana wasn’t motivated by love for Steve, his love for her merely reminded her that humans don’t entirely suck and are worth saving.
That is the message for our times. Whenever there is a terrorist attack, a bathroom bill, or President Baby Fists takes to twitter, we just have to remember that humans don’t entirely suck, and we are worth saving. We just have to do the saving ourselves because even though Gal Godot looks like a goddess, she isn’t one. (Although she did wear FLATS on the press tour, making her my hero for life).