Why everyone is obsessed with The Handmaid's Tale right now

Margaret Atwood's dystopian classic is a bestseller — and a TV adaptation launches this spring. Thank Donald Trump for its eerie, renewed relevance.
Photo, courtesy of Hulu. Photo, courtesy of Hulu.

In these rancorous times it’s not surprising that even last weekend’s Super Bowl was cast in political terms: the staunchly Democratic Atlanta Falcons versus the Donald Trump-friendly New England Patriots. As comedian Michael Che described it on Saturday Night Live, “the blackest city in America [up] the most racist city I’ve ever been to.” Pro-diversity, pro-immigrant ads from Google, AirBnB and Budweiser read like anti-Trump subtweets.

But the most provocative moment at the Super Bowl was Hulu’s trailer for its upcoming adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dark vision of a dystopian patriarchy. The placement of the ad felt like a feminist gauntlet thrown in the middle of American Machismo’s Highest Holy Day, the equivalent of a burning bra — or a million pink knit pussy hats — being tossed onto the 40-yard line. Last year’s half-time act of insurgency was Beyoncé’s fiery, politically charged performance of Formation; this year’s was a sobering shot of handmaids dressed in long, red habits preparing to be raped by order of the state.


Published in 1985, Atwood’s novel about a fundamentalist Christian rebellion overthrowing the American government to establish a theocracy roared onto Amazon's bestseller list after the ad aired. Though the new series, which stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as Offred, was in the works before Trump’s election, its April release feels fated. What could be a more perfect symbol of this moment than belittled-secretary-turned-liberated-boss-lady Peggy Olson being abruptly stripped of her hard-won rights and forced to become a baby-maker, and then joining a resistance movement with the hashtag-ready battle cry, “I intend to survive”?

The Handmaid’s Tale may seem timely now, but Atwood actually based her story on U.S. history, drawing on the religious rigidity of the Puritans and the horrors of slavery, as well as then-contemporary events. Many gains of the civil rights, anti-war, labour, feminist and gay rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s were smacked down by a hard right turn to conservatism in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the AIDS epidemic was exploding, famine and civil war in Ethiopia killed more than 400,000 people within two years, and the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia was at a peak not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an era as tense and fraught as this one.


Atwood has been very clear that her work is speculative fiction not science fiction, the distinction being that the former reflects what’s plausible; it’s about “things that really could happen,” she’s said. It’s that fear about what “really could happen” that currently has American women racing to get IUDs and signing up for self-defence classes. (Muslims, immigrants and people of colour facing an upswing in hate crimes are doing the same.)

Trump’s win, however, has had an unexpected outcome: it's bolstered and popularized feminism and feminist causes. Prior to his rise, many women viewed feminism as either too strident, or too narrow in its identity politics or not inclusive enough of race, class and sexuality.


Now, many of those who once thought “feminism” was a dirty word have found, in the politics of Trump, a reason to join the sisterhood. And so, while Hillary Clinton didn’t become president, women have turned out as leaders of the opposition to the misogynist man currently sitting in the Oval Office. Like Offred, they intend to survive.

The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu. Photo, courtesy of Hulu.

Last month’s Women’s March in Washington, DC, for instance, which was organized by young women of colour with an unapologetically leftie agenda, was the biggest one-day protest in U.S. history, with offshoots on every continent. Female judges and lawyers have been instrumental in fighting the Muslim ban. And Elizabeth Warren, who was recently shut down by her male colleagues in Senate chamber while reading criticism of Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (he was once deemed to racist to be a judge), will forever be known as the heroine who “nevertheless persisted.” What’s more, she was quoting another woman, the late civil rights activist Coretta Scott King.

And while it wasn’t that long ago that men opined about women’s missing funny bones, and their inability to head a late night show, female comedians are killing it when it comes to skewering Trump’s government. There’s Samantha Bee’s bracing fury on Full Frontal, Kate McKinnon’s dead-eyed Kellyanne Conway, and, most recently, Melissa McCarthy’s perfect embodiment of Sean Spicer as a lying, gum-chomping bully. Trump is apparently particularly piqued that Spicer was played by a woman — we can only hope McCarthy gets a regular gig performing him.


The only constituency that Trump does care about— corporate America — is paying attention, too. The #GrabYourWallet campaign, founded by two women, has launched successful boycotts of companies that do business with the Trump family. Nordstrom has dropped Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessories lines due to poor sales. And big companies, like Coca Cola and Audi saw fit to promote a positive, inclusive image of America at the Super Bowl.

How much crossover there will be between football fans and The Handmaid’s Tale binge-watchers remains to be seen. But it doesn’t get more male, more mainstream and more middle-America than the NFL — and the inclusion of an ad for an allegory about women’s oppression and resistance is as barbed as Atwood’s sharpest writing.


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