WHY IS “THE HANDMAID’S TALE” so bloody scary? The movie was bad enough, but the television series is so chilling I find it hard to watch. And what, exactly, is the raw nerve which the story is touching this (it’s third) time around?
Obviously, the election of Donald Trump has played a huge role in the resurgence of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopic novel. But, it’s not Trump the man who gives Hulu’s latest rendering of “The Handmaid’s Tale” such terrifying resonance, it’s the sort of voters who made Trump’s presidency possible.
Democracy only works as a political system when we and our neighbours share a common set of values and beliefs. Disagreeing with our fellow citizens over second order issues poses no threat to the tolerance and respect so vital to democracy’s proper functioning – we can all simply agree to differ. But fundamental disagreements: disputes over matters that go to the heart of what we believe our society to represent; over what we consider essential to our sense of personal integrity; these cannot be so easily set aside. The notion that an election might result in the triumph of forces uncompromisingly hostile to our core values leaves us ill-disposed to accept such an outcome.
Casting our minds back to the 2016 US presidential election campaign, it is clear that a huge number of Americans were simply unwilling to accept the election of Hillary Clinton. And when Donald Trump – against all predictions – defeated her, the streets were almost instantly filled with people chanting “Not my President!” Suddenly “agreeing to differ” sounded like the basest treason. Both sides now regarded their opponents as an existential threat to both the American republic and themselves. Overnight their fellow citizens had become “enemies of the people”. GQ’s Keith Olberman now ends his portentous anti-Trump webcasts with the single word: “Resist!”
The injection of “The Handmaid’s Tale” into this highly charged political atmosphere proved to be as alarming as it was timely. For those on the liberal side of the barricades, the series offered a frightening glimpse of what America might look like if the misogynistic, homophobic, racist and religiously maniacal voters who had cheered Trump to the echo suddenly decided to move from shouting angry words to performing angry deeds.
It dawned upon them that if this happened, then they, the liberals, would be powerless to stop them. Did the Police share their values? The National Guard? The Armed Forces? Were they, the advocates of gun control, experienced in the use of firearms? How many liberals had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq? With a sickening sense of dread, they realised that if, for whatever reason, the constitutional and moral inhibitions against turning on your fellow citizens fell away, then they would all be as helpless as Offred, the handmaid, in Gilead. (Atwood’s Talibanesque successor regime to what was formerly the United States.)
This sense of dread should be prompting American liberals to ask themselves some very hard questions. Not the least of these should be: what is it about liberal ideals that makes them so intolerable, so threatening, to their conservative neighbours? What is it about freedom and tolerance that frightens people so much that they feel morally justified in extinguishing both.
It is the difficulty we liberals have in coming up with convincing answers to these questions that makes “The Handmaid’s Tale” so frighteningly relevant to our times.