When The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s account of a totalitarian takeover of America by a religious cult that reduces women to breeding stock, first appeared in 1985, it was instantly acclaimed as a feminist 1984 that exposed the misogyny not only of evangelical Christianity but men in general. In short order, Atwood’s novel was adapted to stage productions, radio plays, a ballet, an opera, and a messy Volker Schlöndorff film starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway.
But the precise nature of Atwood’s message was always a little more slippery than feminist critics let on. The Handmaid’s Tale was written while Atwood was living in what was then still known as West Berlin, closely studying what was happening on the other side of the wall, and many of the novel’s totalitarian devices (particularly self-criticism sessions in which women rip their own psyches to shreds at a brainwashing factory suggestively called the Red Center) are drawn from the playbook not of the Westboro Baptist Church but the Marxist regimes of the day. And the rigid class system of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which some groups of women (particularly wives, daughters and concubines of male leaders) were treated much better than male laborers seemed to mock male chauvinism less that the Soviet system of nomenklatura privilege.
Then there are the anti-porn rants of the government apparatchiks in The Handmaid’s Tale and their conflation of sex with rape, which sound suspiciously like the rhetoric of 1980s feminist groups like Take Back the Night. Was Atwood really stroking feminists, or needling them?
That ambiguity remains in the latest and, by far, best incarnation of The Handmaid’s Tale, the 10-hour miniseries that Hulu unveils this week. Television critic Glenn Garvin takes a look at the allegorical fable along with NBC’s new sitcom, Great News.