I had English 239 first thing that afternoon and I’d slept in after staying up late, reading The Handmaid’s Tale, already in hot pursuit of my inevitable distinction as the most vocal participant in classroom discussions. I woke up drowsy with dystopia but unalarmed by it, mostly. I was a chronically unhappy person, but the world itself, on a macro level, did not regularly terrify me.
I woke up in a small room in a house I shared with six other Michigan undergraduates: a single mattress on the floor, a small desk with a flip-top like the ones we used in grade school, a floor lamp.
My phone reported a series of voicemails, all from an ex in New York. Something about buildings blowing up? It felt weird, like a joke.
But then I drifted into the living room, where the teevee was on and my roommates were standing around it, agape, as those first initial reports about the planes that flew into the World Trade Center came in. I heard the name “Osama Bin Laden” for the first time.
Something had changed; was changing.
Classes were cancelled. I showered and walked to my best friend Becky’s sorority house. It was a beautiful fall day (my Rabbi would dwell on this point in his Rosh Hashanah sermon the next week, how beautiful it was that day) and everything felt strange, potentially dishonest, like anything could happen.
I wished English class hadn’t been cancelled. I still wanted to talk about The Handmaid’s Tale. It nagged at me all day like an intellectual earworm.
At the sorority house, a dozen or more girls from New Jersey and New York were pacing on the terrace, cell phones up, trying to reach family members back home. I was thinking about Offred on the phone with Moira: Look out, here it comes. When it was all said and done, those girls and their families and I were all fine. We were lucky, privileged, some mixture of both. I asked one of the girls, who was in my English class, if she thought it was jarring to be reading The Handmaid’s Tale now, in light of all this, but she hadn’t done the reading yet because she was cooler than me.
So Becky and I went out for lunch, to our favorite Greek diner that made salads with shredded lettuce, and that night I worked a dinner shift at The Macaroni Grill, which largely entailed answering the phone to confirm that we were open, and serving sad pasta to sad people. My friend who’d come over from Lebanon a few years prior spent the evening reminding us how lucky we were, that this didn’t happen more often.
A lot of things changed after that, in the U.S., but nothing as severe as we’d read in The Handmaid’s Tale. By the time the Bush Administration bombed Iraq and passed the Patriot Act, I’d long forgotten Offred’s warning: Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.
But every time The Handmaid’s Tale came up in conversation, after that, I’d say I was reading that book on 9/11, even though I barely remembered it. But because of that bizarre timing, this story has always carried a specific, frozen weight to me. A book I’d felt mostly indifferent to on the 10th of September felt suddenly relevant the next afternoon, though I wasn’t sure why.
I think I know, now. At that age, I already knew that anything could happen on a small, person-to-person level. I knew the death of a loved one could rocket in straight out of nowhere, and that heartbreak could land swiftly and without mercy. But this was the day that I learned that anything could happen on a huge, National level, and that it would happen suddenly, literally rocketing in, straight out of nowhere.
“Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight,” Margaret Atwood writes in a New York Times essay about the impetus behind the novel. “Change could also be as fast as lightning. “It can’t happen here” could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances.”
This weekend, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times about the upcoming Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which debuts April 26th and is why I am writing about it today, Atwood noted, “MGM and Hulu started making this television series really well over a year ago, and they started shooting in September, before the election… and then the election happened, and the cast woke up in the morning and thought, we’re no longer making fiction — we’re making a documentary.”
I hadn’t picked up The Handmaid’s Tale since 2001 until last week, which I did in order to capably review and evaluate the series. I’d seen the first set of three episode screeners for the first time in February, with my roommate Erin, in the living room where an “APOCALYPSE” banner still hangs, left over from our Inauguration Day Funeral Party. We pressed play on the two episodes that followed the first like masochists consenting to more helpings of something irresistible but inevitably harmful, like another shot of tequila or a movie you know will give you nightmares, which I guess is what this was. At the time both of us were basically measuring our happiness levels on a scale where 1 represents “dark come soon” and 10, the ascribed peak, was “got out of bed today!”
I don’t think I really slept last night, I told her in the kitchen the next morning.
Nope, definitely was not happening for me. I think I got maybe… two hours?
Yeah it was like, have a nightmare, wake up from nightmare, fall back into a nightmare.
Just nonstop, just gettin’ those nightmares in!
Me, a few hours later: I can’t stop thinking about the Handmaid’s Tale.
Yup, scarred for life.
Either of us, the next day: Maybe I’ll never sleep again?
The final scene of the third episode — and I won’t tell you what happens in it, I won’t spoil you — was the most haunting, the one I kept seeing when I woke up between nightmares. The last ten seconds or so of that scene just stuck inside me. Maybe because it’s shot so well, like the entire series (which one of the most, if not the most, visually stunning television shows I’ve ever seen), but also maybe because it features a gay woman — called “Gender Traitors” in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale — alone in a room. In the Hulu series, the bodies of gay people are shifted from the wings, where they resided in the novel, into center stage.
I didn’t know this, going into it. I didn’t expect it, because we never expect an adaptation to have more lesbians than the story it was based on. I mean, we never expect anything on television to have lesbians at all, really.
I kept remembering a story Kate wrote for us in 2012, about the season of American Horror Story where Sarah Paulson played a lesbian journalist trapped in a psychiatric asylum, subjected to barbarous conversion therapy. Specifically, I remembered her headline: The Lesbians of American Horror Story: For Us, The Scary Parts Are Real.
This week, we will all experience this together: this dystopian story, coming — coincidentally! — at a potentially dystopian time. The novel has returned to best-seller lists, and a new audiobook edition, narrated by Claire Danes, came out this month. The audiobook includes bonus content, composed by Margaret Atwood, that answers the novel’s closing line, “Are there any questions?” with an actual scripted Q&A between academics and the presenting professor, read by actors. A 30-second trailer during the Super Bowl got a lot of buzz. This past weekend, buzz has been focused on a really disappointing panel at the Tribeca Film Festival and a viral marketing campaign at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
The first three episodes of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale debut April 26th and you should watch them because they are incredible, and so queer, and so feminist, no matter what noted Scientologist Elizabeth Moss says about “humanism” and regardless of and/or because Ilene Chaiken is apparently somehow obliquely involved in this production. The first three episodes were directed and executive produced by Reed Morano, who creates a chilling radical feminist aesthetic that resonates like her work on Beyonce’s “Sandcastles” and the gay TV series Looking. We’ll be publishing Dorothy Snarker’s review of the first three episodes on the 26th.
But right now I wanna talk about this queer feminist story and where it might land in your gut.
A recent profile of Atwood by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker argues that similarities between the story and our present moment exist, but are not exact parallels. Donald Trump, thrice married, is not a model for traditional family values, and his religious affiliations seem mostly politically strategic rather than heartfelt; he prefers golfing on Sundays to church-going. To those differences I’d add another, more obvious one: Gilead has been structured in response to declining Caucasian birth rates and increased infant mortality, the result of chemical contamination, sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives and feminism. Although birth rates have been in steady decline in the modern era, too, it’s hardly an emergency — we’re actually suffering from overpopulation. This is alarming in a different way: all those environmental factors that destroyed babies in Gilead are destroying the land and resources our abundance of babies need in the modern world.
But, as Mead points out, “what does feel familiar in The Handmaid’s Tale is the blunt misogyny of the society that Atwood portrays.” The bodies of the women of Gilead are owned and regulated by a male power class for whom reproductive rights and sexual freedom are framed as concepts that inevitably harm women, and from which men are permitted to “protect” them.
Atwood’s novel was written in the early ’80s, and she committed to creating a world comprised only of events that had actually happened and technology that already existed, although the novel is speculated to have been set around 2005. Regardless, the novel remains trapped in what seemed possible then, and the TV series yanks us into the modern day, which is one of many deviations it makes from the source material, some of which are related to diversity.
In the book, some women of color serve as “Marthas” — housekeepers, basically — and the entire African-American population is “resettled” to the Midwest for vague purposes. We eventually learn that at least one boatload of Jewish people who chose the “emigrate to Israel” option ended up just dumped into the ocean, which raises some questions about the fate of the Black population as well. In Bitch Magazine, Priya Nair notes that “Although Atwood dedicates just two lines to the fate of Black people in Gilead, the structures of oppression that Offred, the novel’s narrator, and the other white Handmaids face are taken largely from the experiences of enslaved Black women in America.” Thankfully, this is not the case in the series, in which Black women are handmaids, too. Executive Producer Bruce Miller said of the choice to cast black actors in the roles of white book characters, “what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show? Why would we be covering [the story of handmaid Offred, played by Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?” Miller decided that in his Gilead, “fertility trumps all,” even racism.
Thus, in the series, Offred’s radical lesbian best friend Moira — political, rebellious, outspoken — is played by out Black actress Samira Wiley, who, as she did with Poussey in Orange is the New Black, plays Moira with world-worn light. In the book, Moira’s a freckle-faced white girl with an alternative lifestyle haircut and purple overalls. When every woman’s bank account is frozen, Offred recalls, “[Moira] was not stunned, the way I was. In some strange way [Moira] was gleeful, as if this was what she’d been expecting for some time and now she’d been proven right.”
It’s a cruel and certainly untrue observation, and perhaps speaks to the unconscious homophobia Offred doesn’t realize she still harbors towards even her best friend (earlier in the novel, she matter-of-factly recalls, “there was a time when we didn’t hug, after she’d told me about being gay; but then she said I didn’t turn her on, reassuring me, and we’d gone back to it.”) Likewise, any “glee” Offred sensed was likely affirmation; Moira’s awareness that the ideologies her best friend ignored before can no longer be dismissed or mocked, that now everything is on the table, and now they can finally address it. For me, it was one of the book’s most resonant passages, speaking to an outsider’s increased awareness of impending doom, reminding me of how many people of color reacted to white liberal surprise that a racist idiot had won the presidential election.
Moira serves an interesting function, then: she’s connected to a less institutionalized, more battle-worn network of other outsiders who’ve never trusted or relied upon the government to care about them, let alone take care of them. Later in the book, she’ll reference a destroyed mailing list of allies and how the women in her collective took on memorizing different pages of it. This concept could potentially resonate even more deeply with Moira as a Black queer character — Black Americans are uniquely aware that The State is not on their side, Black queer people, doubly so. With the series set more squarely in 2017, it also makes more sense for Moira to be Black, because a white lesbian might not have the same oppressive experience in pre-Gilead Massachusetts that Atwood imagined for Moira in 1984. Unfortunately though, so far at least, this increased resonance isn’t really explored, nor is the fact that in the series, Offred’s husband and daughter are Black, too. I won’t say more ’til I’ve seen the entire season, but… well, I just hope it plans to go beyond the mere casting of actors of color into fleshing out those intersectional margins.
Having another opportunity to witness Samira Wiley playing a lesbian on a critically acclaimed feminist-minded television series — dayenu. But the show blesses us again: Ofglen, Offred’s daily walking companion who has ties to a growing resistance, played by Alexis Biedel, is now also a lesbian. She had a wife, and a five-year-old son, from before.
We’ve all witnessed how lesbian motherhood and marriage has enabled many queers to regain status and value with their own formerly homophobic parents or other family units as well as in society at large, and in Gilead, that process takes on a new form. Although Moira references a “dyke roundup” and male homosexuals are regularly executed, it seems some lesbians are permitted to exist as long as they are capable of bearing healthy children, via a bizarre “Ceremony” that, although involving sexual intercourse and human bodies, is basically artificial insemination.
This increased attention to queer narratives is welcome, and appropriate because homophobia against lesbianism specifically is such a powerful example of political, cultural and interpersonal misogyny. Lesbianism dares to assert that men are unnecessary, which the patriarchy finds troublesome. In most (but not all!) cases, lesbian relationships cut practitioners off from traditional pathways to reproduction. In a world where reproduction is seemingly a woman’s sole purpose, gay men are worthless, but gay women are seen as malleable. Plus, due to the mechanics of cisgender sexual intercourse, a woman’s lack of sexual attraction to men is seen as irrelevant to the sexual act, male sexual disinterest in women is more, I guess, “problematic” to Gilead’s goals.
As Kate wrote about American Horror Story‘s unexpected queer horror five years ago, “What is so difficult and simultaneously interesting about this narrative is that it is not a far-fetched horror story.”
I’d forgotten, I guess, that Moira was a lesbian in the book, too. That’s why I re-read it in the first place, ’cause I thought, watching the screeners, that all the queer stuff was entirely new, but another editor told me it wasn’t, so I went back to the source text.
It seems like a weird thing for me to forget — the kind of thing I’d usually notice, even back then when I still identified as straight but slightly bi-curious — but then again, I forgot nearly everything about the book besides its basic conceit and the scene where Offred’s debit card is shut off, and that I was reading it on 9/11. I guess that’s what stuck with me because that was the moment, as Atwood said, when “anything could happen anywhere.”
The Handmaid’s Tale will be, then, always something that surprises me with its immediate relevance. Back in 2001, it was a book I expected to tell a good story and turned out to resonate with the present moment, which even the teacher hadn’t planned on. Now, it was a show I expected to resonate with the present moment, but it turned out to also contain new stories about my community, and to be a genuine piece of queer women’s media. It will raise questions about how we fit into oppressive anti-female political paradigms, about intersectionality, about the importance of building our own inter-community support networks and restorative justice practices rather than relying on the all-too-fickle State. I don’t think we’re at risk of becoming Gilead, or that lesbians are at the top of Trump’s chopping block, but sometimes a story feels real not because of its facts but because of its emotional truth. It was so close, too real, impossible, familiar, not enough, and everything, all at once.
Remember how I told you about that moment near the end of the third episode, the one I found so haunting? When I re-watched the screeners last week, the moment I remembered so well I couldn’t forget it wasn’t there at all. I’d remembered how it felt. But I’d already forgotten how it was.
The Handmaid’s Tale debuts on April 26th on Hulu and the novel is our pick for this months’ Read a F*cking Book Club.