Why I Make Myself Watch “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

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When I first read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood over 20 years ago, it was a disturbing yet fascinating read. But it felt so far removed from my life.

Not so today.

I just recently caught up on the second season with my daughter who is home from college. It’s like I needed her moral and emotional support to watch.

Several friends have commented that they just can’t watch it. That it makes them literally sick to their stomach.

I get that. I have the same reaction.

So, why watch it? Why put myself through that stress?

The same reason I look at my own shadow. What I don’t acknowledge comes out in other, insidious ways.

Watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a glimpse into society’s shadow. It’s a glimpse into what happens when a group of privileged, white male religious zealots decided to impose their beliefs on a nation because they think they know what is best.

It’s chilling and hard to watch because, as a woman, I see versions of that exact thing happening today:

  • the heartbeat bill passed in Iowa
  • Pence’s bill requiring a funeral for miscarriages
  • not allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest
  • denying birth control to women
  • panels comprised only of white men making decisions about women’s health
  • anti-LGBTQ bills
  • women getting paid less than men for the same job
  • the misogynistic hatred spewed at women on-line who dare to use their voice

The list goes on and on.

It’s not merely a pro-choice versus “pro-life” debate. It’s about the subjugation of women. It’s about denying women full autonomy over their bodies and lives.

Which is exactly that happens to the women in”The Handmaid’s Tale.” They are vessels for procreation and servitude and for enacting the values imposed on society by the men in charge.

Yes, it is disturbing to watch.

Yes, it sends chills down my spine.

Yes, it makes me sick to my stomach and afraid for not only my future but that of my daughters and possible granddaughters in the future.

But burying my head in the sand is fruitless. It’s why I watch and read a wide range of news sources, to see what everyone is thinking, saying, hearing.

It’s less about “keeping my friends closer and enemies closer.” I don’t like to divide the world into such factions. But it is about keeping my self open to all viewpoints, all ways of thinking, all beliefs.

That is why I make myself watch it. Then I enjoy a nice (large) glass of wine afterward.

 

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The Power of Art to Stay Awake.

I’ve been watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu with equal parts fascination, fear and fury.

For those who don’t know the premise, it is based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood. The former United States is now The Republic of Gilead. After extreme environmental devastation has left many women barren and men sterile, the new order steps in, sorting women into categories: young fertile women become Handmaids, some become Martha’s or maids, some are Aunts who are in charge of grooming the Handmaids for their new duties, while the rest are sent to work in the toxic camps where death is imminent. Cheery, so far, yes?

Handmaids are placed with a commander and his barren wife. Most of the commanders are sterile but that fact is no longer allowed in this society. (Dismissing of facts, sound familiar?) Only women are blamed for not being able to procreate. Their duty is to produce a child for the couple through The Ceremony which I find myself cringing through as I watch it.

One of the most disturbing aspects are the flashbacks which also greatly disturbed my 23-year-old daughter. In our current climate, setting the flashbacks in our time just makes the scenario seem not only possible but, at times, chillingly inevitable. Through the flashbacks we learn how women’s right were methodically stripped: firing them for their jobs, freezing their bank accounts so that only a husband or father could manage their money.

These are extreme actions that may, on the surface, feel completely unrealistic. We like to tell ourselves that would never happen here. But it already is. It comes down to how we value women and as a society we aren’t valued as much as men. We literally make less money for the same job just because are women. We are at the crux of a constant fight for control over our own bodies. We may be heading back to a time where our gender is considered a pre-existing condition and be charged more for our health insurance.

Beyond the issues of gender, another chilling scene was a brief flashback where men dressed in black with guns were throwing books and art into a fire. Why go after art? It is straight out of the dictator’s handbook. Go after the artists who use their voices to speak truth to power. Artists hold up a mirror to society—the good, the bad and the ugly. Once we see ourselves, we can’t unseen it. Therefore, it behooves a regime to not allow it to be seen or heard in the first place.

I’ve been watching as many artists struggle to find their voice in this new era of government where rights are threatened on an almost daily basis. Before the election, writer Julianna Baggott started a site inviting people to dedicate their no-Trump vote, sharing their stories about why they were not voting for him.

More than 600 American writers, including Stephen King, Dave Eggers, and Cheryl Strayed, penned an open letter against Trump.

Michael Moore reveals that he has been on a “creative tear” since last summer when he saw the inevitable train wreck coming at us. He encourages the use of satire and humor because it has been shown to get under the President’s extremely thin skin. What is a weakness in him becomes a strength for the resistance.

Many visual artists are turning to their work in this era of Trump to motivate action and educate the public on issues they are passionate about. As always, art is in the eyes of the beholder and there are consequences of expressing your views in such a public forum. For example, Ilma Gore’s painting of a nude Trump sporting a micropenis is currently on display at the Maddox gallery in London. She has been threatened not only by his lawyers but has received thousands of death and rape threats after posting the image online where it was shared over 260,000 times.

I find myself turning more to my writing than ever before. It soothes my anxiety, it helps me make sense of the chaos and it helps me discern what I think and how I feel within the chaos. Working on my novel five days week is often the one time of the day when I can block out the news and lose myself in another world. But I also find myself writing more political content in my journal, on social media and on my blog. I considered whether that would offend potential readers of my work and chose to use my voice. It is a gift I have and to not use it seems wrong. My audience is not huge but I have had people tell me over and over again how much they appreciate my words so I will keep sending them out into the world.

Ultimately, this election has been about waking up. Waking up to reality, to political action, to making myself heard whether through marches, town halls, calling and faxing my representatives or writing. Artists are awake to reality and they wake the rest of us up which is critical in these times.

I will leave you with the most chilling words from “The Handmaid’s Tale” so far:

Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Consitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.

~ Offred

Let’s stay awake.