The Handmaid’s Tale: Has 1990’s TV Paranoia Returned?

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Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.

Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.

What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.

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The fact is, there probably isn’t a more relevant story on television being produced right now than Miller’s take on The Handmaid’s Tale. Having not read the novel, yet, it’s hard to comment on changes that have been made, but sources (i.e. my learned, English degree carrying fiancee) tell me the scope of the show is much wider than Atwood’s book, which focuses much more on the internal struggle of Offred within the house of Fred Waterford aka the Commander, and his attempts to get her pregnant. The Hulu series, as one might expect, is expanding out to make a much deeper sociological and political comment on our age.

Though set in the near future, Miller’s series is at pains to show this is a future *very* close to our own. Flashbacks which show Elisabeth Moss’s Offred in her previous life as June, a married woman with a child, a woman with friends, sexual desires and her own secrets, a woman living not in a world of flying cars or space travel or any futuristic affectations. Atwood’s world is the world of tomorrow. It could be 2018. A 2018 where fertility rates have plunged like, in the show, due to sexually transmitted diseases and environmental pollution, in other words our own carelessness and poor stewardship of our planet as a species.

The Handmaid’s Tale posits a world where an extreme political reaction is born out of the disturbing reality of a vast population decline, and potentially the end of our way of life. It posits a United States gripped and consumed by religious totalitarianism, combining a Stalinist approach of enforcement with a fierce theonomy built on fertile women being stripped of their right to choice, to desire, to self-determination. To preserve God’s creations, they will serve by the will of God, to bear children at the whims of men. Gilead is born out of absolute fear on the one hand and inequality on the other; the architects of this new world are the rich, powerful and protected.

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People have been unnerved by The Handmaid’s Tale precisely because in the last two years, our world has veered unexpectedly quickly into one of extremes, both socially and politically. The rise of the Right as a political force, a previously maligned and marginalised section of society who believe in inequality and the absolute, often God-given, right of the individual over the needs of the many, has shaken our way of life to the core. A capitalist, self-serving business magnate climbed the back of the Right to become President of the USA. Right-wing politicians convinced a major proportion of the British public to back a retreat from the progressive, if flawed, European Union, in no small part off the back of xenophobic rhetoric. Examples across Western democracy are legion.

Western society is now a world where extremes are expected. Social media is the definition of Pandora’s box we have no way now of closing, its power for manipulation by the political elite as a tool to consolidate power only truly being realised. Never has the common man felt more of a social divide in many democratic, capitalist societies. A vastly rich demagogue control the media, control big business, control the whims of government—and are often quite open about it—while the poor grow poorer. More homeless litter our streets. Pay rises stagnate. Professionals are abandoning public sector jobs. Education is being stymied and maligned. Experts are denigrated. News outlets are decried as ‘fake’ by the most powerful man in the world.

Our world and Atwood’s are no longer a solid reality and a distant fiction. The feeling we as a society are racing toward dystopia, as we distract ourselves with shiny technology and the affectations of a capitalist global economy becoming increasingly unsustainable, is palpable. Every day we expect the worst; a Presidential pardon for their own questionable activities; a random terrorist attack killing innocent civilians; a political threat to healthcare or education or liberal policy. Liberal social revolution is fomenting amongst the relatively educated millions who see through the fog of austerity but there remains the feeling they are facing a towering, near unbreakable wall of insulated, power politics.

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What if a major global event changed the paradigm? Could a conglomerate of wealthy politicians and ultra-rich business leaders create a totalitarian system under the guise of religious fundamentalism, as is strongly being suggested by The Handmaid’s Tale with its buried sexual hypocrisy recalling, in the episode ‘Jezebels’, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut? If not religious fundamentalism then a conspiratorial reaction to a sudden climate change cataclysm? Though the President may be a climate change denier, the reality of a 21st century shortage of oil to fuel our cars or crops to grow our food is a terrifying truth many refuse to face up to. When faced with extremes of nature, what extremes of man follow?

The Handmaid’s Tale feels very much like an evolution of the kind of television we saw across the 1990’s, which ironically in retrospect was probably the most peaceful and progressive decade on a global scale for a very long time. Wars and conflicts of course existed but a Democratic government ruled the United States, economic depression began to turn into a new potential boom as the decade wore on, and progressive politics began to take hold. TV shows reflected nonetheless a social anxiety about the world behind our world, often due to the influence of outside forces.

Take The X-Files, a world removed narratively from The Handmaid’s Tale but conceptually sharing similar DNA. In that show, the conspiracy of men working against the interests of the American people did so secretly, in shadow, and in cahoots with a hegemonic and mysterious alien race returning to colonise the planet. It’s sister show Millennium, at first about a serial killer near-psychic profiler which blossomed into an esoteric series about cult conspiracy and pre-millennial anxiety as the year 2000 approached, equally depicted the secret rulers of the world adhering to principles under the radar. Dozens of shows copied or followed the same kind of pattern; Earth: Final Conflict, First Wave, Nowhere Man, the list goes on.

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In cinema, films questioned not just the nature of reality, but the reality of nature or that external force wreaking havoc upon our world. Alien invasion pictures, not popular since the 1950’s, found their way back into box office success with the romping hit of Independence Day, the X-Files feature film capitalising on the popularity of extra-terrestrials in popular culture, or on a comedic level Men in Black or Mars Attacks. We saw a new proliferation of disaster movies, often close to each other, be it exploding volcanoes in Dante’s Peak or Volcano, or asteroids in Armageddon & Deep Impact. Often with different tonal approaches, always with the same outcome: immense destruction to our cities and our lives.

Perhaps the general lack of real-world fear gave rise to an existential paranoia that we couldn’t trust politicians and figureheads promising things were getting better. TV and movies of the era reflect that unnerving anxiety that a world existed beneath or beyond our own. At the end of the decade, just before the millennium, The Matrix became one of the most seminal movies in science-fiction history. With a blend of William Gibson cyberpunk and Lewis Carroll’s opium filled fantasy, shot through with futuristic martial arts stylistics, the Wachowski’s entered pop culture by questioning whether the very fabric of our reality existed. Many have questioned whether, in the real world, we could all be living in a ‘matrix’. A reality over the *reality* that truly exists, for the nefarious purposes of a power we cannot see or understand.

Remember, the 1990’s was uniquely placed, politically and socially. The Cold War was over, effectively ending the legacy of the Second World War. The 9/11 attack on New York had not yet happened, plunging the world into the 21st century political fear and anxiety of secular terrorism. The 90’s explored the idea we should be afraid of an enemy we couldn’t see. From 2001 onwards, the enemy was in plain sight and TV/movies reflected that. 24 was unironically jingoistic, however well-produced; if there was an insider, they were always an outsider working for mostly extremist organisations, and American hero Jack Bauer would root them out. When the show did explore an American governmental conspiracy, it created a Nixon; a weak, corrupt President – another extremist.

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TV and movies changed in the 2000’s. The paranoia was replaced by an externalised anxiety at what once would have been considered shadowy forces within our own sphere working against us was now reflected back outwards. It’s no coincidence superhero movies and TV shows really began to take off during this decade; we needed these larger than life colourful heroes to kick the arse of the bad guys who would destroy our way of existence, whether they were radical terror extremists from some nebulous Arabian peninsula or rogue scientists creating super weapons. Ironically the only hero who became less colourful across this decade was James Bond, after years of battling lunatic Cold War heightened reality analogues.

The point is, TV and movies lost that paranoia which has seeped back into storytelling and popular culture over the last several years in a powerful way. The Handmaid’s Tale feels, currently, like the apex of a world where writers and filmmakers are afraid again, and are exploring the all-powerful, internal extremes which have begun to replace the broader outward fears of ISIS etc… It’s no coincidence The X-Files returned in 2016, and will again in 2018. Prison Break also, though a silly colourful show, another about sinister corporate conspiracy controlling the fates of men. And let’s not forget Twin Peaks, back this year; an inspiration for many a show about underlying powerful forces, with its unique brand of weird, eccentric esoterica dividing people as David Lynch always does. Conversely it’s interesting how a recent spin-off to 24, 24: Legacy, died a quick death; while people have turned back further to questioning reality, they have perhaps distanced from the righteous American hero destroying the ‘alien’ enemy.

Would these paranoid shows have worked in 2007, just a decade earlier? It’s hard to say. Perhaps not. When The X-Files returned that year for a second movie, nobody cared. It felt like it had nothing to say. People had stopped believing in that social and political ‘Illuminati’, those secret rulers of the world controlling and shaping our existence behind the scenes. Now, with the rise of alt-Right propaganda and the genuine reality of a corrupt-to-its-core White House administration, paranoia has returned with a vengeance. That anxiety and fear is writ large in The Handmaid’s Tale and the very possible dystopian future, one built on extreme reactions to environmental and natural changes, humanity could face.

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Though there is perhaps one key difference to the 1990’s in how TV has returned to this anxiety. In those days, paranoid television reflected extreme enemies we couldn’t see. Now, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, those enemies are in plain sight. That may be the most terrifying reality of all.

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