I’ve lost count of the articles I’ve read about Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” that used the word “timely.” Timely, that is, in the sense of the presidency of Donald Trump. Here’s just a short list of print and online outlets where the T-word appears in connection with the re-creation of Atwood’s fictional America turned into a grim theocracy called Gilead that treats women like breeding cattle: the Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post, the Guardian, Mother Jones, Harper’s Bazaar, the Daily Beast, Bustle, NPR, and CNN. The 77-year-old Atwood herself chimed in, telling the Los Angeles Times’ Patt Morrison: “We’re no longer making fiction — we’re making a documentary.”
The idea, in these mostly liberal media outlets, seems to be that under Trump, America has become — or will become terrifyingly soon — a militant Bible-based patriarchy in which women have no rights, especially no reproductive rights, and are divided into rigidly stratified social classes whose very names give their status away: privileged, churchy Wives at the top, Econowives in the lower social orders, and cook-and-bottle-washer Marthas who do the housework for the Wives and their powerful husbands, the Commanders.
At the very bottom are Handmaids, political pariahs (wrong ideas, such as feminism) who become the literal property of the top-dog men and are forced to bear their children. (The Wives suffer from environmental pollution-related fertility problems.) As the New Republic’s Sarah Jones, one of the “timely” crowd, explains, “Of course, we don’t divide women into classes of Marthas, Handmaids, Econowives, and Wives; we call them ‘the help,’ ‘surrogates,’ the working class, and the 1 percent.”
At first I scoffed. There couldn’t be any more unlikely a theocrat than Trump, what with his misquotes from the Bible and speculation that he hasn’t been in a church more than twice since the inauguration. But then I realized that the liberal paranoiacs were right. Except not in the way they think. Instead of seeing Atwood’s fictional Gilead as a near-future militant fundamentalist Christian elite dystopia, we should see it as the mostly secularist elite dystopia we live in right now.
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Take those elite-class Wives. Liberals typically assume the 1 percent consists of striped-pants tycoons off the Monopoly board who reliably vote Republican and want to cram retrograde religious ideas down people’s throats. In fact, as social scientists (Charles Murray in “Coming Apart”) and political analysts (Michael Barone, writing recently for the Capital Research Center) have observed, it’s the Democratic Party that’s the party of the 1 percent: the tech and finance billionaires, the media and entertainment moguls who cluster in expensive ZIP codes around metropolitan Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington.
Those folks aren’t known for their church-going, and they vote in favor of liberal social and economic causes from abortion and immigration rights to sustainable energy to higher taxes. They contribute heavily to political campaigns, and with their upper-middle-class epigones they run the culture, deciding who gets banned on Twitter, which kinds of “diversity” are allowed on campuses, and what television programs we’ll be allowed to see. Today’s overclass Wives typically hold Ivy League degrees, “lean in” to high-status careers, and stand with Planned Parenthood.
We also have a rigidly defined caste of Marthas (and “Marthos,” their male counterparts), because the Wives and their high-earning husbands need them to mop their floors, care for their children, mow their lawns and trim their trees, all for bargain-basement wages. And so we have the irony of Malibu, California, declaring itself a sanctuary city out of “solidarity” with its servant class, many of whom are in the country illegally.
Finally, the Handmaids. As in the fictional Gilead, real-life elite-class Wives have something of a fertility problem, although it’s related not to environmental degradation but delayed marriages and childbearing attempts of women who pursue high-power careers. Thanks to 30 years of advances in egg-transfer technology since Atwood published her novel, today’s gestational surrogates don’t have to get into embarrassing “threesome” sexual positions with the Commanders and their Wives in order to do their jobs. And they tend to be drawn not from the ranks of political dissidents, but from the financially strapped Econowife class (military bases are common surrogate-recruiting centers) who are willing to put up with a year’s worth of uncomfortable hormone treatments and possible pregnancy problems for the $40,000 or so that they receive.
Still, as in Gilead, there is definitely a class of female pariahs on whom the elites heap condescension, contempt and, when they can, punishment for holding views at variance with what the elites deem correct. They’re not called Handmaids, of course. They’re called Deplorables. Try telling the other people in your book club that you sent a check to the Donald’s campaign. Or, if you need a misogyny fix, search for the phrase “women who voted for Trump” on Twitter. Those ugly white bonnets the Handmaids of Gilead are required to wear in the Hulu miniseries look downright benign by comparison.
Yes, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a documentary, all right. It just doesn’t happen to be the documentary that the liberals think it is.
Charlotte Allen writes about social and cultural issues.
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