The Handmaid’s Tale held a mirror up to a year of Trump

Matthew d'Ancona in The Guardian:

OffIn politics and culture, the year 2017 was the opposite of Where’s Wally? The question, instead, was always Where Isn’t Trump? All roads – public debate, private argument, artistic endeavour – seemed eventually to lead in his squalid direction; his gravitational pull irresistible, his fleshy presence horribly ubiquitous. It wasn’t just the explicit satire of, say, Saturday Night Live that kept the US president front and centre in cultural life. Lee Hall’s triumphant reworking at the National Theatre of Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film about mass media and demagoguery, held a more subtle mirror up to the age of Trump. Shakespeare’s history plays acquired fresh and often unsettling relevance (watch out for the Bridge theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, opening in London next month). Even War for the Planet of the Apes teemed with apparent parallels in its post-apocalyptic vision of walls, segregation and deportation.

Yet it was Hulu’s television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that jangled the nerves most vividly and to such startling effect. Set in the near future, it imagined Gilead: an authoritarian mutation of the United States, in which the constitutional apparatus has been forcibly dismantled and replaced by the patriarchal rule of “Sons of Jacob”, stripping women of all rights and enslaving those who remained fertile as handmaids, serially raped in a pseudo-biblical “ceremony” to provide the childless governing caste with progeny.

The Handmaid’s Tale was ostensibly televisual fiction. Yet in its uncompromising exploration of fear and power and its abuse, it also captured the lightning of the moment in a bottle of dystopian genius. It was nothing short of mesmeric, all the more so on repeated viewings. When the series was ordered in April 2016, Trump was the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination but not quite the presumptive candidate. It was still orthodox to assert that Hillary Clinton would trounce him in the election itself. His unapologetic misogyny had been perfectly clear at the first Republican contenders’ debate in August 2015, in which he sparred with the moderator, Megyn Kelly, and insulted Rosie O’Donnell. But the notorious Access Hollywood tape – “grab them by the pussy” – did not become public until October 2016, by which stage The Handmaid’s Tale was already in production. Yet, through luck, intuition or a combination of the two, the series became a disturbing text for our times. Produced by Atwood, author of the original novel, and Elisabeth Moss, who played the lead character, June/Offred, it did more than a thousand news bulletins to capture all that was most toxic about the new populist right and the shredding of constitutional norms.

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