How Close Are We to The Handmaid’s Tale?

Why are we drawn to futuristic dystopian fiction? These versions of the future reflect more on the absurdities of the present and the past than our fear for the future. Increasingly, TV shows and novels are painting a gruesome picture of the coming centuries. Ready Player One, The Hunger Games, New York 2140. They have all predicted a scary new world. Perhaps none are so chilling as The Handmaid’s Tale

Originally a novel published in 1986 by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale follows June, known as Offred for much of the book, as she navigates a new oppressive regime that strictly regulates women’s role in society, reproductive rights, language, clothing, education, and much more. It is a society of militarized religious extremism caused by rising rates of infertility due to environmental and chemical disaster. Built upon ritualized rape of women and genocide of any so-called “subversive, gender-traitor” behavior, the new version of the U.S., known as Gilead, shows some of the possibilities of the worst of humanity. Yet, as Margaret Atwood told The Guardian back when the TV series version of the tale first aired, “When it first came out it was viewed as being farfetched.” She continued, “However when I wrote it, I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that humans had not already done somewhere at some time.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, now a Hulu series created by Bruce Miller, has taken audiences by storm and is already streaming its third season after viewership doubled during season two. What accounts for the infatuation with this horrific version of the future? The novel, but especially the TV series which extends the plot even beyond where the novel finished, highlight the frightening nature of the present. Kayleigh Dray, in her article for The Stylist, explains in detail just how close our past and present are to shaping Atwood’s predicted future. Beyond the passing of the strictest abortion laws in the United States, reproductive rights are severely limited around the world and genital mutilation is still common in many areas. The #MeToo Movement has exposed the commonality of mistreating women and there is an ongoing debate over today’s gender pay gap. Hate crimes seem almost commonplace and the memory of the atrocities committed during the two World Wars, the Holocaust, and more recent genocides like the plight of the Rohyngas still haunt us.

One of the most alarming comparisons is the underlying cause of this gross mistreatment of women — the catastrophic environmental crisis that led to infertility and decreases in food production that provided the excuse to form the militarized government of Gilead. The environmental crisis may not be as explicitly stated but the threat it poses courses throughout the tale. Crop failures and unstable weather patterns are affecting countries across the globe, and Gilead uses its lowered carbon emissions and agriculture “efficiency” to brag to Mexico to convince them that Gilead is not an oppressive regime. Environmental pollution is seen as contributing to rising infertility rates, although this is mingled with social and religious reasoning as well. And the Colonies, where “un-women” are sent to work and die, are contaminated by radioactive waste. 

As Lewis Gordon explains for Little White Lies, Atwood made these comparisons on purpose to examine what is already happening around the world. Infertility has been linked to chemical run-off from pesticides, air pollution, and PCBs, to name a few. Changing weather patterns have led to stronger and more destructive wildfires, earthquakes, El Niño’s, droughts, and floods which in turn lead to mass famine, homelessness, and devastation. These can then further evolve into military coups, war, genocide, and death. It is a terrifying cycle that sometimes happens slowly enough that it is difficult to even realize what is going on. In the words of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” 

But this is also what fiction can do for us. By exploring what the future could look like if we do not realize the path we are on and the decisions we are making, Margaret Atwood and Bruce Miller are showing their audiences that we need to make a change now. While we can. 

Header Image via Hearst Apps

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!