“Binge” isn’t quite the right word. This isn’t the sort of show you watch all at once and maintain your sanity. (I read “Lolita” in a day when I was in college. I’m still not right.) I watched the ten-episode season 1 over two weeks, which was still a lot, but gave me time to breathe in between.
I have read the book. I picked up a copy from the used book store in town a couple years ago, when I first started seeing every story about women’s rights followed by a flurry of comments that “It’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ come true!” Which I hate about as much as “It’s Idiocracy come true!” because it’s a rather vapid knee-jerk reaction. And honestly, this book was not my favorite. I had already read “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” which is a memoir by a woman who was a Western Literature professor at Tehran University during the Iranian Revolution and went almost overnight from having a life any of us would recognize as perfectly normal to suddenly being a second-class citizen, not allowed to leave her home or be visible in public. That is a scary book, and it’s true. “Handmaid’s Tale,” by comparison, reads as a rape fantasy.
Where the revolution in the backstory of “Handmaid’s Tale” differs from real revolutions is that the inciting incident is a worldwide drop in fertility. When a woman does get pregnant, there’s only a 1-in-5 chance that a healthy child will result. Most of the time, it’s miscarriage, stillbirth, or the baby only lives a few days. With pretty much everyone in panic, a religious group called the Sons of Jacob rises in the U.S. and slaughters the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government and takes over. They have decided that this problem is the result of God’s wrath (it is otherwise heavily implied to be related to global warming, but not in a concrete, scientific way) and the remedy is forced piousness, which naturally includes rounding up all the fertile women and ritualistically raping them. It’s not clear how it’s decided who is and isn’t fertile, beyond that men are never considered infertile even though all evidence points to the contrary.
So my basic problem with the show is one that I knew existed before going in, because it’s baked into the premise: women can be oppressed without rape being the tool of that oppression, but not here. But like I said, I knew what this story was about and decided to watch it anyway. And for being what it is, it’s adapted very well for television. There’s a lot more backstory and nuance than we get in the book (it’s a relatively short book) and the world is pretty complete. The one piece of controversy I’ve heard is that, while in the book racism is addressed with “those people got sent away” (paraphrased), the show wanted to be more racially diverse and so they simply don’t address racism at all. It’s a hard argument. Yes, racists often use religion to justify their racism, but does that mean all religious zealots (not religious people, but zealots who would use religion to justify rape and murder) are also racists? I feel like arguments could be made either way. (EDIT: I’ve thought about this a bit, and come to the conclusion that in order for this show to be effectively scary, we have to be able to recognize the possible future. Which means being able to recognize the bad guys in the show as the bad guys in our world, and the bad guys in our world often seize power partly by taking advantage of racism and appealing to racists. The show didn’t have to deal with racism the same way the book did – by writing off the people of color – but it would have been realistic to see people of color generally being treated even more harshly than white people.)
In the real world, decisions about women’s healthcare are currently being made by large groups of men behind closed doors, who tend to emerge and announce that since women’s health is “optional,” they have no intention of covering us. Texas has an enormously high maternal mortality rate, largely ascribed to this same issue. Women’s rights are in danger, and although rape hasn’t technically been codified into law, it can sometimes feel like it has. But maybe a show about rape will help the conversation along. The striking visuals are useful, anyway.