“ We are clearly living in a time when we are looking to literature for answers because we can’t seem to find them within the current political discourse”
Text: Linn Lemhag
During the now historic, first-ever Women’s March that took place on January 21 2017—the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration—signs with the phrases, “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction again”, and “The Handmaid’s Tale is not an instruction manual” could be seen making their way through the US capital. Five months later, as the GOP were attempting to push their healthcare bill through the senate, a group of women holding Planned Parenthood banners and dressed in scarlet cloaks and wide-brimmed bonnets stood protesting outside. Since then, the world has seen multitudes of red-cloaked, white-bonneted female protestors taking to the streets: greeting Donald Trump on his presidential visits to Warsaw, Poland and London, England; advocating for abortion rights in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Dublin, Ireland; trailing Mike Pence during his visits to Philadelphia and New York; and perhaps most recently, stood silently outside of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing for a lifetime appointment to the American Supreme Court.
Though the critically acclaimed and wildly successful television version of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which debuted on Hulu in April 2017, thrust Atwood’s most iconic work back into the world’s collective consciousness, the dystopian literary genre in general has been enjoying a popular revival. Since the 2016 US election, there has been a worldwide spike in the sale of dystopian fiction. This year, publishers had to reprint an extra 200.000 copies to keep up with paperback sales of George Orwell’s 1984, which shot to number one on Amazon’s bestseller list the same week as Trump’s inauguration. Also climbing the bestseller lists were such dystopian classics as Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.
But with the exception of The Handmaid’s Tale, all of the classic western dystopian novels that we turn to are penned by male hands. Not only that, but the genre itself is overwhelmingly dominated by male protagonists and perspectives. In her authoritative work on dystopian fiction, author and literary critic Erika Gottlieb names six definitive works of the western dystopian genre: The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, Yvgeny Zamyatin’s We, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano.
Barring Atwood’s contribution, these novels all feature a similar representation of male and female relationships, which remain essential to the dystopian literary tradition. It goes a little something as follows: hero is living an empty but uncomplicated life under the totalitarian rule of a police state. He falls into forbidden love with a woman, and through their shared passions and intimacy, he is awakened to the reality of the dystopian society in which he is living, and ultimately, his call to political action against that society.
Though characters like Julia, Lenina Crowne and Clarisse McClellan are cast as unorthodox and brave, their female perspectives are either glaringly absent or greatly diminished. Not unlike the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character trope that has flourished in contemporary film—a beautiful and unconventional female character who is ultimately devoid of any internal motivations other than furthering the development of the male protagonist (a la Kirsten Dunst’s Claire from Elizabethtown or Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State)—the female characters in dystopian novels function but as catalysts in order to awaken the male hero to what Gottlieb dubs his “quasi-mystical awakening to his true self”.
The Handmaid’s Tale, on the other hand, seeks to flesh out a female perspective beyond that of being a necessary plot feature. Atwood casts female characters both as victims and oppressors: The Handmaids are first pounded into servitude by the Aunts, only to be kept as cattle by the Wives while being ostracised by the Marthas. Offred is treated cruelly at the hands of the commander’s wife, Serena Joy—in the novel a woman well into her 70’s, in the series, a thirty-something hottie—as Atwood shows us that women are just as easily complicit in other women’s suffering if it means that they themselves will be rewarded with higher privileges. Atwood has famously remarked that although The Handmaid’s tale includes what Huckleberry Finn would call ‘stretchers’, there is nothing in the novel that is entirely without historical basis. Proving that history is bound to repeat itself, the 2016 US presidential election saw 52% of white women in America vote for Donald Trump, compared to 25% of Hispanic women and just 4% of black women.
And yet, even the complicit are shown to be among the oppressed in Gilead, for even if Serena Joy and the other Wives lead a comparably comfortable existence, they are confined to their homes and forced to watch as their husbands copulate with another woman. In an effort to retain her status within the society, Serena Joy is driven to the illegal and risky business of trying to impregnate Offred with someone other than her husband.
We are clearly living in a time when we are looking to literature for answers because we can’t seem to find them within the current political discourse. We can continue to speculate as to what the dystopian classics have to say about this time and place in history, but as discerning female readers, we should be mindful to look for a female perspective within the dystopian genre. Beyond The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has made several more contributions to the genre with Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of The Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013)— a trilogy of epic dystopic proportions. Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, explores the dichotomy between dystopia and it’s utopic counterpart—admittedly without any of Atwood’s powerful storytelling abilities—while Noomi Alderman’s The Power, published in 2016, is as thrilling as it is thoughtful.
Linn Lemhag is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen. Originally from Sweden but raised in the United States, she has a master's degree in English and wrote her thesis on the importance of establishing a Feminist Dystopian literary genre with the use of Margaret Atwood's novels.