'The Handmaid’s Tale' reviews reach for relevance in age of Trump, but it’s an old story

Hulu’s new series, The Handmaid’s Tale, is set in a near-future where women live under the thumb of Christian fundamentalists who have taken over the U.S.

Based on the Margaret Atwood novel, the show’s getting raves from the critics.  Perhaps more telling, they’re claiming the story is more relevant than ever due to our new President.  The New York Times says the show “arrives with an unexpected resonance in Trump’s America,” and numerous other publications have followed suit.

The people working on the series agree.  Samira Wiley, one of the leads, says that since the election “suddenly [the show] was dangerously close to the climate that we were starting to live in.”

Actually, this “relevance” business is old news.  No matter who’s in office, there’s always some right-wing monster to be beat back using Margaret Atwood as a battering ram

Indeed, when she published the book in 1985, it was based on what was going at the time.  Atwood, a Canadian, apparently felt Americans weren’t fully aware of the potential religious fanaticism roiling under their country’s surface.

Not that those on the left didn’t already agree with her.  Many back then were explicitly alarmed by the rise of Ronald Reagan and the religious right, believing our country was fast becoming a totalitarian state.

And certainly reviewers of the day saw the connection between Atwood’s fiction and reality.

The Dallas Morning News:

“The brilliance of Atwood’s novel [...] rests in her creation of a future that is a too logical extension of many dimensions of the present.”

The Seattle Times:

“[Atwood] has written a portentous, satirical but ultimately depressing book about what life might be like under a president from the Religious Ultra-Right.”

Los Angeles Times:

“Atwood has created [...] an array of active and passive supporting characters, each of whom represents a type familiar in America today. [....T]he power of the book comes not from Atwood’s inspired flights of fancy [...] but from her deliberate subjugation of imagination to demonstrable fact.  Only the form of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is fiction, as the form of ‘Mein Kampf’ was autobiography.”

So here it is, 30 years later.  The Handmaid’s Tale is a perennial bestseller, and, due to its continued “relevance,” has been adapted into a movie, an opera, a ballet, a play, a radio show and now a TV mini-series.

Of course, the usual claim is it’s become more relevant.  For instance, in a 2015 Cincinnati Enquirer review of the theatrical version, we get “as the world has unfolded since Atwood’s novel was published in 1985, it is not completely far-fetched.”

And that was when Barack Obama was President.  With Trump now in office, it’s that much easier for The Nation (among other periodicals) to state Atwood’s “dystopian novel is seeming more prescient by the year.”

Just one question, then. This dystopia has been rounding the corner in America for over thirty years.  When is it finally going to arrive?

After all, since Reagan we’ve had a number of Republican Presidents, and Republican Congresses.  And all during that time a Supreme Court with a majority chosen by Republicans.

Yet, with an issue such as, say, abortion, where is the debate at?  Whether or not taxpayers should be forced to subsidize the procedure. (Right now, the answer is yes.)

Or look at gay rights.  In The Handmaid’s Tale, homosexuals are severely punished for being “gender traitors,” while in America,  same-sex marriage--so controversial eight year ago that President Obama opposed it—is now a right.

This is prescience?

Yes, it’s true, there are totalitarian theocratic societies out there. Just not America—now or any time soon.

The people who see America in The Handmaid’s Tale are lacking a sense of proportion.  So they don’t win every debate in this country, or every election, but no one does—it’s not a harbinger of tyranny. In fact, it’s a hallmark of democracy.