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How 3 feminist dystopias are trying to update The Handmaid’s Tale for today

Dystopias are about systemic problems. They don’t work well when they center on exceptional people.

The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When Margaret Atwood first published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, she was working with one of literary fiction’s most effective ways of looking at how misogyny is baked into the structures of our society: the feminist dystopia.

The Handmaid’s Tale exaggerated the undertones of American Puritanism that were ascendant during the Reagan era into an imagined totalitarian theocracy, one in which women were treated as chattel and forced into lives of sexual slavery. It suggested that the ideology that would allow such a world to come to pass was already more than present in our own world. It was shockingly effective.

In the Trump era, we’ve been scrambling to come up with a fictional way to grapple with our structural misogyny that’s as effective as The Handmaid’s Tale. Over the past year, two new novels have come out that attempt to follow in The Handmaid’s Tale’s footsteps and position themselves as the feminist dystopias of the Trump era. Meanwhile, Hulu’s TV adaptation has struggled to expand past Atwood’s source material and make her ideas about the ’80s relevant to today. Their contrasting strategies say a lot about what makes a dystopia work.

Christina Dalcher’s newly released Vox (no relation) imagines a world in which women are fitted with mandatory bracelets that electrocute them if they say more than 100 words a day. Under the new regime, neurolinguistics specialist Jean finds herself removed from her science lab and sent back home to work as a housewife, hoarding her daily supply of words and watching in horror as her daughter ceases speaking more than 40 words a day and her son begins to spout Jordan Peterson-esque talking points.

Meanwhile, last year’s The Power, by Naomi Alderman, goes in a completely different direction. It imagines a world in which women evolve a “skein” on their collarbones that allows them to electrocute anyone within reach, thus fundamentally changing the balance of power between the sexes. The Power’s critique of gender politics comes from defamiliarizing the status quo rather than from exaggerating it the way Atwood and Dalcher do, but the Handmaid’s Tale lineage is clear. (Atwood was a mentor to Alderman and endorsed the book.)

Both Vox and The Power aim to make contemporary gender politics legible and damnable — albeit by taking opposing approaches — and their success is mixed. That’s why it’s so notable that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale seems to have a similar strategy to Vox rather than to The Power. Here’s what works, and what doesn’t, in these three iterations of The Handmaid’s Tale 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Vox the novel is great at what it does — until it isn’t

Dalcher’s Vox is half really successful feminist dystopia and half kind-of-disappointing pulp novel. When it works, it works on a visceral level. Reading its first few chapters was as close as anything to my first experience reading The Handmaid’s Tale: In both cases, I could feel all my muscles tensing up, and I became very aware of how I was holding my body so that I took up as little space as possible.

The creepiest and most compelling strand in Vox is the way Jean has internalized the command to speak as little as possible, and the way she sees the same thing happening to her daughter — but faster and more insidiously. Jean counts out her words as she speaks, and she phrases her sentences to avoid using extra words, trimming out subjects and relying as much as possible on expressive smiles. (Hand gestures are heavily discouraged, and there are cameras everywhere to enforce the rules.)

Jean’s 6-year-old daughter Sonia, meanwhile, is delighted with herself when she comes home from school without having spoken a single word all day. “Won prize!” she chirps, holding up her bracelet triumphantly. “Lowest!” (In this dystopia, girls go to school to learn rudimentary arithmetic and homemaking skills.)

Jean blames herself for Sonia’s compliance: In a desperate bid to keep Sonia from ever feeling the electric shock of the bracelet, Jean used positive reinforcement to keep Sonia quiet when the new laws came in, plying her with ice cream and other rewards every time she stopped herself from speaking. Now the only thing Sonia knows is that good and silent are the same thing.

It’s a horrifying motif, but it’s also a familiar one. Our own current culture also rewards girls for their silence and boys for their speech; we also punish girls who talk “too much.” We just do it subtly, with social cues, instead of with electric shocks.

And reading Vox made me freshly aware of just how deep that conditioning goes, and how often I choose to remain silent myself, because I was taught at school as a child that silent is good. I found myself unconsciously counting my words like Jean. It was profoundly unsettling, in a good way.

Which is why it is so disappointing, a few chapters in, when the bracelets come off and the book turns into a pulpy “let’s overthrow this dystopian government!” quest novel. Stories about rebellion and taking down tyrants are of course great — I will throw down for The Hunger Games — but they serve a different emotional purpose than the kind of quiet, stark stories about regular people trying to live their lives under dystopian governments that Vox initially appeared to be. The first is a cathartic escape fantasy, but the second can be an exploration of everything that makes our own time dysfunctional, and why we keep living our lives in such a messed-up system anyway — and why maybe we shouldn’t.

That’s a valuable story, but one that Vox gradually turns its back on. And as Jean starts brewing up a language serum … thing … that she can use to take down her dystopian government, the novel just gets further and further away from everything that it interesting.

When I read stories about ordinary people working to take down a dystopian government, I don’t get the same physical sense of claustrophobia and tension that I did when I read The Handmaid’s Tale and the opening chapters of Vox. This kind of story is less viscerally disturbing than the story of ordinary people living their lives under a dystopian government, and it doesn’t live in the body in the same way.

It allows the reader to imagine that people can be morally and intellectually exceptional enough to escape the systems under which they live, that there is no system so degrading and all-encompassing that it can’t just sweep everyone up in its wake, least of all the system in which we are living now. It becomes an easier and more abstract aesthetic pleasure.

But if there’s anything that The Power isn’t interested in, it’s easy pleasures.

In The Power, no one is exempt from the corruption of power

The point of a dystopia is to hold up a mirror to our world and show us our sins, the worst things about the way we’ve built our society. Usually, dystopias do that through exaggeration, taking a trait we can recognize in our own society to its logical extreme: The Handmaid’s Tale exaggerates the rhetoric of the Reagan-era “moral majority”; Vox exaggerates the way women are taught not to speak. But The Power works instead through reversal.

The Power begins in a world in which women are subjugated, in which they are raped and ignored and belittled and live their lives in fear. It ends in a world in which men are subjugated, in which a young male writer peppers his letters to a female mentor with breathless apologies — “Anyway, sorry, I’ll shut up now” — and the female mentor writes back with condescending lasciviousness at the idea of a world run by men: “Surely a kinder, more caring and — dare I say it? — more sexy world than the one we live in,” she suggests. It defamiliarizes the gender dynamics of our own world just enough that the patterns become newly visible.

But what The Power is most insistent on is the idea that it is impossible to fully escape the systems in which we live. Power operates by certain rules in this world, and those rules are immutable.

When women develop their electric skeins, flipping the balance of power between the sexes, we first see them using their newfound strength to escape from the terrible situations they find themselves in — abusive relationships, sex slavery.

But once that work has begun, the newly powerful women don’t form a peaceful utopia of sisterhood and love. Instead, we begin to see bands of women roaming the world, raping and torturing and murdering, because they can. We see despotic women at the head of totalitarian governments leading genocides, and women leading cults and criminal empires.

For Alderman, this inclination toward violence and corruption is part of the nature of power, one that it is nearly impossible to escape. “Do you think that you are so exceptional that if you had been born a German in the 1930s, you would have understood immediately that Lebensraum was a lie? That you would have tried to assassinate Hitler?” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “Do you believe that your ethics are so exceptional that you would immediately have rebelled?”

There are good people in the world of The Power, but they are not so exceptional or so heroic that they are able to stop the inevitable worst from happening. They’re just trying to live their lives in a world full of upheaval, helping a few people here and there as they can. When the world becomes so violent that they’re no longer able to live their lives as before, they default to just trying to survive.

The first few chapters of The Power didn’t have a visceral effect on me the way the first few chapters of Vox did — I found it interesting and engaging, but not physically disturbing. But as the book went on, and as it became clearer and clearer that no one would be able to stop the terrible things that were clearly going to happen, that no heroes would rise up to stave off the worst, I felt the book settle into my bones. I once again found myself curled inward as I read, trying to ward off what was coming through sheer force of will and knowing that I couldn’t.

Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale is taking the wrong lesson from Margaret Atwood

Reading these two novels back to back makes it clear just how emotionally forceful a dystopia can be when it is uncompromising in its belief that most people will allow the systems under which they live to get away with terrible things. And it showed how much it can feel like a cop-out when the dystopia lets in exceptional heroes to save the world. That’s why it was so disappointing to recognize in Vox’s arc the emotional underpinnings of the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

One of the things that makes Atwood’s novel great is that it is about a normal person trapped in a terrible situation. Atwood’s protagonist Offred is not heroic. She is not the savior of Gilead. She’s just a person trying her best to survive.

But as my colleague Todd VanDerWerff has pointed out, it’s become increasingly clear that the TV show considers June, Offred’s TV counterpart, to be a hero in the conventional sense, positioning her to be instrumental in bringing down her dystopian government. The show’s writing staff tends to refer to June as a “hero” who is building toward a “destiny,” and the final seconds of season two seemed to come straight out of a comic book movie.

It’s hard to imagine a future for this show that doesn’t involve June personally destroying her dystopian government. Which might offer a certain amount of catharsis to watch — but which also seems a lot less interesting and a lot less emotionally true than the story that Atwood was telling in her source novel, in the same way that the ending of Vox is a lot less satisfying than the ending of The Power.

There are more than enough sins and more than enough abuses of power in the system in which we are living right now to fuel a thousand dystopias, feminist or otherwise. But 33 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re still not always brave enough to suggest that our own world has as much violence and as much corruption as the dystopias we imagine. Or — despite Vox’s fantasy of saving the world with a magic language serum — to admit that we are not always brave enough or heroic enough to stop them.