On April 26, 2017, Hulu released the first 3 episodes of Season 1 of The Handmaid's Tale, a television adaptation of Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel. This work of speculative fiction, a dystopic story of life under a dictatorship in which women belong to the state, delivers messages from a shared history and present. Available in Canada (Bravo TV, 4/30/17) and the U.S., the lead-up and series serve as both a cautionary tale and something of a survival guide.
The Handmaid’s Tale feels imminent and connects us across borders. It feels custom-made, constructed out of our recent experiences of threats to Planned Parenthood, protests in the form of the world-wide women’s march of January 21, battles for rights of the LGBT community, and legal challenges to access to reproductive health care. Atwood is positioned as both feminist prophet and vehicle for Hulu to build audience, not only in terms of paying subscribers but also as an authentic producer of original content that matters. While predictive algorithms increasingly drive content development, what remains compelling is where the resulting Handmaid’s Tale series crosses from the page to the screen and into the streets, framing social media conversations and activist efforts.
On screen, we watch as Offred and other handmaids are paraded and prepared for ritualized rape in the service of reproduction, bullied and forced to adhere to religious doctrines of behavior. We watch as resistance is met with violence, death by hanging on the wall, or banishment to the colonies. In the streets, cosplay is marketing and a tool for public opposition.
Binge-watched in anticipation of this discussion, it seems disturbingly crucial to consume The Handmaid’s Tale, once again. The fictional narrative has crossed over into real life, transporting audiences from futuristic fiction and Hulu sponsored promotional events to real-life court decisions. However, if contemporary streamed television is a record of our culture, Atwood’s vision of a dystopic future represents a part of our collective cultural experience, a moment when we can chose to simply watch or to act.