The Perverse Seductions of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

American women have never been freer. So why are we drawn to depictions of our own repression?

Meghan Daum
GEN
Published in
7 min readSep 18, 2019

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Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty

We are living in Gilead.

When Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, became a hit Hulu series in the early months of the Trump administration, this observation began to take on the contours of a mantra. Set in a not-too-distant future in which Christian extremists have overthrown the U.S. government and established a theonomic surveillance state called Gilead, the novel is premised on a fertility crisis, a result of which all women capable of bearing children have been turned into surrogacy slaves for the elite classes. Called handmaids, these women wear conspicuous bonnets and red capes designed to hinder escape and are valued only for their ability to produce babies, which they relinquish upon birth.

The whole scenario is about as over the top as it gets. Still, amid the roiling concerns about totalitarianism in the wake of the 2016 election, Atwood’s 30-plus-year-old cautionary tale began to look prophetic to plenty of liberals.

“Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too,” Sarah Jones wrote in the New Republic in the wake…

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Meghan Daum
GEN
Writer for

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything. www.theunspeakablepodcast.com www.meghandaum.com