My favorite sign at the Women’s March on Washington had been made in a hurry. “NOLITE TE BASTARDES CARBORUNDORUM,” it said, in black marker scrawled on a ragged piece of cardboard. In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale—which takes place in a near future where brutal theocracy has replaced U.S. democracy—this fake-Latin phrase is a message left for one subjugated woman by another: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
In January, that sign felt like a small, subversive secret, a code for which I—like Atwood’s protagonist, Offred—had the key. Three months later, the phrase, like most references to Atwood’s novel, has burgeoned into a national feminist rallying cry. The Handmaid’s Tale made the best-seller list in the weeks after the inauguration, along with 1984 and other classic dystopias, and it’s been popping up at protests and rallies ever since. In March, a group of women went to the Texas State Legislature dressed like the titular handmaids—in white wimples and robes the color of blood—to oppose two anti-abortion laws.
It’s hard to say if this is happening precisely because of Hulu’s efforts to hype a new television adaptation—the first three haunting, richly textured episodes of which dropped this week—or if Hulu lucked into a kind of timing it couldn’t possibly have predicted when it teased the show last spring. Either way, Atwood’s vision of the future has never felt more prescient than it does in the age of Donald Trump. Her book occurs in a world where men’s desire to control women’s bodies has precipitated the fall of democratic society. Environmental catastrophe has decimated the birthrate, and in the totalitarian Republic of Gilead, women still capable of bearing children have become breeding stock, bestowed on a member of the ruling class and ritually raped until they fall pregnant. Offred literally means “Of Fred,” or “property of Commander Fred Waterford.”
This sounds like a straightforward feminist parable. Yet when Atwood wrote in March about the countless people who have asked her whether she considers The Handmaid’s Tale “a feminist book,” her reply was not a simple yes. “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings—with all the variety of character and behavior that implies—and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes,” she said. This circuitous yes is a yes all the same—but there’s nothing persnickety about its qualifications. Atwood’s caveats leave space for the essence of her book, which is its skepticism of movements, ideologies, and any other force that flattens individuality—and she includes feminism on that list.
In Atwood’s world, there’s nothing more dangerous than a person convinced she knows what’s best for someone else. After all, what’s dystopia to most may be utopia to some; Gilead, for example, has its share of true believers. “Better never means better for everyone,” as Commander Waterford tells Offred in defense of the society he helped to create. “It always means worse, for some.” His chilly calculation doesn’t really add up; in Gilead, religious principles are a pretext oppressing most people to enrich an oligarchic few. But is it ever justifiable to dispatch with freedoms because they gum up otherwise perfectible societies? Atwood suggests this is a vital question for feminists, who speak the language of utopia, too.
Offred’s inner monologue is not overtly feminist—in fact, she seems fairly apolitical, a person with a far-reaching curiosity but little instinct for joining the fray. (In the book, she reveals that she never attended a single protest as the fundamentalists were slaughtering Congress and imposing martial law; in the show, we see her at a march with a friend, but she confesses to paying little attention to the news.) In flashbacks to Offred’s lost life in Cambridge, Mass., the reader sees her clash with her mother, a feminist activist who berates her conventional daughter for reading Vogue and marrying a man. In one childhood memory, the future handmaid accompanies her mother to an anti-pornography book-burning and helps throw naughty magazines on the pyre. Atwood scholar Fiona Tolan has pointed out that this scene presages Gilead, where porn is banned, except at a re-education center where the handmaids must watch images of women “then” and practice feeling grateful that their lives are different. Feminists, in Gilead, are classified as “Unwomen” and sent to “the Colonies” to clean up toxic waste. Yet one overseer at the reeducation center—an “aunt,” in Gileadan parlance—admits, “We would have to condone some of their ideas, even today.”
“There is more than one kind of freedom,” the aunt says. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” In Gilead, the overlords may feel “freedom from” is sufficient, but in the real world, feminists never stop arguing about how to balance the two.
One debate about positive and negative freedoms is raging now at American colleges, where detractors accuse campus rape activists of embracing victimhood by demanding protection from their schools. In a sense, those activists are seeking both—the freedom to pursue an education without being stymied by sexual violence is an important one—but it’s alarming that some schools, in their effort to support victims, may risk trampling the due process rights of the accused. I wondered if the Hulu adaptation was nodding to this conflict in one flashback scene, which shows the college-age protagonist working on a paper about campus rape. “For or against?” her best friend Moira deadpans. It’s not a particularly funny joke—but irreverence is the flame that flickers in Offred and Moira, preserving their humanity even under the homogenizing conditions of autocracy. There’s something both provocative and useful in The Handmaid’s Tale’s impiety—the boldness with which it flips the scripts of such sensitive debates.
It’s hard to imagine a more feminist book than Atwood’s, which makes women’s bodily autonomy synonymous with freedom of all kinds. But Atwood isn’t interested in an easy feminism, or a feminism that won’t brook disagreement: She’s focused on the mess of dissent and contradiction that defines life in a liberal society. In the book, Offred misses the arguments she used to have with her husband—a feature of mundane daily life, but also of liberty. In another moment, Offred thinks of her mother: “Despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another… I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.” From Offred’s rigidly constricted circumstances, she sees that there was no crime in their refusal to be who the other wanted. Atwood makes us nostalgic for our own thorny present, grateful even for the conflict that brings us pain.