The Handmaid’s Tale & Failure Modes of Democracy
I’ve finally caught up with The Handmaid’s Tale that Channel Four recently showed. I haven’t read the book by Margaret Atwood but I have read some of her interviews about it. I’ve added the book to my wish list.
The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is essentially a piece of speculative fiction about the failure of Democracy in the US. It’s scarily plausible, which is sort of the definition of speculative fiction.
In the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale we follow Offred (formerly known as June) as she survives in the post-coup Republic of Gilead. That being the survivors of the former US. Elisabeth Moss does a great job playing the main character through both the flashbacks that explain how she got there and the ‘present day’ parts of the story.
The background is that the world has seen plummeting fertility. The original story was written in 1985, and fertility has fallen lots, although less dramatically recently than in the late 70s and 80s. The US has fallen to religious fundamentalists who staged a coup and imposed a Sharia like Christian dictatorship. Opponents of the takeover were strung up. Homosexuals, Catholics and progressives fell victim to the Sons of Jacob.
Even worse, women were controlled, losing all their rights and forbidden from working or reading. Women that were fertile are rounded up and re-educated. Their fate is to be assigned to the Commanders of Gilead. Every month those Commanders ritually rape the Handmaid while she holds hands with the commander’s wife. They use the old testament story of Rachel to justify their abuse.
As the story develops we see Offred change from a frightened and demoralised woman determined to survive. She gets the measure for her captors, and builds rapport and friendships with other Handmaids. By the end of the series she’s a determined and confident resistant.
Throughout the episodes flashback scenes tell how the situation came about. It starts slowly, and escalates suddenly. Some of the footage looks uncomfortably like some of the news we’ve seen recently. That’s what makes it scarily plausible.
I wasn’t sure about the series to start with, which is why it’s taken so long to watch it all. The theme is very dark. Possibly too grim for many. However I think it is shot well and sensitively handled. The brutality and inhumane fanaticism of the regime is clearly communicated, and there’s no titillation. It’s well worth watching, and the end, although ambiguous, is uplifting.
News that there is a second series suggests a positive outcome for Offred.
Failure Modes of Democracy
Charles Stross wrote a fab blog post about the failure modes of the beige dictatorship. Similarly Margaret Atwood has spoken about this in explaining the Handmaid’s Tale. Both of them suggest that democratic states can fall victim to themselves.
Margaret Atwood commented that states fall back to their fundamental pattern when they fail. The US was founded by religious fundamentalists and that was her model for Gilead. US politics is notable for the fear of God and frequent prayers despite the Constitution firmly separating church and state.
Both the US and the UK have moved from democratic values to tribal states with factions dominated by parties. And that got me thinking about how British democracy might fail, and where that might go.
British Failure Modes
Britain has been a monarchy for at least a millennia. It stands to reason that if our democracy failed that we might see a lessening of the Constitutional aspect of our monarchy.
So I’ve outlined a story about where a this could go. More this anon.